Whether you use the latest mobile apps, an old-fashioned food diary or rely on prepared meals, counting your daily calorie intake can help you with your weight loss goals. But fitness experts caution that you should always set realistic goals to achieve lasting results.

Before you start counting those food calories, it helps to understand why this method actually works: Calories are used to describe the amount of energy our bodies get from what we eat and drink. For example, eating one carrot provides our body with about 25 calories. Running for about half an hour requires the body to use about 300 calories.

There are three basic reasons why calorie-counting can be effective:

  1. Tracking calories can help identify which eating patterns you need to change to lose weight.
  2. It may not be precise, but keeping track of what you eat will give you an approximate idea of how much you consume each day and what you need to do to reduce the total number of calories you eat.
  3. Noting and recording what you eat can help you monitor your behavior. It can keep you accountable for the food choices you make and motivate you to keep pushing yourself until you reach your goals.

Food Journals work, but you must be consistent

Several studies have shown that food and activity journals can get good results, but you must count and record your calorie intake and activities rigorously.  Many food and activity journals can be inaccurate. Some studies have shown that participants underestimate how much they eat by 45 percent and may underreport their calorie intake up to 2,000 calories each day.

Activity records also have been shown to overestimate how much they move by 50 percent. One report even proved that even dietitians can fail to report their calorie intake accurately. However, another study demonstrated that those who monitored everything they ate for 12 weeks lost twice as much weight as those who did it less frequently. Not surprisingly, those who didn’t monitor at all ended up gaining weight.

Different options

Thanks to the latest technological innovations, we now have many tools at our fingertips to keep track of calories. They all record what you eat, whether you use an old-fashioned food diary on paper, or you rely on online or mobile apps or prepared package meals.

The fact of the matter is that the method you use doesn’t matter in the long run. You just need to pick the option that works best for you and keeps you motivated. You can find some highly recommended websites and apps here.

Experts also recommend using scales and measuring cups to estimate how many calories you are consuming. There are also visual guidelines to help you determine your portion sizes. These are less accurate than cups but can be easier to use: For example, one cup equals a baseball or a closed fist. Four ounces (120 grams) equals a checkbook or the size and thickness of your hand. Three ounces (90 grams) is about the size of a deck of cards or the size of your palm minus the fingers. One teaspoon (45 grams) is about the size of your fingertip, and one tablespoon (15 ml) is the size of three fingertips.

Also, if you want to adhere to a healthy diet, what you eat is even more important than the number of calories you consume. Obviously, 300 calories from kale and carrots will affect your body differently than 300 calories from donuts. You should avoid picking food only based on its caloric content and keep vitamin and mineral contents in mind as well. Also, always opt for natural, minimally processed foods.

One solution? Try making your meals at home instead of going out to eat. “By eating meals prepared at home, you will be able to save around 190 calories, 10 grams of fat and around 300-400 milligrams of sodium,” said Helga Van Herle, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at Keck School of Medicine of USC and a cardiologist from the USC CardioVascular Thoracic Institute.

Finally, keep in mind that the whole idea of counting calories to lose weight is about eating fewer calories than you burn. What is important is to create and sustain the energy deficit needed to lose weight. Always think of calorie-counting as a useful tool to help you reach your weight goals, but be realistic about what you can achieve on a daily basis.

By Ramin Zahed

Your primary care physician can help you determine how physically fit you are and suggest an effective weight loss plan that matches your personal needs. If you’re in the Southern California area and are in search of a primary care physician, call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit www.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/ to schedule an appointment.