Don’t count calories, but be aware of them

Published: March, 2021

In general, calorie counting is not the best approach to weight control. When you rely solely on counting calories, you never learn to listen to your body's hunger and satiety signals, which can be a powerful tool in helping to keep off unwanted pounds. That's not to say calories don't matter. Experts still agree that consuming fewer calories than you burn leads to weight loss. But there's no need to obsess about them.

Instead, it can be more useful to have a general idea of how many calories you require to reach your goal—and which foods are more likely to help you get there. Think of it as calorie awareness versus calorie counting.

How many calories do you need? Every individ-ual is different, and caloric needs differ depending on many factors, including age, body size, activity level, and metabolism. Most women need 1,600 to 2,000 calories per day to maintain their weight, while most men require 2,000 to 2,400 calories per day. Your number may be more or less.

Another approach is to simply limit your portions, which automatically has the effect of limiting calories. Standard servings are generally much smaller than those dished out in restaurants or even what you're used to at home.

At the start of your healthy eating journey, it's important to learn to measure servings for your food diary. However, unless you're paying attention, your portions may creep up over time. After a month or so, measure your food again as a refresher course on standard serving sizes and to make sure you're staying on track. Note that there is no need to reduce your vegetable portions.

Finally, there is some evidence that not all calories are equal: a Harvard-led study found that people who were trying to maintain recent weight loss burned more calories each day if they adopted a diet that was relatively low in carbohydrates.

Many experts recommend eliminating all simple sugars as the first step to achieving weight loss and stopping those pounds from coming back. This will likely do both, lower your carb intake and limit total calories at the same time.

To learn how to create week-by-week action plans, and to get our weight control tips and recipes, buy the 6-Week Plan for Healthy Eating, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

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