By: Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, LDN

You may have never thought about the calories in food until you wanted to lose weight. Not only is eating less for weight loss hard to do, but calorie counting is tedious, time-consuming and eye-opening (is there really 285 calories in one slice of pizza?!). That’s why we created this essential guide to calorie counting. By using this guide, you can better understand how calories affect your weight loss, how to manipulate them to your advantage and what shortcuts you can take.

It may be wise to bookmark this article, because we have some helpful tools that you can use daily! Before we get to those, however, let’s have a quick lesson on metabolism.


Metabolism and Calorie Counting

In the most basic sense, our metabolism is what keeps us going every day. Metabolism is a series processes that takes energy from the food we eat and converts it to energy that we can use. We measure energy from food as “calories.”

  • Weight gain occurs when too many calories are eaten and not enough energy is burned off. When we eat lots of calories, but we don’t use that energy, then the calories get stored as body fat.
  • Weight loss occurs when we eat less calories than what we burn off during physical activity and regular bodily processes (i.e. digestion, breathing). When we don’t eat enough calories, our body pulls from our fat stores.

Think of metabolism like a balance between calories eaten and calories burned off. Remember, for weight loss, you want to burn more calories than you eat. This is called a “calorie deficit.”


How to Create a Calorie Deficit for Weight Loss

There are 3 main ways you can manipulate your calories for weight loss:

Method #1: Using calories only Method #2: Using exercise only Method #3: Combination method
Description 1. Determine how many calories you typically eat to stay at your weight.

2. Decrease your calories by 250-500 calories each day.

3. Find the right calorie amount that allows you to start losing weight.


Decreasing your calories by 500 calories per day can decrease your weekly calorie intake by 3500 calories!

1. Eat a similar amount of calories that you normally consume.

2. Increase your exercise to burn substantial calories for weight loss.


If you burn 500-750 calories during exercise 4 times per week, you can burn off 2000-3000 calories!

1. Decrease your calorie intake by 250-500 calories per day.

2. Increase your exercise by 500 calories per day.


If you decrease your calorie intake by 250 calories per day and burn off 2000 calories at the gym each week, you can create a calorie deficit of 3750 calories in a week!

Considerations This method may require you to really restrict your calories, which can be hard for many people. Also, men should eat at least 1500 calories per day, and women should eat at least 1200 calories per day for weight loss. This method requires several workouts each and every week. Also, you may not be able to increase your calorie intake just because you are working out more. This method is usually prescribed by doctors, dietitians and physical trainers. It requires that you make changes to both eating and exercising.
Is this right for me? If you are unable to exercise regularly, consider this method. If you enjoy exercise and physical activity, then this may be a great method for you. This method is great for someone looking for the all-around weight loss approach.

As you can see, each of these methods can create a calorie deficit for weight loss, but they each have their drawbacks. If you are struggling to figure out which method is best for you, talk to your healthcare team for insight.


Common Calorie Counting Mistakes

While you are deciding which calorie deficit method is best for you, take a look at the most common calorie counting mistakes so you can avoid any setbacks in your weight loss journey! For more weight loss mistakes, click here.


Calorie Counting Mistake How to Fix It
Underestimating calories consumed in a meal When trying to lose weight, err on the side of overestimation. Round up the calorie amounts of your meal to account for larger portions.
Overestimating calories burned during exercise Use a personal calorie tracker (i.e. FitBit, smart watch).
Forgetting to track beverages (i.e. soda, coffee, protein shakes, alcohol) The golden rule for calorie counting: If it goes in your mouth, then you track it!
Forgetting to track “extras” (i.e. sauces, cooking oil, toppings) Track as you go or jot down a list of all the ingredients used and track it later.
Logging “calories per serving” instead of “calories per portion” The amount of food you put on your plate may be different than what the serving size suggests on the label. Make sure you account for the portion you are eating, not the serving size suggested. For example, the serving size for Cheerios cereal is ¾ cup. However, if you pour 2 cups in your bowl, then you must account for that in your logging.


Quick Calorie Pocket Guide

If you don’t have time to log your food, you can use this calorie pocket guide to estimate calories in a certain food item. Keep in mind, however, that these are estimations and can be inaccurate based on your actual intake. Hint: Look at the “Common Serving Size” column and compare it to your actual intake.

Food Group Estimated Calories Common Serving Size
Grains and Starches 80 calories 1 slice bread

¼ bagel

½ cup cooked pasta, corn, peas, potato

Vegetables 25 calories ½ cup cooked

1 cup raw

4oz 100% vegetable juice

Fruit 60 calories 1 apple, peach

1 cup berries, melon

4oz 100% fruit juice

Protein 55 calories (lean protein)

75 calories (non-lean protein)

1oz poultry

1oz beef

1 egg

Dairy 90 calories (lowfat/nonfat)

150 calories (full fat)

150+ calories (flavored)

8oz milk

6oz yogurt

1oz cheese

Fat 45 calories 1 Tbsp butter, oil, dressing

1/8th of an avocado

1 slice bacon