Everything You Need to Know About Calories
1) NOT ALL CALORIES ARE CREATED EQUAL
We've all heard the term "empty calories." It refers to sources of calories that bring no real nutrition to the table. No protein, no fiber, no healthy fats — nothing that's gonna keep you satisfied. Case in point? A can of soda and a 4-oz. skinless chicken breast have about the same number of calories, but one is pure sugar, and the other is loaded with protein. Invest your calories wisely and limit anything that's primarily sugar or starchy carbs. I used to snack on pretzels, which just made me hungrier. Nowadays, I have food that satisfies me, like Greek yogurt or almonds.
2) EVEN THINGS YOU DON'T CONSIDER "FOOD" CONTAIN CALORIES
The milk in your coffee, that ketchup on your eggs, those after-meal mints...even some vitamins contain calories! I'm not saying you need to ditch them. Just factor in those calories when you tally up your daily total. Food journaling might seem nerdy, but it works if you're trying to identify why you aren't meeting your weight goals. Make a habit of jotting down everything you eat and drink, along with the calorie counts. There are some great phone apps for this, like Lose It! and My Fitness Pal. Need to trim down your total? Review what you've eaten and decide what's worth it and what's not. You'll know — and it'll make you feel much better about everything you eat.
3) THE NUMBERS ON NUTRITION LABELS AREN'T CUT-AND-DRIED
Sorry to hit you with this, but the Food and Drug Administration can't possibly check everybody's calorie calculations, and they only consider something mislabeled if the real calorie count is more than 20 percent off. Big-name brands are more likely to be accurate, but you should always let healthy skepticism be your friend. If something seems too good to be true, trust your instincts. Grab a food scale (you can get one for less than $20) to fact-check serving sizes. A muffin might claim to be 2 ounces and 200 calories, but if you weigh it and discover it's 3.2 ounces, that's really 320 calories!
4) THAT FOOD WITH THE ZERO-CALORIE LABEL HAS A SECRET
Here's another tricky labeling fact. If a product has fewer than 5 calories per serving, the label can claim it has 0 calories. The discrepancy may seem minor, but the numbers can add up. Things like cooking spray and salad dressing can still be good calorie bargains, but if you're tracking your intake, consider counting them at 4 calories per serving to be safe. I have a friend who used lots of sweetener packets and doused her food in "calorie-free" spray butter. We did the math — she was eating 250 more calories every day than she thought she was.
5) CALORIES ARE NOT THE ENEMY
Consuming as few calories as possible isn't a smart weight-loss tactic. Calories give you fuel. You should know how many your body needs to lose or maintain weight; then you can think of it like a budget, and decide which foods are worth "spending" on. There are many tools online to help you determine your daily number, based on height, age, weight, activity level, and goals (verywell.com has a good one). I tend to shoot for about 1,500 calories per day to maintain my weight, and I'm just over 5 feet tall. Figuring this out goes a long way toward eating without guilt.
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