How many calories have you eaten today? And how many should you consume if you're trying to maintain your current weight or lose those last 10 pounds? If you're like most Americans, you probably don't know the answers to these calorie-counting questions, according to a new survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, a not-for-profit health education organization.
A scant 9 percent of Americans keep track of how many calories they eat every day, the survey found. The same percentage were able to accurately estimate how many calories they should eat each day.
With so many weight loss plans focused on certain nutrients - Load up on protein! Banish carbs! Eat "healthy" fats! - counting calories may seem downright passé. But you shouldn't discount this powerful weight loss tool, say experts.
In fact, the "secret" to losing weight for good isn't eliminating carbs or eating gallons of cabbage soup, according to My Calorie Counter, a new book from Everyday Health. "Sustained, healthy weight loss comes down to a pretty basic equation: fewer calories plus more exercise," say authors Jenny Sucov and Maureen Namkoong, MS, RD. "By keeping track of how many calories you consume and burn every day, you can slim down, gain energy, and stave off a whole host of health problems."
So why don't more people track their calorie intake? Among the biggest roadblocks people cite, according to the survey, are the difficulty of counting calories (30 percent); having a focus on other nutrients (30 percent); thinking that calorie counting doesn't matter (23 percent); and being too busy (22 percent).
But counting calories is easier and less time-consuming than you think. Follow these tips to get started:
Determine How Many Calories You Should Eat
How many calories you need to eat to maintain your current weight depends on factors such as your gender, age, height, weight, and activity level. Your body uses about two-thirds of the calories you consume each day just to keep its systems functioning - your heart beating, your muscles moving. The rest of your calorie intake, according to My Calorie Counter, fuels everyday activities like walking around, exercising, typing an e-mail, doing a crossword puzzle.
To find out your ideal caloric intake, start by calculating what's known as your base metabolic rate (BMR):
- Women: Multiply your weight by 10. Men: Multiply by 11. This is your BMR.
- Now add to that 20 percent of your BMR if you have a sedentary lifestyle; 30 percent if you are somewhat active; 40 percent if you are moderately active; or 50 percent if you are very active.
- The number you get is how many calories you need to maintain your weight.
For example: If you're a somewhat active 145-pound woman, your BMR is 1,450 calories a day, and your lifestyle quotient is 30 percent of that, or an additional 435 calories. So your daily total for maintaining your current weight is 1,885 calories. If you want to lose one pound per week, you simply need to cut or burn an extra 500 calories a day.
- Count How Many Calories You Actually Eat and Burn
Don't forget to log your exercise too. Find out how many calories you're burning with everyday and fitness activities using the My Calorie Counter list of calories burned during exercise, then enter the figure in your online journal.
You can easily cut 500 calories by making small diet and exercise changes throughout your day. Here's one approach:
- Breakfast: Drink water instead of orange juice (calories saved: 117)
- Snack: Have sliced cucumber and a tablespoon of hummus instead of a bag of chips (calories saved: 119)
- Lunch: Swap out your salad's creamy ranch dressing for fat-free Italian (calories saved: 66)
- Dessert: Eat half of a cup of strawberries instead of a half of a cup of chocolate ice cream (calories saved: 118).
- Exercise: Stroll at a moderate pace for 30 minutes (calories burned: 125 for a woman weighing 145)
- Get Portion Savvy
Even if you can't or don't want to tally the calories you eat at every single meal or snack, adopting these little portion control tips can help you consume fewer calories without trying too hard. "In a world where supersize is the new regular, it's easy to undercount your calories," say Sucov and Namkoong. These tips can help you recognize what a healthy portion looks like, which can help you keep calories in check:
- Think of a tennis ball. It's the equivalent of one cup of food, which is the recommended portion for such foods as pasta, cereal, and yogurt.
- Don't eat straight out of the container. It's a recipe for mindlessly overeating. Instead, measure a serving size of whatever you're noshing on - almonds, soy chips, or other snacks - and put it on a plate or in a bowl.
- Use smaller plates. Trick your mind into thinking that you have more food by downsizing your large dinner plate for a smaller salad-sized one. A healthy portion can look teeny on a huge plate but will seem more normal when you shrink its surroundings.
- Spoil your appetite with nutritious food. Try eating celery sticks with peanut butter an hour before mealtime, My Calorie Counter recommends. You'll eat less at the meal and feel more satisfied later.
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