Get Up to Speed With This Quick Calorie Reference Guide

Calorie counting has been a cornerstone of weight loss for decades. If you've ever attempted to lose weight, chances are you've spent at least a few tedious days counting every calorie you consume. How much do calories really influence the ability to shed unwanted pounds? Read on for the facts about the link between calorie restriction and weight loss.

What Is a Calorie, Anyway? 

Calories simply measure the amount of energy stored in food. Calories aren't all bad; we need that energy to breathe, circulate blood through our bodies and stay alive. After calories support our basic functions of life and help the body repair tissues and organs, they facilitate physical activity and exercise. When we don't burn those excess calories, however, the body converts them to fat.

What Does That Mean for My Diet? 

You cannot lose weight unless your body burns more calories you consume. As boring as it may be, keeping track of calories in and calories out (often abbreviated as CICO) can help you understand fluctuations in your weight and meet your fitness goals.

According to the Mayo Clinic, most people can lose about 1 lb. a week by cutting their normal dietary consumption by 500 to 1,000 calories. However, the body's ability to use and burn calories constantly changes as we lose weight, which explains why we sometimes hit a plateau when the scale doesn't seem to move for weeks.

We often hear 2,000 calories as the benchmark for daily consumption. That number varies dramatically depending on weight, body type, health status, fitness goals and other factors, so it might help to talk to your doctor or a nutritionist about how much you should be eating.

What's the Best Way To Burn Calories Effectively? 

As your body builds muscle, your metabolism increases. This number measures how fast your body burns calories at rest. Each pound of fat burns an estimated 2 calories per hour, while a pound of muscle burns 6 calories per hour. Adding weights and other strength-building activities to your workout routine can boost your metabolism, so you may notice you're losing weight more quickly.

You should also make sure you get enough aerobic exercise each week. This category of physical activity includes walking, jogging, swimming and even dancing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that healthy adults of all ages should get at least 30 minutes of vigorous exercise five days a week including a mixture of strength training and cardio. Break it up into smaller chunks if you feel like you can't fit exercise into your day. Adults over 65 should also add balance training to the mix.

How Can I Cut Calories From My Diet? 

Portion size is one of the best ways to control calories. Read the nutrition label to determine the recommended portion of food and stick to it. I swear by my food scale, but you can also estimate the amount of food you're actually eating by measuring out your portions. I was shocked at how much I underestimated my intake when I started weighing my meals.

Some of the easiest ways to trim your calorie count include:

  • Using skim or fat-free instead of whole or 2% milk in your cereal
  • Cooking with low-fat vegetable oil spray instead of butter
  • Eating a meatless meal one night a week (or more) if you don't already consume plenty of veggies
  • Steaming or baking instead of frying or sauteing your favorite foods
  • Drinking water instead of juice, soda and other high-cal beverages
  • Swapping a sweet snack for fruit during that afternoon energy crash

Understanding how calories work is the first step to reaching your physical fitness goals. Review this guide whenever you need a refresher.

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