How does one count calories, really?

My apologies if this has been covered in some of the threads on nutrition or weight loss, but I just dread the idea of wading through all of the possibilities to get at the answers I seek on this specific question.

How does one count calories, really?

When starting a healthy diet, most places reasonably suggest making small, realistic changes that you can follow, rather than setting yourself up for failure by jumping right into some extreme lifestyle change. Baby steps. Makes sense to me.

For instance, you might start by cutting out the fast food. Or you might try going from 2 big meals a day to 5-6 smaller ones. Or you might try avoiding soft drinks.

Ultimately, though, for any healthy diet, you want to be able to monitor your calorie intake. I’ve come across a number of sites than offer suggestions on how to do this.

Read the labels, carefully, and take note of the recommended serving size, multiplying it as needed to compare to how much of the thing you’re actually eating. Great. So, that’s good for all of those pre-packaged processed foods that we’re trying to avoid in the first place.

For foods you prepare yourself, there are a number of guides as to how many calories are, for instance, in a piece of chicken or some steamed asparagus. Again, taking care to compare different guides, and adjusting for portion sizes, is important. Also note how much butter is being used, or salad dressing, etc. Oh, and what about when my wife and I cook a meal, and I get the bigger share? Not only do we have to use measuring cups and spoons for all of the ingredients, instead of eyeballing it, but now we have to come up with some way to adjust our calculations according to me getting “the bigger half” of whatever we’ve cooked.

Restaurants, aside from fast food places, vary widely as to portion size and ingredients. Again, the charts and lists and tips for judging amounts of each item are available.

So here I am, with my scales and measuring cups and protractors and decks of playing cards, and my twelve-pound notebook of calorie guides, and my food journal, and my scientific calculator, and my Excel spreadsheet that I spent weeks getting to work, for each and every single time I ingest anything. And I’m thinking, how the hell is this not an extreme lifestyle change that I will never implement, much less follow through on?

So, how does one count calories, really?

First of all, it’s much faster to use a website that runs the numbers for you, such as

Second, if you want to be very rigorous, you weigh/measure absolutely everything… at first. You don’t have to do it forever.

After a few weeks journaling and measuring everything, you will know the major offenders in your diet, where you can scale back, and the approximate caloric range of the things you commonly eat. You will have learned what foods have far more calories than you would have guessed, and which have fewer. This is the purpose of food journaling/measuring – to inform you and guide future eating habits. You will come to know what “4oz” chicken looks like, as distinct from “12 oz” or “2 oz.” You will know what “2 tbsp” salad dressing looks like.

So, yes, it is a major drag in the early stages. But it isn’t meant to be sustained at that level of detail forever. Plus, online tools make it much, much easier.

Fitday is okay–but I would suggest They both are free sites, but I find the database at sparkpeople to be much better then fitday.

This site is more interactive and you can import foods that other people have put the base information in the database—and it usually includes most restaurants.

Best part is they have a recipe calculator. So you can put the ingredients into the recipe calculator and decide how many portions you want out of it. So in your case with your wife–you could divide it into 3 portions, you take 2 and your wife takes 1–but it tells you how many calories each portion would be, so you would import two portions of that food whereas your wife only would import one portion.

My wife and I have been doing sparkpeople for a couple months now and we both find it very easy to keep track of our daily calories. And I pretty much eat the same breakfast each day, so I can just copy one day to the next without importing each item in.

It really is just a good measurement tool so that you can see how much food you are truly eating as opposed to guessing. I frankly have hit my goal of weight loss (10 pounds) but am just using it now to keep myself honest. But once you have done this for a couple of months it really becomes second nature like Hello Again said.

I tried SparkPeople, but I realized that not getting my thesis written due to spending too much time online was a much bigger problem in my life than being a bit overweight, so I stopped. I also have the tendency to be a little obsessive, so trying to count every calorie was not a good idea. For some people it might be.

Still, I thought I learned a lot in a month. I learned that a lot of the normal foods in my diet, like bagels, are so high in calories as to make them not worth it. I realized how many calories are in drinks like juice and alcohol (oh, beer, I miss you!). I think there’s a difference between making an informed choice to pig out versus having no clue how much you’re consuming, and thinking that the home-cooked meal you just ate, with lots of pasta and cheese, is healthy.

I lost 30 lbs with Sparkpeople. I was eating right, but I was eating too much. Once I learned portion control the weight started coming off.

I don’t sweat every little calorie. Sparkpeople has a way to report incorrect calorie info, but if it’s within 25 calories, they don’t want to know about it. I log my coffee, but not the creamer, as another example.

There’s about a 200 calorie daily range Sparkpeople gives you when you’re trying to lose weight. It also helps me track how much I’ve eaten, so I can know if I can have dessert or not.

I use’s The Daily Plate. It’s very easy to use and I have found very few foods that were not already in the database.

I prefer the daily plate too as it has a MUCH bigger database than Fitday and a lot more non-American foods, even Japanese brand stuff and UK brand stuff too.

I weigh everything. So yesterday I baked a cake for my son’s 12th birthday and added all the calories - 4700cals in a simple sponge with cream and jam in the middle. Eeek. Then I just divided by 16 as I had a 1/16th slice.

For your meals just add up all the calories then do a 60/40 split for your and your wife’s share, or whatever you think by eyeballing it.

For soups etc I add up all the calories as I go and then use a measuring cup (or just the same container!) to measure it out into bags or tupperware containers. So if I got 33 portions out, I just divide the total calories by portions. It works even if its a strange number of portions. You don’t have to work it out per 100g or whatever.

One thing I don’t like about the daily plate by the way is that their calories burned estimates are about double what the other sites are. I tend to check my exercise on other sites then log the time as shorter so as to get about the right calories registered on the site.

I LOVE that it tells you how many calories you have left for the day! I have been using it for three weeks in this lasted of my round of weight battles and have lost 3kg.

Thanks for the tips, guys, and especially for the links!

I’ll check out those three sites and see which one I think will best fit my style.


This is my experience, as well. I hardly ever weigh anything now after about a month or two of judiciously tracking every little thing. I can now eyeball just about anything I come across and guess to within about 5-10% how many calories are in it. Not too shabby. I find the biggest thing was recognizing when my stomach was sending “full” signals, and then stopping. Eating just the right amount of food and triggering that “full” signal" required some finagling, but I’ve got it down now and the pounds just keep coming off. I’ll be at 7% bodyfat by Christmas if I manage to keep it under control during Thanksgiving.

The one exception to this for me is peanut butter. Measuring is still the way to go for me because I do love it so and tend to be generous with my two tablespoons. Since its so calorie-dense, that can really add up.

Does anyone have any reccomendations for an iPhone application for calorie counting?