When you start a weight loss program, you may automatically assume you’ll need to be diligently counting calories. You’ll be so rigid in keeping track of calories, you won’t even have a small snack without adding up how many it contains.

Do you really need to do this?

The answer isn’t as simple as you might think. Let’s see just how vital counting calories is to weight loss and health.

Calories 101

Just about everything you consume contains calories. A calorie is actually a unit of energy.1 Achieving a calorie deficit is key to any successful weight loss program. If you consume fewer calories than you burn off through physical activity, you’ll be successful. If you take in more than you burn off, you’ll gain weight.2

The average woman requires about 2,000 calories per day to maintain a healthy weight. The average man needs about 2,500.3

An Antiquated System?

If you’re trying to lose weight, you may consider counting calories and monitor your caloric intake closely. To do that, you might find yourself looking more closely at food labels … specifically, at the calorie information. However, those labels might not be as reliable as you think.

Many experts believe that calorie labels are misleading, because they’re based on outdated information. This information comes largely from findings made in the 1800s regarding how much energy people get from what they consume.4

Factors That Contribute to Calorie Intake

Researchers say many different factors contribute to calorie intake. To truly know how many calories you’re ingesting, you need to know a lot more than what you see on a label. And bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract can affect calorie count. These microbes might consume calories that the body would otherwise use for energy. This, in turn, could skew the numbers found on food labeling.5

Digestion is an extremely complex process, so it’s very difficult for nutritionists to provide truly accurate information when it comes to calorie information on food labels.

almondsTake almonds, for example. The label on the average bag says they contain 170 calories per serving. But researchers found that the number is actually 129 calories per serving. They discovered this by studying a group of people who were following the same weight loss program. The participants ate nearly the same things – except for almonds. Some participants ate more almonds, while others ate fewer. The researchers arrived at the 129 calorie number by testing the participants’ feces and urine to determine how many calories passed through their systems without being used.

What to Say to Your Doctor About Weight Loss

You need to achieve a calorie deficit in order to lose weight, often done by counting calories. But you need to do this safely. So before starting any weight loss program, always talk to your doctor first. That’s because to experience the best results, you’ll need to combine smart eating with exercise. And you should never start any physical activity regimen without medical guidance.6

It can be difficult for some people to speak with their doctor about weight issues. But if you don’t, you might be endangering your health. Your doctor might also refer you to a weight loss specialist.7

Whether talking to your family doctor or a specialist, you’ll need to be prepared before your appointment. Think carefully about your weight loss goals, and write down any questions that come to mind.8

be honest with doctorBe honest with the doctor when it comes to your weight.

This means you’ll need be open about your eating habits, and the challenges you expect to encounter while you try to lose weight. For instance, be ready to discuss any health problems or emotional issues that might make it hard for you to meet your goals. Ask whether physical activity and eating right will help you reach your goals, or if you should be thinking about weight loss surgery.9

But be prepared to answer some questions from the doctor, as well. For example, your doctor will want to know how your weight might have fluctuated throughout your life. They will also likely ask you about how much physical activity you get on a regular basis. You might be asked just how committed you are to meeting your weight loss goals.10

You don’t have to wait until the appointment to start making some healthier decisions, however. Keep a diary of how much you are eating, so that you’ll have a good picture of your general calorie intake.11 Start eating more fruits and vegetables, and gradually increase your physical activity. You’ll not only start burning more calories, you’ll also feel better.12

Focus on Quality

quality foodNo matter what type of weight loss program you ultimately follow, keep in mind that the quality of the calories you ingest may be more important than the number of calories. One study bears this out.

Researchers tracked 21 people who were on different weight loss programs. The goal was to help the participants lose at least 12.5 percent of their body weight. Each participant stayed on their diet for 30 days.

Participants followed one of three programs. The first focused on reducing fat by eating more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. The second prioritized lowering carbohydrate intake, while eating more protein and fat. For example, they ate more meat but reduced their intake of bread, pasta, and other carb-heavy foods. The third focused on blood sugar level reduction. So instead of eating grains and starch-laden vegetables, for instance, they ate foods with healthy fats, legumes, and fruits.

The results were significant. The people on the low-carb and low-sugar diets were more successful than those on the low-fat diet. However, the researchers found that the participants following the low-carb diet had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol — which has been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular problems.

The participants following the low-sugar diet burned fewer calories than those following the other diets. They did, however, have lower levels of cortisol.13

So, as you can see, there’s more to a calorie-focused diet than simply counting calories.

Wrapping it Up

Calorie intake is an important component of a successful weight loss program. But counting calories might not be as critical as you think. Never try to lose weight without talking to a doctor first. And once you start your weight loss program, remember that you’ll not only need to eat smart, you’ll also need to engage in physical activity as often as you can.

Learn More Health Tips:
Fact or Fiction: Is Sitting All Day the New Smoking?
The Truth About Colon Cleanses (the pros and cons you should know)


Sources
1. https://www.livescience.com/52802-what-is-a-calorie.html
2. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/calories/index.html
3. http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/loseweight/Pages/understanding-calories.aspx
4. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/19/opinion/the-science-of-calorie-information.html
5. https://www.livescience.com/26799-calorie-counts-inaccurate.html
6. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/metabolism/art-20046508
7. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/manuel-villacorta/talking-doctor-about-weight-loss_b_865125.html
8. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/obesity/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20375749
9. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/questions-about-weight-control
10. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/weight-management/choosing-a-safe-successful-weight-loss-program
11. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/prevention/index.html
12. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/physical_activity/index.html
13. http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/1199154

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About the Author

Suzan Cory

Suzan Cory is a freelance writer and editor that specializes in health and nutrition. She holds a green belt in karate and enjoys gardening. When she's not researching and writing about the latest health news, you'll find her hiking with her two dogs. She lives in Colorado with her husband.