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Calorie counting has gone in and out of fashion over the years. From diets that require you to track every bite to those that require no counting but call for cutting out entire food groups, diet trends change frequently. One reason why is that so much remains unknown. While 20 years ago, doctors would laugh at the idea that anything matters besides calories in versus calories out, we now know there are many other pieces to the puzzle, and, no doubt, we'll learn more important facets soon.

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What Are Calories?

A calorie is a unit used to measure energy. Calories can measure the amount of energy stored in food or the amount of energy expended during physical activity. Most experts agree that we need to stop thinking of calories as the enemy. They provide the fuel our bodies need to do everything from running a mile to waking up in the morning.

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Calories in Different Nutrients

Different nutrients have different amounts of calories. Fats have 9 calories per gram, carbohydrates and protein have 4 calories per gram. Because foods are often made up of more than one nutrient, calorie levels vary widely. The other nutrients used by the body — vitamins, minerals, and water — do not contain any calories. Although they are necessary for good health, they do not provide energy.

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How Does Our Body Use Calories?

When we think about calories, we often think about exercise, but everything your body does requires energy or calories, including involuntary activities like sleeping and the beating of the heart that pushes blood through the body.

The process of converting meals to energy is metabolism. The metabolic process adds oxygen to the nutrients we ingest, converting them to energy. The amount of calories that someone needs just to function, without any added activity, is their basal metabolic rate.

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What Are Empty Calories?

Once we know calories are made up of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, it seems contradictory that there are such things as empty calories. Many people know this term but might not understand its proper definition An empty calorie is one that comes from added sugar or solid fat. Calories that come from these two things provide few, if any, nutrients.

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What is Calorie Counting?

Counting calories involves tracking the calories you eat as well as the ones that you burn. It is a popular choice for weight loss, and it is effective.

Counting calories isn't easy, however. While people 30 years ago used books that listed the calorie counts of different foods and tracked what they ate in a notebook, people today can choose one of the many apps that make calorie counting easier. However, you still need to record everything you eat, measuring portions rather than estimating. Because calorie counting is so labor-intensive, it is easy to lose steam and it can be a challenge to maintain long-term. It is also important to remember that bit about sleeping and breathing burning calories, and remember that you do not have to exercise away all the calories you consume. Many apps today build in these estimated burns, as well.

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Are Calories Responsible for Weight Gain?

There is plenty of evidence that calories are not the only thing that affects weight, but they are a significant part of the equation. Processed foods, a sedentary lifestyle, poor gut health, high stress levels, poor quality sleep, and certain medications can all make a person gain weight or make weight loss more challenging.

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Drawbacks of Counting Calories

While some people have success losing weight by counting calories, it doesn't work for everyone, and failed weight loss isn't the worst possible outcome. Calorie counting can lead to obsession, which can lead to disordered eating habits. Some people, especially those with other risk factors for eating disorders, may find themselves restricting further and further or binging in response to the obsessive nature of tracking calories.

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Can You Lose Weight Without Counting Calories?

There are plenty of options for losing weight without counting calories. One of the easiest, although not the quickest, is by making sustainable changes to your lifestyle. When preparing meals, aim to eat less than you normally do. Serve yourself less, and don't return to the kitchen for more. Package leftovers up to eat later in the week. Avoid highly processed foods, which trigger weight gain regardless of the calorie count.

Try to exercise at least 150 minutes over the week. If you experience poor-quality sleep, work on ways to improve it. Some tricks to try are going to bed and getting up earlier or at least at the same time each night, going outside for a brisk walk within the first 20 minutes of waking up, and cutting caffeine down to one cup in the morning.

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Calories and Exercise

Another misconception that can come from focusing on calories is that you can eat as many high-calorie, processed foods as you want as long as you work off the calories later. Calories burned through exercise vary wildly from person to person. What doesn't vary, however, is the balance of calories burned through exercise compared to calories needed to lose weight. An intense workout still burns only about 400 calories, which is pretty removed from the 3,500 calories needed to burn a pound of fat. This is why overall lifestyle improvements we can stick to, encompassing eating, sleeping, fitness, and stress reduction, is the best method to lose weight and keep it off.

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Should You Worry About Calories?

Rather than attempting to lose weight by counting calories, consider making lifestyle changes that will improve your health overall. Weight loss, if you are overweight, is likely to occur naturally once you incorporate these healthy changes, but that doesn't mean every weight loss goal is achievable or safe for every person.

Your body does have a set point, a weight where it naturally settles. Things like genetics, environment, and lifestyle behaviors up until now all have an effect on this set point. Trying to dip to an unnaturally low weight for your body will more than likely result in struggling past a plateau or regaining the weight. Instead of calories and weight, concentrate on health and aim to feel healthier. Visual improvements tend to be an inevitable side effect of a healthy mind and body.

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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.