What Is The Best Way To Lose Weight? A Guide To Easy Calorie Counting
So What is the Best Way to Lose Weight?
You are (probably) not here by accident. You are here because, in some way, through some avenue, you are interested in shedding some pounds. Perhaps it’s an adventure you have never taken, or maybe you have been down this road before but now find yourself struggling to make the desired changes. Or worse, you are lost (which I recently wrote about in another blog entry HERE).
How weight is lost and gained must first be understood before you start the process of trying to lose it. It’s not magic, and it’s not rocket science. It’s simple arithmetic. It’s 1+1=2 type stuff. Really.
See, as you read this, your body has a target number of calories to use as a goal post. You will gain weight if you eat more calories than your target number. If you eat less than your target, you will lose weight. It is that simple.
But, despite its simplicity, most people do not know this information.
Before You Get Started, Let’s Cover Some Food Basics
What is a calorie?
Calories are the energy released when your body breaks down (digests and absorbs) food. The more calories a food has, the more energy it can provide your body. When you eat more calories than you need, your body stores the extra calories as body fat. Even fat-free food can have a lot of calories. – www.clevelandclinic.org
Nearly everything you ingest, both solids and liquids, contain calories from the obvious suspects, like fast food and sweets, to the not-too-evident, like sauces, dressings, and some flavored waters. And calories are not just reserved for “unhealthy” foods, either. Fruits and vegetables also contain calories.
We measure calories in simple numbers, which fluctuate typically by the weight or volume of the food consumed. This total calculated number is the result of the addition of three primary macronutrients:
These are referred to simply as “macros.”
Ok, so then what are macros?
Protein, carbohydrates, and fats are the primary macros in your food and liquid. Like calories, macros are also represented in numerical form. Anything you ingest will have some numerical combination of these three macros, each with an assigned numerical value.
A critical note on macros to add: macros do NOT contribute to weight loss. Macro targets are a way to determine what TYPE of calories you take in. This means you will want to eat your calorie target with a healthy mix of proteins, carbs, and fats. Think of them as the steering wheel in your car. It doesn’t propel the vehicle in any direction, but it helps you reach your goal faster and safer.
In the end, the calories you eat determine the weight you lose.
How do I find this information on my food?
You can find calorie and macronutrient numbers in 2 places. The first and most predominant place you can get this information is via the nutritional labels you see on most foods. Nutritional labels will give you the calorie and macro breakdown based on the serving amount of the item. Let’s take a look at an example label:
Let’s look at this label. First, notice the serving size. It’s important to understand that the calories and macros listed on this label apply ONLY to the serving size mentioned. One common mistake beginners make when reading these labels is assuming that the calorie and macro numbers are for the WHOLE item. This might be the case sometimes but always check the serving size.
Nutritional labels are usually the same layout. Highlighted at the top are the total calories for the serving size noted, followed by a series of rows. Typically, FAT will be the top row, carbs will be halfway down, and protein is almost always last. This makes it easy to find and identify your macros.
You will also notice that there is a numerical value after each macro, followed by the letter “g.” This is the total number of grams (hence the g) for that specific macro. In this example, Fat has 8 grams, carbs have 37, and protein has 3.
Don’t worry about the other stuff….for now.
As a calorie and macro counting newbie, those are the four things you should concentrate on first: calories, fat, carbs, and protein. Those will be the predominant rows you will need for tracking food purposes. There is lots of other great information on this label, such as sugars, fiber, and various vitamin and mineral totals. Still, those are not typically part of the tracking system for newbies or pros. That being said, it’s still good to eventually become familiar with those, as there are valuable takeaways from understanding them.
Got it. But How Do I Lose Weight?
Despite all the “hacks” and “tricks”, you might see online, weight loss and weight gain come down to a straightforward process. You will gain weight if you eat more calories than you should. If you are eating less than you should, you will lose weight.
This is commonly referred to as “Calories in versus calories out.”
Wait, calories OUT???
You read that right. Your body is burning calories all day long, even when you aren’t doing anything except breathing. You burn calories when you sleep, watch a movie, or read a book. Your essential body functions require energy to run. The calories you consume provide energy for breathing, digesting food, healing, heart pumping, and so on. This energy number is your Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR.
Now, add in your actual daily activity. Walking, running, exercising, showering, typing, and the like are all activities that burn additional calories. These are calories burned ABOVE your BMR, almost like bonus calories.
This is also why exercise is key to losing weight. Exercise increases your daily energy output (the number of calories your body will burn). And when we talk about how many calories you will burn daily between your resting calories (BMR) and your active calories, this total is your “calories out” that we mentioned above. You are burning calories regardless of your workout, whether it’s cardio, strength training, or a program like the 75 Hard Challenge I did.
So, “calories in” we discussed. This is how many calories you are ingesting through your diet. “Calories out,” we now understand, is the total calories you burn between your BMR and your active calories.
“Calories in versus calories out” means you have a calorie surplus if you consume more calories than you burn. This leads to weight gain.
Conversely, eating fewer calories than you burn is commonly called a “caloric deficit.” And as you may expect, a caloric deficit leads to weight loss.
When it comes down to it, this is the “rocket science” of weight loss. There is no proven workout, diet fad, or specific supplements that cause weight loss…it’s always going to be about “calories in versus calories out.” When you hear people say they are “watching their calories,” this is what they are referring to (although most people think this means eating less, which is not the proper way to count calories).
Ok, those are the basics of weight loss. Now, armed with the right tools and knowledge, let’s get to work.
The Ten Steps to Calorie Counting and Weight Loss for Beginners
(Disclaimer: You should consult with your doctor and/or dietician before embarking on any new diet routine.)
*As an Amazon affiliate, I may make commissions on purchases made through links on this page at no additional cost to you.
1. Buy a weight scale, a food scale, and some measuring spoons.
I recommend getting one if you do not have a Bluetooth/wifi weight scale. While a standard scale will work fine, it requires you to manually track your weight upon weigh-in. However, with a Bluetooth/wifi scale, your weight will automatically sync to the app that comes with the scale, so there is no more need to enter your weight manually. It’s all automatic. I switched to this Bluetooth scale last year from Amazon, and it’s incredible. That said, any scale can get the job done.
Many pre-packaged foods have straightforward instructions to determine how many calories you will consume. For example, I often eat a frozen buffalo chicken patty that says on the label that one patty equals 160 calories. Easy enough.
But some foods will require measuring the weight. For example, the deli chicken I buy says 140 grams equals 125 calories. Situations like this require measuring the food you eat; hence, a scale is needed. Nearly every scale on the market can weigh in both ounces and grams, which you will need. I have personally been using this Ozeri food scale from Amazon for several years, but any scale will do the trick, and you don’t have to go expensive. There is a great selection under $20 on Amazon.
Also, get yourself a cheap measuring spoon set too. Some things, especially dressings, sauces, etc., will require small measurements (like honey). Here is a very inexpensive set that goes up to a cup (which also comes in very handy) on Amazon.
2. Download a calorie and weight tracking app on your phone.
Calorie and Macro Tracking Apps
Several apps (many free to use) on the app marketplaces do all of the heavy mathematical work for you in calculating and adding up your calories and macros. This isn’t just a benefit if you struggle with and hate math; it also ensures mathematical accuracy when crunching the numbers.
I use a free app called My Macros+ (HERE is a link to the iOS store, and HERE is the Android store). It’s fundamental with its design and very easy to get around. Fans of this blog can click my link HERE and get 30% off the pro-level version of the app for the first year (less than $14), which adds on several cool bells and whistles. Otherwise, the free version gets the job done for you.
Another popular app is Lose It: same concept, same system. In the end, the best macro app is the one you use and stick to, so check both of those out and others on the app stores. Whatever you download, create your free profile, and move on to step 3.
Weight Tracking Apps
For weight tracking, if you get a Bluetooth/wifi scale, those come with apps that you can download and use. However, there is also an app on all the app stores called Happy Scale, which I love. Not only does it track your weight, but it shows you trends, estimated goal dates, and more. You can download that app HERE.
3. Put your calorie and weight targets into your apps.
Now that you have your tools let’s first get your calorie tracking app set up with your calorie and macro targets. Remember, your calorie target is your dividing line between weight loss and weight gain. Go over it; you gain. Under it, you lose.
A couple of online resources will get you the numbers you need. Below are three sites that you can check out to reach your target numbers:
- National Academy of Sports Medicine calculator
- If It Fits Your Macros calculator
- Legion Athletics calculator
You will find that the target numbers you get from these three will be very similar, so check them out, see what you think, and make the call on which, if any, works for you. You can also do a simple online search for other calculators. I tend to alternate between numbers 2 and 3, but as I said above, the best one is the one that’s best for you and is used.
Start with the calorie and macro targets…
Now that you have that number, find the place in your macro tracking app to put your numbers. In MyMacros+, it looks like this:
On the main screen (the calendar icon is selected at the bottom of the screen for tracking), click the edit button, shown here on the left.
Now you can enter your targets here and give your target a profile name.
With your weight scale, enter your current weight into your weight tracking app. This will be your “starting point” so that as you progress with your calorie tracking, you can also monitor your weight progress (more on that in step 9).
For example, on the Happy Scale app, you would click the purple “plus” sign on the bottom middle of the main screen. This would open up another screen, where you type in your current weight. Your weight has now been logged.
4. Start adding food from your home into the calorie tracking app.
We tend to eat the same foods over and over at home. This means that the food you currently have in your home is a good indicator of your eating in recent history.
Go through your kitchen, pantry, or deep freeze, take the information from the nutrition labels we mentioned above, and add your current food into your tracking app (this includes the “unhealthy” foods, too). Go through your kitchen, pantry, or deep freeze, take the information from the nutrition labels we mentioned above, and add your current food into your tracking app (this includes the “unhealthy” foods, too).
Doing this will help with a few things before you start tracking seriously. This includes food, liquids, sauces/dressings, and seasoning. If you find food without a label, you can Google the food you have and find a reasonable estimate online. Doing this will help with two things before you start tracking seriously.
Why this is helpful…
First, it will help you familiarize yourself with your new tracking app by learning how and where to add in foods, nutritional info, etc.
Second, it will allow you (maybe for the first time) to see the nutritional information on the food you have already been eating. Remember that now that you understand how calories affect weight, what you see on the labels may shock you. But for now, just become familiar with this step of the process.
IMPORTANT NOTE HERE: Most apps also have an area where you can search their online databases to find the nutritional information you need. I have tried several apps, and in my opinion, the numbers in these databases were never great. So I prefer to add my food information based on the label in front of me.
Also, when you start this whole process, you will enter a lot of data for your consumed food. Just remember, you only need to enter it once, and it’s done. Within a few days, you will have almost all the food you eat entered when you track.
5. Start tracking your food and weight…but don’t change your eating habits (yet)
As a beginning calorie and macro tracker, you will assume many new responsibilities to get the desired results. You absorb new knowledge, ponder new processes, and create new consistencies and healthy habits.
So let’s start with perhaps not such a full plate. This is where you start tracking your food.
Walk before you run…
Pick an upcoming day, and commit to tracking your food for the day. It’s up to you, but I would suggest not changing your current eating habits at this point for monitoring purposes. Right now, you need some practice and a few days of successful tracking under your belt. This will help work out some of your kinks and questions without impacting any “healthy” tracking. This step isn’t about being healthy; it’s about getting accustomed to the monitoring process.
Now, there is an additional benefit to this step. While the primary goal here is to warm up to the ebbs and flows of the tracking process, you will also get a mathematical glimpse into your daily food intake. This may be your first complete picture of your daily “calories in,” and it may shock you. Or perhaps, based on your current state of weight, maybe instead of shock, it’s confirmation of what’s been going wrong and answers to the question of why you have been putting on the weight.
But remember, this entire step is mostly about understanding the processes of tracking and a little bit about giving you a glimpse into what has put you in your current state. Don’t let this step discourage you. It should inspire you! You just learned where you have gone WRONG, which means you know a little more about what to do RIGHT!
6. Build a “healthy” food plan for a day.
Ok, now that you have built a few generic plans and your feet are plenty wet, your next step is to use your knowledge of your current food situation and create a “healthy” meal plan for a day. This is where you will need to do a little bit of puzzle-solving.
Proper tracking has parameters to stay within and limits to avoid busting through. So your first actual tracking day can be a bit of a stumper. Keep in mind that it’s normal to take a long time trying to figure out your first real meal plans, and you will inevitably put some stuff in that you will end up taking out or adjusting the volume. It’s all part of the process. Learning slowly is still learning.
I recommend building your “healthy” plan a couple of days before adhering to it. This will not only allow ample time for you to think it through and get some of this new “healthy” process under your belt, but it will also give you a few days to get to the grocery store if there are some new foods you want to try to add in to assist with your plan. That said, for your first few builds, I recommend keeping it simple, making it work with the food you are already familiar with, and then adding in a necessary.
7. Track consistently and intentionally take scheduled days off.
Ok, slugger, you’re getting promoted to the majors!
You are ready to get serious now that you have some experience and knowledge under your belt. By now, you should be familiar with the app and probably also have started to FEEL what it’s like to have strung together a few good tracking days.
And most likely, you have started incorporating some “healthy” foods into your daily routine. That’s a great start and now use that momentum to look for an excellent way to provide consistency in your daily nutrition.
Consistency isn’t just about the food. It’s also about your behavior in regard to WHEN you are tracking. For a beginner, tracking every day can become overwhelming, like a new daily chore.
So, I recommend that beginning trackers start with 3 to 5 days of tracking per week (days of your choosing). This will allow you to take a step forward in your tracking progress, but doing so without overwhelming you with a new “everyday” task. Tracking daily can quickly feel like a burden if you aren’t entirely in the “zone” of tracking, so having some planned days off will be a welcome mental break for your first few weeks of tracking.
8. Keep the food simple and consistent.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a beginner is getting too fancy with your food. It’s natural to keep trying to “shake things up” by constantly adding new foods to your planning.
The problem with this is that each new food added to your plan also requires adding it to your app. Additionally, it requires you to get familiar with the food itself.
Repetition is your friend….your boring friend.
So my recommendation is to start by keeping your plans boring. I know that doesn’t sound exciting, but trying to stick with the same or similar foods each day that you track will help keep your mind on track without getting bogged down with trying to keep adding in variety, which will just cause you more work in the beginning.
So when you start getting serious with your tracking, rely on foods you can repeat eating daily. For example, liquid egg whites are a great source of protein and meager calories. If you could eat that daily for a week’s worth of plans, you could add some spice to the plate by…well…adding spice. Or perhaps put the eggs on some Ezekiel bread for a sandwich. Look for ways to “anchor” foods like this into your daily plans for simplistic tracking.
9. Mistakes are part of the process, and so are adjustments to fix those mistakes.
Like any new process, tracking mistakes are inevitable.
With calorie and macro tracking, you will inevitably screw up in 2 different ways.
First, there will be days when you realize you mismeasured your food and possibly have been for days (been there, done that). Or that you entered the measurement correctly but the measurements per serving were entered wrong. It happens, even to the most season trackers. Don’t let it get you down. Remember, all progress has some pullbacks. Remember that these moments are a needed part of the overall process to get you to your goals. You can quickly rectify these mistakes. Just make your adjustments, learn your lessons, and proceed.
Also, your macro targets are not scientific certainty, even though they are well-calculated estimates. Part of tracking your weight means that after a couple of weeks, you may consider adjusting your calorie target by 100 calories if you find that you are not losing weight. The calculators will tell you what you should target, but your weight will tell you if those numbers work.
The second scenario where you will fall short is the mental aspect of tracking. Feeling unmotivated, overwhelmed, or that you are doing all this work for nothing is VERY common, even for the most seasoned. And if you ask me, this type of roadblock is much more complex to get around than simple measuring mistakes.
You will have physical and sometimes mental slowdowns. Heck, even occasionally total breakdowns. This is your new “potential” self-being bullied by the “old you.” It’s your negative perception seeing that you are trying to put it down for good, and now it’s fighting for its life by trying to tear the new vision you have of yourself down.
How do you adjust this mindset, so it doesn’t derail you from your progress and eventual successes? Well, that’s what our final step is all about.
10. Be honest about why you want to lose weight.
Motivational speaker Les Brown once said, “When your WHY is big enough, you will find your HOW.”
Understanding your desire to lose weight and get healthy is paramount to your success.
Let me rephrase that…understanding your REAL reason for wanting to lose weight and get healthy is paramount.
Your genuine reason for the change is the foundation for all action, momentum, and motivation. You will find your HOW for action, momentum, and motivation when your WHY is big enough.
But if you are not honest about the source of your desire for change, you are creating a foundation that cannot be upheld when things become difficult. When you eventually hit the wall emotionally, mentally, or physically, your foundation will not be enough to hold all your pieces together.
Ask yourself the hard questions…..and no BS is allowed.
So ask yourself, “what is my motivation?”
Is your motivation to lose weight your family? Do you want to see your kids grow up? Do you want to be able to be active with your grandkids someday?
Or do you say that because it sounds good when you tell other people?
Is your motivation that you want to feel “healthy and energetic”?
Or are you trying to look more attractive to increase your chances of landing a physically appealing partner (or many partners, for that matter)?
Is it that you are vain? Or maybe you are sad and want to feel better. Maybe, it’s several of these.
Whatever your REAL answer is, it’s the correct answer. There are no wrong answers here, except, of course, those which are not honest.
I learned a few years ago that vanity was a massive part of my WHY. That’s after years of telling myself it was for my family. Strangely, once I got honest about my REAL reasons for wanting change, the HOWs started showing up. I found greater consistency, stronger motivation, increased knowledge, and the results I had wanted all along.
This is the last step of my best way to lose weight guide to getting started, but it’s the most important one. Without knowing your WHY, all of the other 9 HOWs above will never work the way you want them to.
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Rob is a Certified Personal Trainer and Certified Nutrition Coach through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. For the past 10 years, Rob has been navigating the health and fitness landscape in a quest to better himself and those around him focusing on tools such as calorie and macro counting, intermittent fasting, and HIIT training techniques.