Energy balance plays a central role in health because it alone determines body weight. Energy balance is described as the relationship between how many calories you consume and how many you burn. This important relationship has three possible outcomes: gaining, losing or maintaining weight. Because body weight and body fat percentage have an important role in preventing disease, it's important to monitor calorie intake and make the necessary adjustments to maintain and improve overall health.
Calories are a measure of energy. We measure calories in two ways: the amount we consume from food and the amount we expend through physical activity & exercise. Calories provide energy for:
- maintaining essential life support functions (heart, brain, breathing, food digestion)
- completing day to day tasks
- providing fuel for exercise
There are three main sources of calories: fats, carbohydrates and proteins. These three sources of calories are known as the macronutrients. Each macronutrient contains a different amount of energy per gram:
- fat contains 9 calories per gram
- carbohydrates & proteins contain 4 calories per gram
Though much attention has been paid to both low-fat and low-carb diets, macronutrients on their own have a limited role in weight balance. It's much more important to control your overall calorie intake than it is to control your intake of one of the macronutrients as prescribed in low-fat and low-carb diets.
Counting calories is necessary because it ensures you're eating the amount you think you're eating. A common problem is incorrectly estimating or guessing calorie intake. Dieters typically underestimate the amount they're eating because they assume it's impossible for foods to have as many calories as they actually do.
Pizza contains about 400 calories per slice. A 1/4 cup of peanuts contains almost 200 calories. A footlong sub contains around 1,000 calories. It's very common for some foods to provide a third or even half of your daily calorie allotment. Ignoring, underestimating or guessing calorie intake leads to slow or non-existent weight loss.
An important part of weight balance is looking at the nutrition label, figuring out how much one serving actually is (with the help of measuring cups, spoons and food scales) and counting calories to ensure you're eating the proper amount. If weight control isn't going as planned, the likely culprit is eating an inappropriate amount of calories.
Counting calories isn't as tedious as it once used to be. There are plenty of apps making calorie counting much easier today than in the past. MyFitnessPal is one of the easiest and most popular apps for calorie tracking.
Overtime, your ability to estimate calorie intake improves. At the beginning of your weight management journey (gaining, losing or maintaining weight), it's important to avoid estimating intake and instead, carefully tracking foods.
The Bottom Line
Counting calories is important because it ensures you're eating the appropriate amount. Counting calories eliminates guess work, makes weight management more precise and leads to faster and more sustainable results.