USDA Calorie Counting Tips


Eating healthy can be a simple matter of maintaining a balanced diet.
Eating healthy can be a simple matter of maintaining a balanced diet.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Two of the three general principles -- eat fewer calories and be more active -- put forth by the USDA Dietary Guidelines have to do with calorie intake and calorie expenditure. That's because neither healthy eating nor physical activity alone can produce the most effective weight control or the greatest amount of weight loss, even though one of them may work for a while.

The Dietary Guidelines encourage you to find the balance that's right for you between calorie intake (food) and calorie expenditure (physical activity). That balance is unique to each person, and it depends on many factors, including the goal weight you set for yourself and whether you're trying to lose weight, maintain your weight, or prevent gradual weight gain over time. When we're struggling with our weight, we tend to think of calories as the bad guys. But calories are simply a way to measure energy. They shouldn't have any more of a negative connotation than do miles, which are used to measure distance. Of course, when you're on a car trip and you've got more miles left to travel than you have time or patience, then miles can seem like the bad guys. It's the same for calories. It's only when the number on the scale says that you've gained weight that calories become the enemy.

This article will examine the three tenets of the USDA Dietary Guidelines for calorie counting -- eating fewer calories, burning more calories, and making wise food choices. But first, let's get some more background information on calories.

A Necessary Evil

Your body needs fuel, in the form of calories from food, to sustain life. Calories are used to keep your body functioning: your heart beating, your lungs breathing, your organs working, and your brain thinking. Growing and repairing tissues requires calories, too. The number of calories your body burns to fuel these functions is called your basal metabolic rate (BMR) or metabolism. You can think of your metabolism as an engine that's idling. It burns fuel constantly to keep the car (you) running.

Your BMR accounts for about 60 to 65 percent of all your energy (calorie) expenditures. Of course, if you want to move your car, you step on the gas, which gives the car fuel to burn to power its motion.

The same is true for you. When you go off "idle" and do any physical activity, you burn more of the body's fuel in the form of calories. The more active you are, the more calories you burn. Increasing intensity, like stepping on the gas harder, increases the number of calories you burn, as does increasing the amount of time you spend doing an activity, which is akin to driving a long distance. calorie balance.

To visualize the concept of calorie balance, think of an old-fashioned balance scale with a small dish hanging from each side. The center, upright beam of the scale represents your body. The dish on the left is all of the calories that come into your body from food and beverages. The dish on the right represents all the calories you burn up in a day, including calories used for metabolism, for digesting food, and for physical activities. When you take in the same number of calories that you use up, the scale dishes are balanced, and your weight stays the same. That's what you strive for if you want to maintain your current weight. If more calories come in from food than you burn up in activity, the scale tips to the left, and you gain weight.

On the other hand, if your body uses more calories than come in from food, the scale tips to the right, and you lose weight. Weight management is simply a matter of calorie input and calorie output.

How Many Calories Are in a Pound?

Most people don't have any idea how many calories are in a pound of body weight. But that's a crucial number to know when you're trying to lose weight, and it puts all the discussion of calorie balancing and creating a calorie deficit in perspective. One pound of body weight is equal to 3,500 calories. That means that to lose one pound, you need to create a 3,500 calorie shortage by eating fewer calories, burning more calories through physical activity, or a combination of both. To gain a pound, the opposite is true: you create a 3,500 calorie surplus by eating more calories, burning fewer calories through physical activity, or a combination of both. If 3,500 calories sounds like a lot to you, it's not really.

Gaining a pound is as easy as eating 250 calories more a day (for instance 3 chocolate chip cookies or 2 ounces cheddar cheese) for two weeks or skipping a daily 250-calorie workout without cutting back on what you eat.

Being aware of your calorie intake and your calorie expenditure is one of the first steps on the path to weight control. Having calorie awareness will motivate you to make modifications in your diet. And it will also motivate you to be more physically active and to make changes in your routine that will use up more calories, such as taking the stairs at work instead of the elevator. Having calorie awareness will prompt changes that will get you to your weight-loss goal.

Now, with a firm understanding of calories and how energy balance affects your weight, you're ready to explore the next section, which focuses on how the USDA Dietary Guidelines can put you on the fast track to weight loss.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

 

Eating Fewer Calories

Taking charge of your weight begins with taking charge of the number of calories you eat. And you can do that by making small changes that add up to big differences. For instance, eating a mere 100 calories less per day can mean staving off a 10-pound weight gain each year.

Here's the math: 100 calories X 365 days = 36,500 calories, which is just over 10 pounds (10 X 3,500 calories in a pound). But let's correct one weight-loss fallacy at the outset: Eating fewer calories does not mean skipping meals. You may think that skipping meals will sharply reduce your calorie intake. But it doesn't work that way. Skipping meals actually slows down your body's metabolism, the opposite of what you're trying to accomplish. That's because meal skipping triggers our evolutionary response to famine, which is to conserve energy and lay down fat reserves in order to survive.

Eating regular meals, on the other hand, tells your body that plenty of food is available, so its metabolic rate can continue humming along. Those meals just need to be composed of modest amounts and fewer calories.

Tips For Eating Fewer Calories

You can eat fewer calories by:

  • Choosing foods with less fat or added sugar.
  • Eating smaller portions.
  • Reducing the amount of processed foods in your diet.
  • Choosing more nutrient-dense foods.

Reducing Fats and Sugars

Once you know how, it's easy to choose similar foods that have less fat or added sugar. The simple meal-makeover, below, shows how minor changes add up to a big difference in total calories. The flavors and portion sizes are the same so you will feel as satisfied with the new meal as you did with the old one. Substituting foods that are lower in calories yet similar to the originals cut the calories in that meal by more than half. You can learn to do the same. Knowing which foods to substitute for those that are higher in calories is vital to eating fewer calories each day.

Recognizing which foods to fill up on while getting the least amount of calories is important, too. In general, plant foods -- vegetables, fruits, and grains -- are quite low in calories, as long as they are not processed with added fat or sugar. That's why the 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommend that these three groups make up the bulk of your diet. Foods such as milk and meat are modest in calories, especially if you choose low-fat or lean versions. At the other end of the calorie spectrum lie fats and processed foods, both of which are loaded with calories. Vegetables and fruits are calorie bargains, while fat-laden candy bars and sugar-laden sodas are calorie excesses. Processed foods tend to be high in calories because fat and sugar are frequently added in processing. Calories add up fast when fat is added because it packs more than twice as many calories as protein and carbohydrates. The excessive amount of sugar added to some foods gives them a calorie overload, too. Most foods contain a combination of carbohydrate, protein, and fat.

Where Do Calories Come From?

Here's where the calories you eat come from:

  • Carbohydrate - 4 calories per gram
  • Protein - 4 calories per gram
  • Fat - 9 calories per gram
  • Alcohol - 7 calories per gram

You can start making choices today to lower your calorie intake. Filling your plate with favorite vegetables and snacking on fruits is a quick way to eat fewer calories. Eating smaller portions of higher-calorie foods or eating them less often will cut calories, too.

The next section will focus on the second tenet of cutting calories -- physical activity.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

 

Burn More Calories

Being more active is a good way to control calories.
Being more active is a good way to control calories.
Publications International, Ltd.

Being more physically active is another way to tip your calorie-balance scale toward weight loss. Physical activity burns up calories, and it boosts your metabolism by revving up your internal engine and keeping it going at a higher rate for some time after you've stopped the activity. And physical activity, particularly strengthening activities, builds lean muscle tissue, which burns more calories than fat. The more muscle you have, the faster you burn calories, even when you're at rest.

Building muscle mass will also help protect you from weight gain as you age. Muscle mass tends to decrease with age, lowering your metabolism by about five percent per decade. So keeping active as you get older will help prevent loss of muscle mass and the subsequent slowing of your metabolism. To burn more calories, you need to determine how much activity and what type of activity is right for you.

Gradual weight gain is caused, on average, by an excess of only about 100 calories per day. So eliminating 100 calories by eating a little less and getting more physical activity may be all it takes to manage your weight. Losing 10 pounds over a year can be as simple as eating 100 calories less each day for a year. Try these tips to get started.

Five ways to trim 100 calories from food:

  • Swap a 12-ounce regular soft drink for a diet soft drink or water.
  • Drink 2 cups of fat-free milk instead of 2 cups of whole milk.
  • Use 1 teaspoon of mustard or ketchup or 1 tablespoon of fat-free mayonnaise in place of 1 tablespoon of regular mayonnaise.
  • Split a small order of french fries with a friend.
  • Slice a typical piece of pie or cake about one-third smaller.

Five ways to burn 100 calories through physical activity:*

  • Pedal an exercise bike for 13 minutes.
  • Practice some fast dance steps for 16 minutes.
  • Work in the garden for 18 minutes.
  • Walk briskly for 23 minutes (3.5 mph).
  • Clean the house for 25 minutes.

Five food and foot power combos to cut 100 calories:*

  • Eat 5 fewer potato chips, and walk for 6 minutes.
  • Eat one-quarter cup less of spaghetti with tomato sauce, and walk for 11 minutes.
  • Top toast with 2 teaspoons apple butter instead of 2 teaspoons butter, and walk for 11 minutes.
  • Spoon out 3 tablespoons less mashed potatoes, and walk for 13 minutes.
  • Skip 2 half-and-half creamers in coffee, and walk for 15 minutes.

*Physical activity and walking estimates based on calories burned by a 150-pound person. Calories burned will increase with higher body weights and decrease with lower body weights.

Tips are reprinted with permission of Food Insight, a publication of the International Food Information Council Foundation, 2003.

In the next section we will look at the third tenet of controlling calories, making wise food choices.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Fats, Proteins, and Carbs

Meals like a salad provide the nutrients needed for optimum health while allowing you to manage your weight.
Meals like a salad provide the nutrients needed for optimum health while allowing you to manage your weight.
Publications International, Ltd.

Cutting back on calories in order to lose or control weight does not mean sacrificing good nutrition. It just means you need to use your calories wisely by making the best food choices, which are those that provide the most nutrients for the least number of calories. Foods that are low in calories and brimming with vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial substances are considered "nutrient-dense."

Nutrient-dense foods are the preferred choice. They provide nutrients needed for optimum health while allowing you to manage your weight. To have a weight-loss and weight-maintenance routine that you like well enough to live with for years to come, you need to adopt a balanced eating pattern.

A balanced pattern includes foods from each food group, because they each provide different nutrients. A balanced plan incorporates a combination of the three energy-providing nutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Severely restricting any one of these categories or food groups not only leads to health problems over the long term, but it also sets you up for weight-loss failure. Is it realistic to think you'll never eat another carbohydrate again? Or that you'll never eat another high-fat food? Not likely. An eating plan that cuts out an entire type of food doesn't usually last for long, and once you're back to your old routine, you start to regain weight. Plus, it's just not healthy. Your body is designed to run on a combination of carbohydrate, protein, and fat to make it all "go." The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a balanced diet that includes carbohydrate, protein, and fat.

The Guidelines also give specifics about how much food to consume from each food group.

Carbohydrates

The Dietary Guidelines recommend that carbohydrates supply 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories. That's easy to do when you consider that all foods except meat, fish, and poultry have at least some carbohydrate in them. There are two basic types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Complex carbohydrates are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. And they are naturally low in fat and calories. Fiber, the indigestible part of plant food, is a no-calorie nutrient that's full of benefits for your digestive system and for your weight-loss efforts. Fiber sops up fluid like a sponge, expanding in your stomach so it takes less food to satisfy your hunger. It helps regulate blood sugar, so you don't experience the sharp drops that can cause hunger and food cravings. And fiber helps prevent disease, keeping cholesterol levels down and stimulating your intestines. Complex, fiber-filled carbohydrate is found mostly in whole grains, legumes, and vegetables. Complex carbohydrates that have been refined, such as white flour and white rice, have had most of the fiber and many other nutrients removed. Simple carbohydrates are found in milk, fruit, some vegetables, and processed sugars such as table sugar and corn syrup. Naturally occurring simple sugars, such as those in milk, fruit, and vegetables, have many healthful nutrients, including vitamins and minerals. Processed sugars, however, are mostly devoid of nutrients, so steer clear of them.

Carbohydrates are your body's primary fuel. They are broken down into glucose, which is the best fuel source for your brain and muscles. Without enough carbohydrates, your body takes drastic measures to make the glucose it needs. When this happens, you have less energy and feel tired. You may feel light-headed, dizzy, and unable to think clearly. And when you limit carbohydrate intake, you actually inhibit your weight-loss efforts. Your body needs carbohydrate to burn stored fat. Eating the right amount of carbohydrate will help you get rid of stored fat, and you'll feel better while doing so.

Proteins

Proteins

Smart protein food choices include lean meat, fish, and poultry, along with eggs, legumes, nuts, and seeds. While some of these, such as nuts and seeds, are high in calories, they are a great source of certain nutrients. Include them in small amounts as an occasional protein choice. The average American already eats twice the recommended amount of protein and does not need to focus on increasing protein intake.

Typically two or three servings each day will easily provide the recommended amount. Protein foods supply the nutrients needed for your body to build, repair, and maintain itself. There are certain protein substances the body cannot make. Since these must be obtained from food, protein plays an important role in good health.

Fats

The MyPyramid food guide contains a thin yellow band representing healthy oils. Healthy fats include vegetable oils, fish oils, and the oils found in nuts and seeds. This is the first time a U.S. food guide has depicted oils as a food group necessary for good health. At the same time, the Dietary Guidelines caution consumers to limit solid fats, such as those found in meat, whole-fat dairy products, and processed foods. High in calories but essential for a balanced eating pattern, total fats should supply 20 to 35 percent of calories, with most of the fat consumed coming from oils. If fat is so high in calories, you might wonder why the recommended percentage of daily calories isn't lower. The answer is that fat is vital to many body functions. Vegetable oils contain vitamin E, an essential fat-soluble vitamin. Healthy oils also supply your body with "essential" fatty acids, such as omega-3 fatty acids. These special fats cannot be constructed by your body, so you must get them from food.

Because fat is also essential for proper brain and nerve development, the Dietary Guidelines' fat intake recommendations are based on age:

  • Adults -- 20-35 percent of calories
  • Age 4-18 -- 25-35 percent of calories
  • Age 2-3 -- 30-35 percent of calories
  • Newborns to age 2 -- No fat

Our final section will look at the ways to restrict fat and consume fluids and vitamins.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Restricting Fats and Consuming Fluids and Vitamins

We've covered the major staples of your diet, but there are other considerations for truly balanced nutrition.

Cutting Back the Fat

Fat plays an important role in satisfying hunger, but you need to be careful about the kind of fat you eat. Most of your dietary fat should come from oils: monounsaturated fats (such as olive oil and canola oil) and polyunsaturated fats (such as soybean, safflower, corn, and sunflower oils).

The USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend that you limit your intake of saturated fat, in nonlean meat, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils such as palm kernel and coconut oil, to less than ten percent of your total calorie intake. And the Guidelines further recommend that you limit your intake of trans fats, which are hydrogenated fats (a process that changes unsaturated fats into saturated fats).

Trans fats are found in products such as margarine, fried foods, many baked goods, and other processed foods. Both saturated and trans fats spell trouble for your arteries and heart because they are converted into artery-clogging cholesterol in your body. To work fats into your weight-loss regime, you'll want to aim for the low end of your recommended amount, say 20 percent of calories from fat for adults. If you consume more fat than that, you'll end up tipping your calorie scale in the wrong direction. Make wise choices and eat modest amounts of heart-healthy oils while limiting the less-healthy solid fats.

Fluids

Making wiser food choices isn't limited to solids; it includes beverages, too. Watching the amount of calories in beverages is another good way to consume fewer calories. Water has no calories, yet it keeps you feeling full and less likely to overeat. Increasing the amount of water you drink to eight cups per day is a good rule of thumb to follow. Although water does not supply any particular nutrients, it is an important part of a healthy weight loss plan. Water expands the fiber you eat, further helping you to feel full and satisfied. It assists in many bodily functions, and it helps turn stored body fat into energy by transporting the nutrients needed to make this happen. Water also prevents fatigue, mental confusion, and headaches. Fruits and vegetables have a high water content, so eating them will also increase your water intake.

Vitamins, Minerals and Phytochemicals

The Dietary Guidelines are adamant about choosing foods low in calories and brimming with nutrients. Nutrients include vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, as well as carbohydrate, protein, and fat. For good health while losing weight, you need the recommended amounts of vitamin A, numerous B-vitamins, and vitamins C, D, E, and K. Important minerals include calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, selenium, and potassium. Phytochemicals are natural plant substances that appear to help prevent cancer and may play a role in preventing many other chronic diseases. They include thousands of compounds, such as carotenoids, flavonoids, isoflavones, and protease inhibitors.

Typically people eat too many foods low in vitamins and minerals but high in calories. The more foods and beverages you consume that are low in nutrient density, the harder it is to get all the vitamins and minerals you need without getting too many calories and gaining weight. For weight control and good health, it needs to be the other way around. Choose foods low in calories and rich in vitamins and minerals most of the time. These nutrient-dense foods are the base of your balanced eating pattern. Sufficient vitamins and minerals enable the body to function properly and use up stored fat appropriately as fat cells release it. The best food choices to accomplish this include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or nonfat dairy products, and lean protein sources.

The Dietary Guidelines and MyPyramid show you the way to a well-balanced, low-calorie eating plan. Delicious foods from every food group are included. No foods are forbidden. Both guides provide specific amounts of food to eat depending on the amount of calories you need to lose weight. Basing your eating routine on these guides and balancing it with adequate physical activity will put you on the road to a healthy weight and a healthy lifestyle for life!

Controlling your caloric intake is a key when it comes to losing weight. But if you eat fewer calories, become more active and make wise decisions, a healthier lifestyle can be within your grasp.

©Publications International, Ltd.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

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