USDA Calorie Counting Tips

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.


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.



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.


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.