Watch your calories


May GO Challenge:

Watch your calories.

What are calories, and do we really need to pay attention to them? First, let’s be clear: a calorie is a good thing. It’s a unit of energy found in the foods we eat. Everyone needs calories to survive. If you don’t consume enough calories, your body can’t function properly. But if you consume too many (without burning them off), you gain weight. Both extremes can be dangerous to your health.

The secret, of course, is finding a healthy balance. Calories in, calories out. The formula is really quite simple. But wait a minute. What about fat grams? While it’s a good idea to track both fat and calories, your main focus should be on calories. Too often, people load up on fat-free foods and wonder why they’re not losing any weight. The reason is because many fat-free foods are still packed with calories. What they lack in fat, they often make up for in sugar, bringing their total calorie count to the danger zone.


  1. A good place to start is by assessing your current weight and where you’d like to be. This handy Adult BMI Calculator will determine your Body Mass Index and the weight category you fall into (underweight, normal, overweight or obese).
  2. Even if your weight is normal, determine the number of calories you should be consuming each day (so you can make smarter food decisions). This free Calorie Calculator will estimate how many calories you need to maintain your current weight — or to lose or gain weight. Every person is different, so the calculator adjusts for age, gender, height, weight and activity level.
  3. Now figure out how many calories you’re actually consuming. Write down everything you eat and drink for the next 3 days. Then look up your choices using one of the free food calorie lists online, or sign up for a free calorie-tracking app like MyFitnessPal. The idea is not to become an obsessive calorie keeper, but to generally become more aware of what you’re putting in your mouth — and where any trouble spots might be.
  4. Compare your daily calorie intake to your desired calorie intake. How do you stack up? Are there any foods you need to avoid or limit? Do you need to increase your activity level?

Calorie tracking 101: A few simple tips.

Although the majority of Americans claim to be calorie-conscious, nearly 9 out of 10 have no idea how many calories they actually need. What’s more, one study found that people, regardless of their size, are more likely to incorrectly estimate the number of calories they’re consuming in large meals as compared to small ones.

To help you better track your calories (so you don’t exceed the “calories per day” goal you established last week in Step 2), here are some helpful tips:

  • Get a calorie-tracking app. These days, if you have a smartphone or tablet, it’s easier than ever to count calories. Just sign up for a free calorie-tracking app like MyFitnessPal. It has over 5 million foods in its database so it’s nearly impossible not to find the food you’re looking for. It remembers your favorites, too, so they’re always at the top of the list, making it quick and easy to keep a daily food log with calorie totals.
  • Track your exercise, too. The more active you are, the more calories you burn up. So if you truly want an accurate picture of your daily calorie intake, you have to factor in exercise as well. Fortunately, MyFitnessPal has an exercise tracker built right in, or you could try wearing a Fitbit which automatically tracks your calories, steps, heart rate and other health indicators, depending on the model you choose.
  • Read nutrition labels. Learn how to read a nutrition label, and pay special attention to the top portion of the label. That’s where you’ll find 3 important numbers:
  • Serving Size/Servings Per Container — Many people ignore these lines and look only at the calories. But without knowing there are two 4-oz. servings in a package, for instance, you could easily end up eating twice as many calories as you think — if you eat the entire 8-oz. package. Always know how many servings you’re actually consuming.
  • Calories — This number represents how much energy you get from a single serving. If there are 110 calories in a serving of pretzels (35 sticks), and there are 8 servings per bag, how many calories are you getting if you eat half the bag (4 servings/140 pretzels)? 440 calories! What if you eat half a serving (17.5 sticks)? Just 55 calories. As a general rule, 40 calories is considered low, 100 is moderate, and 400 is high for a 2,000 calorie diet.  
  • Calories from Fat — This number represents how many of the aforementioned calories come from fat. If a nutrition label shows 250 total calories and 110 calories from fat, nearly half of those calories are coming from fat. That’s a lot! To minimize heart disease risk and weight gain, keep this number around 30% of your total daily calories. On a 2,000 calorie diet, that’s 600 calories from fat.

SAFETY FIRST: In general, you need at least 1,200 calories a day to stay healthy (more if you’re active). Anything less could be jeopardizing your health. When reducing your calorie intake, do it gradually. Never lower your intake by more than 1,000 calories per day or pursue other extreme measures, such as too much exercise. Always eat a nutritious, balanced diet with plenty of fiber.                                                     

How to get more bang out of the calories you eat.

Not all calories are created equal. Take smoothies for example. You might expect them to be low in calories, but some can actually top out at 400-600 calories if they’re made with fruit juice and frozen yogurt. Not a good way to spend a quarter of your calories for the day.

Here are some tips for getting the most out of the calories you consume.

  • Avoid “empty calories.” These are foods that are high in energy/calories but low in nutritional value. Think cookies, chips, soda pop, candy, bacon, donuts, hot dogs, ice cream, sports drinks, French fries, white bread, etc. Empty calories may taste good, but they’re not good for your waistline.
  • Eat more fruits and veggies. Load up on nutrient-dense, high-fiber foods like fruits and vegetables. They’re good for you, they fill you up, and they’re so low in fat and calories, you can eat virtually as many as you want!
  • Drink water, especially before a meal. We all know that water is healthy, hydrating your body and keeping your organs running smoothly. But as an added benefit, water takes up space in your stomach, helping to suppress your appetite. And it has zero calories! If you want to lose weight, drink water instead of sweetened drinks, fruit juices or energy drinks.
  • Take smaller portions. Studies have shown that most of us define a serving as “the amount I’m used to eating,” rather than the amount actually recommended. It’s easy to forget that bigger portions contain more calories. So always be aware of portion size, especially when consuming healthy, high-calorie foods like nuts or avocados.  
  • Eat whole foods that use more calories. Certain foods, such as whole foods, require more energy to digest and metabolize than processed foods. The difference in calories burned isn’t huge, but every little bit adds up. And if you can use more calories eating healthier foods, why wouldn’t you? Choose vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, legumes and farm fresh meats over prepackaged “food products.”

As you continue to watch your calories, here’s one last tip to keep in mind:

  • Use moderation. Even healthy foods like nuts, quinoa, avocados, olive oil, peanut butter, and bananas can be high in calories, so eat them sparingly. Their nutritional benefits far outweigh their high calorie content, though, so don't eliminate them from your diet. They help you feel full, too, so you’re not tempted to eat more calories later. Here’s a list of other surprising foods that contain more calories than you think.

If you think you’re going to need help on this journey, Parkview offers free 20-minute consultations with a registered dietician nutritionist. Go to our website to learn more, or call (260) 672-6500 to make an appointment.