Counting Calories

The Tobyhanna, Pa., mother of four was shocked at the calories she’d justconsumed. “Three pancakes with butter and syrup, a glass of chocolate milk—it added up to almost a thousand!”

B EFORE YOU MAKE a New Year’s vow to go on that twigs and tapwater diet, consider this: If you count calories, and commit to a sane daily intake, you’ll lose weight. Guaranteed. Permanently. We know, we know—it probably sounds cumbersome, and who really wants to keep up with all those numbers? But with very few exceptions, the reason you’ve added that extra tonnage is that you’re taking in more fuel than you’re burning off.

And, of course, you’re not alone . Pressed for meal prep-time and faced with high-cal fast and frozen foods and super-sized restaurant portions, most Americans eat far more than they need to maintain a healthy weight . In fact, the number of people that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers obese—defined as being more than 30 % over their ideal body weight—has shot up 60% since 1991. Counting calories can put you back where you want to be.

Can it really be that simple? Yes. Definitely!

Survey the country’s top nutrition and diet experts and you’ll hear that calorie counting is coming back into vogue with consumers, after years of fad diets that promised to melt pounds without denying yourself much of anything. “Fat reduction alone without eating fewer calories—won’t produce weight loss,” says Dr. Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health. “ And no matter what you eat, you’ll put on weight if you take in more calories than you burn.”

Though calorie counting may look like a formidable task, it isn’t. First, use the simple formula in the “Calories Per Day” to figure out just how many calories you need daily to hit your target weight. Start jotting down what you eat. Then—either on the spot or later—add up the total, using food labels or a calorie-counting guide. You’ll get the hang of it soon enough, says Daniel Kirschenbaum, a prof-essor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. “After just a week of writing down calories, most people have a good idea how many calories are in about 75 % of what they eat,” he says.

In this report we’ve assembled some simple tools to help with the countdown to a lighter you. Our calorie I.Q. quiz will show how much you really know about some favorite foods. And we’ve put together a list of tips, tricks and rules to simplify calorie counting when you’re on the run. You can also visit for more information and to find a Body Mass Index to start you off.

Calories Per Day: What’s Your Target?

M any factors influence calorie needs, including your weight and activity level. Rule of thumb: to lose a pound of fat each week, you must eat 3500 calories fewer than needed to maintain current weight.

Pennsylvania State University Professor Barbara Rolls, co-author of Volumetrics (Harper-Collins), suggests an easy way to calculate all this:

Multiply your current weight by the appropriate number below. (Don’t overestimate. “Moderately active” means the equivalent of walking about two miles daily.)

                    Sedentary woman: 12

                    Sedentary man: 14

                    Moderately active woman: 15

                    Moderately active man: 17

If you’re a moderately active 160-pound woman, 2400 calories a day would maint-ain your current weight. To lose a pound a week by cutting 500 calories a day, you’d still be able to eat a comfortable 1900 calories a day. To lose two pounds a week, drop to 1400. But don’t go too low. Eating too few calories—fewer than 1000 a day—can be counterproductive, because drastic cuts slow metabolism.



When Northwestern’s Daniel Kirschenbaum tracked 38 dieters from two weeks before Thanksgiving until two weeks after New Year’s, he found that those who faithfully wrote down everything they ate managed to lose an average of seven pounds during the holidays, while those who didn’t gamed three pounds.

“Keeping a food diary works so well because it focuses you,” says Kirschenbaum. “It makes what you’re doing real, reminds you forcefully of your goal, and helps you feel more in control.”


On your plate, that is. This is a no-brainer. Make half the food on your plate vegetables, a quarter lean protein, and a quarter complex or starchy carbs such as brown rice, potatoes or corn, says Allegra Burton, a New York City dietitian and nutritional consultant. This simple portion-control strategy can help trim hundreds of calories per meal.


Sometimes you have to accept that you can’t control a certain food, and try to avoid it completely. You know what we’re talking about: “trigger foods” can be almost anything, from chocolate-dipped cookies to taco chips, from ice cream to pizza. Keep your distance, and keep the weight down.


According to Pennsylvania State University Professor Barbara Rolls, co-author of Volumetrics, “ Heavy, high-water foods such as fresh produce, boiled eggs, pasta, stews and hot cereal provide lots of volume but relatively few calories.” Eating heavy-weight foods also triggers “satiety signals,” chemical messages that basically tell your body that you’ve eaten enough.

On the other hand, limit “low water” foods—dried fruit, high-fat snacks, candy, cookies, crackers and nuts. Since they lack water volume, they’re all calorie dense. That’s why, for the same 100 calories, you can choose a cup of raisins—or two cups of grapes.


With an average of 160 calories each, sodas may well be the largest single source of sugar in the American diet. That glass of OJ in the morning does deliver lots of nutrients, but it also contains 110 calories. A regular beer has 146 calories, a glass of low-fat chocolate milk, 180. Hope you resisted the eggnog at your mother-in-law’s holiday party—it’s 340 calories a glass. White wine is probably a dieter’s best alcohol friend, since some of it comes in as low as 70 calories per standard 3.5-oz. glass. The worst part about most of this liquid intake: “Calories you drink don’t help bring on a feeling of fullness,” says Richard >Mattes, professor of foods and nutrition at Purdue University in West Lafayette, . Ind.


If anything can qualify as a miracle diet food, it’s vegetables. “ They ‘re bulky and filling, and their fiber binds with a percentage of the fat you’ve eaten at the same time, reducing the calories your body absorbs from the fat,” says Jamie Pope, co-author of The T-Factor . 2000 Diet. “Adding tomatoes, onions, carrots or celery to high-fat chili, lasagna or casseroles improves flavor and texture —while sneakily displacing fat calories.”


Restaurant portions have never been bigger, and it’s easy to mindlessly put away a couple of chicken tacos with rice and beans (1020 calories) or an order of Kung Pao chicken (1620) while deep in conversation. One ploy when eating out:  order two sensible appetizers instead of a main course. (No, “sensible” doesn’t include fried mozzarella sticks.) Another trick is to concentrate on each bite, says Elana Rosenbaum of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Health Care Hospital in Worcester. The more you think about what you’re eating, the less likely you are to shovel everything in.

Know Your Averages.

                              Calories in fresh fruit, ½ cup ...................... 60

                              Veggies, ½ cup........................................... 25

                              Starchy veggies such as potatoes or corn,

                                                   (the size of half a baseball) . . . .80

                              Meat/poultry (lean), 3 oz.

                                                   (the size ofa deck of cards).......165

                              Fish, 3 oz......................................................105

                              Egg, 1 large .................................................75

                              Cheese, 1 oz. (the size of a domino).............100

                              Grains, ½ cup...............................................80

                              Fats, 1 tabl...................................................110

                              Sugar, 1 tabl................................................50

                              Milk (skim), 1 cup.......................................85

                              Nuts, 1 oz. (the size of a ping-pang ball)......170


If you’re eating properly, you actually shouldn’t need any snacks. ~a balanced meal containing complex carbs, fat and protein should carry you to the next meal,” says Georgia G. Kostas, director of nutrition at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas. “Only if you’re eating fat-free or very low-fat meals should your blood glucose fall enough to bring on genuine hunger within two or three hours”


Few foods offer more nutrients for fewer calories than a plain old salad of mixed greens. What gets most people into trouble is the salad dressing, which can ladle on an additional 150 to 600 calories. Needless to say, that’s a lot to load into one bowl. In fact, by one estimate, salad dressings and mayonnaise are the third-largest single source of fat in the American diet. One solution is to serve the dressing in a separate container. Dip your fork into the dressing and then into the lettuce, bite by bite. This way you can significantly reduce the calories from oil without losing out on flavor



Substitute fresh or frozen fruit for all or part of the sugar in a dessert. Because a tablespoon of added sugar has only 50 calories, it has a reputation of being “not so bad.” Trouble is, sugar is usually paired with fats in popular desserts, putting calorie counts into the stratosphere: a cup of premium ice cream, for instance, can have almost 600 calories.

Here are some of the most (and least) caloric desserts. If you’re offered a choice of pies, pick pumpkin (316 calories) and only nibble at the crust, which generally contains about 120 calories per slice. Avoid pecan (500 calories) and mincemeat (434) pies. Cheesecake generally starts at 250 a slice, never mind the various toppings. Some brands of single-serve cakes from the snack section can top 300 calories. Instead, have a slice of angel-food cake (130 calories) with strawberries and a low-cal dairy topping



Americans eat 1 5 billion pounds of potato chips a year, an astounding average of 5.6 pounds each, according to a report from the Snack Food Association. Yep, that’s billion with a b. At 150 calories an ounce, that’s a lot of empty calories.

“If you must have chips, cookies or nuts, at least buy them in single-serving bags,” says Stephen P Gullo, author of Thin Tastes Better: Control Your Food Triggers and Lose Weight Without Feeling Deprived. “It’s the big, bargain-size bags that are an invitation to uncontrolled eating.”



Make losing weight a resolution, but don’t quit if you overindulge a time or two. “People who try but fail are twice as likely to succeed the next time,” says James 0. Prochaska, director of the Cancer Prevention Research Center at the University of Rhode Island, whose studies on how people make changes in behavior have tracked more than 100,000 individuals. “Realize that your chances of eventual success are now much greater.”

Counting Calories Quiz



January 2001, (pgs. 76-83)

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