Sunday, January 10, 2010

Counting Calories

The first thing one must do when they decide to lose weight is figure out how. What diet plan or weight loss program will you follow? I really do not like to use the word "diet" because we should be changing our lifestyle, but the truth is that in order to lose weight we do need to cut back more than if we were just eating to maintain our current weight. We have to do something. I have basically tried two different methods to lose weight over the years; counting calories and following the Weight Watchers point system. I will discuss my experience with Weight Watchers in another thread, but in this one I want to discuss the method I am using this time, which is counting calories.

One of the greatest benefits of counting calories is that it is an inexpensive and simple way to lose weight. Since I was starting on my own without anyone to guide me I had to sort of hit and miss in order to figure out where to start my daily caloric intake. Since the average recommended daily allowance seems to be 2000 I decided to start at 1800. I was not really losing anything at that amount so I cut it back 100 more calories and kept doing that until I started to lose weight. I began to see a difference at 1600 but eventually that too seemed to taper off. So basically all I did was eat the number of calories that seemed to help me lose weight. If I had a couple of weeks with very minimal or no weight loss I would then cut back 100 more calories from there. (The amount of calories you need is reduced as your weight is also reduced so the amount of calories you eat does need to be adjusted as you lose more weight.) I am now currently eating 1400 calories a day and I am still seeing a steady loss at this amount, especially since I am also following a consistent exercise regiment as well.

Since having muddled through this on my own I found a really great reference that tells you exactly how to calculate how many calories you should be eating when attempting to lose weight. It came from the Biggest Loser Complete Calorie Counter Book that I ordered to help me calculate my caloric intake. At the beginning of the book they spell out their plan which says:

The Biggest Loser Diet calls for 7 calories per pound of current body weight until you reach your target weight. (If you weigh over 300 pounds, count 300 as your starting weight for this formula. Likewise, count 150 pounds as your starting weight if you currently weigh less than 150 pounds). 12 calories per pound will usually maintain your target body weight.

When following these calculations that put me close to 1300 calories. Since I am still having steady losses at 1400 I have not yet gone to 1300 but at least this gave me a general sense of how many calories I should be eating. I am not really trying to get to my goal weight in a hurry, I am more interested in a steady, slower, but consistent weight loss. Since currently 1400 calories is doing the trick that's what I will eat.

The hardest part of counting calories is calculating the calories when you are cooking a meal at home. It's really easy to look at the label of a boxed meal, can of soup, or TV dinner but it's difficult to figure out how many calories are in that casserole dish you made. That is where calorie counter books come in really handy. You used to be able to find these at the checkout of the grocery store, but I had the hardest time finding one this time. That is why I went online to buy one, and even then, I did not seem to find that many. I ended up purchasing the The Biggest Loser Complete Calorie Counter Book from Wal-Mart for $4.00. This is my main tool for counting calories. However, the book is not as complete as I would like it to be, so sometimes I just have to surf online for the information that I seek.

One site that I found I use is the Calorie Chart which has foods sorted alphabetically. They usually have most everything I am looking for, but I am not sure how accurate it is. However it seems to have served me well so far.

There are other sites as well, all you have to do is search for them. The point is that you need to tabulate all the ingredients in a recipe. After you have tabulated the amount of the total for the dish, divide it into servings to find the amount of calories for each one. This can be a bit of work at times, but if you write down the total calories for the entire dish plus the per serving calorie cost on your recipe card or in your calorie counter book you will only have to do it once. I even tabulated the amount for the Christmas fudge I made and wrote that down on the cards I handed out with it. It certainly was fattening fudge and knowing the calories made me decide to only eat a half a piece! This information is important to know before we put anything into our mouths.

While we need to watch how many calories go into our body, we do need to pay attention to other nutritional information as well. If you look for things that are lower in fat for instance, not only will you find a more healthier food, you will find that you will get fuller when eating them because your serving size tends to be larger. For instance, you can eat a much larger helping of chicken then you can beef. While 4 ounces of a boneless, skinless chicken breast is 132 calories, a 4 oz. sirloin steak is 254 calories. When you only get about 400 calories a meal, you want to make every calorie count.

Other tools that are helpful to have on hand for accurate calorie counting is a food scale. I have a digital food scale that measures my serving size in both grams and ounces so I know exactly what size and how many calories the serving on my plate is. You can pick those up at your local retail store or just about anywhere online. They are not that expensive and very beneficial to counting calories.

There is one other adjustment that I have made. There are certain vegetables that are considered "free" in Weight Watchers. You can eat things like carrots, broccoli, lettuce, celery, cabbage, green beans, etc and not count them at all. I still do this, even though they do have calories in them. So far this has not kept me from losing weight, so I will continue to do that. You may decide to count them if you want, it's up to you. The important thing to remember is that while the vegetable itself is free, what you add to it is not. The vegetables in a salad may be free, but you must count the calories in the dressing, eggs, cheese, bacon bits, etc. that you add to it. The green beans are free, but you count any butter you put on them. Broccoli is free, but count the cheese if you add any to it. A carrot is free, but not the ranch you dip it in. Only the vegetable is free. Also, not all vegetables are free. Extra starchy ones like corn and peas are not. Use common sense here. I may try to compile a list of free foods in the future.

To recap and to provide some other helpful advice I will close with some tips to remember when counting calories.

Tips to Remember:

Calculate the amount of calories per day you should start with - Use the formula above from the Biggest Loser Calorie Counter Book (7 calories per pound if you weigh between 150-300 pounds) or simply start at under 2000 and keep adjusting until you see results.

Serving Size - Be sure that you only eat the amount of food that is in a serving size. Do not count a 6 ounce piece of chicken breast as a 4 ounce portion size. Look at the serving size on every label and know how much a serving is.

Measure everything - In order to be sure your serving size is accurate, measure everything.

Prepare food at home - It's almost impossible to lose weight if you eat out too much. You can control the size of your portion and what goes into your food when you make it yourself. When I crave a hamburger I make one at home out of the 95% lean ground beef and use my light or fat free mayo, low fat cheese instead of the high calorie content you get from a fast food joint. I usually save about 300 calories per sandwich and it tastes a whole lot better.

Log your calories - You must write down everything you eat and the amount of calories that were in it. If you don't write it down you are bound to forget some things and risk eating too many calories.

Plan Ahead - If you are going out to eat plan ahead. If it's a restaurant look up their information online before you go and know what the calories are before hand. Also take your calorie counter book with you so you can figure it out on your own. The BL Calorie Counter Book does have some restaurants listed in the back.

Allow for some snacks - Denying yourself any goodies will only make you want to gorge on them later. I allow myself to have a couple of sweets when I want them, I just count the calories. I have found fat free or sugar free pudding cups to be a great source of sweets. For just 70-80 calories you can have your chocolate craving fulfilled and still lose weight. Also have healthy snacks available during times when you know you will be weak. I love to munch during my evening television shows so I pop some 94% fat free butter popcorn which costs 100 calories. Keep fruits or healthy protein bars on hand when you need an afternoon pick me up.

Eat protein and fiber - Protein and Fiber are essential for a healthy diet but they also help you feel full longer. Be sure you have protein with every meal and that your diet consists of plenty of fiber as well. You will find that you will be less likely to be hungry between meals if you do.

Eat plenty of veggies - A well balanced diet is essential and getting your fruits and vegetables is a must. There are some vegetables that I even consider as free food. They say you burn more calories eating celery than are actually in the celery itself. So eat vegetables with every meal to help you fill that void without having to count that many calories if any at all.

Exercise - Yes, I know this is just about counting calories but it's just as important to burn calories off as it is to take them in. Regular exercise will help you lose weight, get your body in shape and make you feel better. I have personally found that now that I exercise regularly I am a lot less likely to snack between meals.

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