The Best Way to use a Calorie Calculator

Using a calorie calculator is fraught with difficulties, so is it really worth it? Yes, but not in the way you might think.

If you've decided you want change your weight, monitoring how many calories you're eating and drinking becomes a key component of your healthy lifestyle plan.

But it can be extremely confusing trying to decide just how many calories you need to eat each day.

Online Calorie Calculators

A lot of people turn to the many online calorie calculators that claim to tell you how many calories you need to eat based on certain factors.

However, trying to use them can be confusing in the extreme! If you enter your height, weight and activity levels to more than one or two of these calculators, you'll find they each come up with different results.

That's because they all use different methods to calculate what's known as your basal metabolic rate (BMR) - this is the number of calories you need just to function each day.

They then tell you how many calories to eat each day to lose weight, gain weight or stay the same. The trouble is, none of them come up with the same amount as the others!

As 12WBT dietitian Georgie Moore says, "The factors that contribute to your own personal calorie count are endless - your age, your weight, gender, genetics, muscle-to-fat ratio, when you last exercised, what sort of exercise you commonly do and so on.

"Often I see clients get too bogged down by the numbers - and it leads to paralysis by analysis."

That's why 12WBT keeps things simple: for weight loss we recommend consuming 1200 calories a day if you're a woman and 1800 calories a day if you're a guy.

Once you've reached your goal weight and have stayed at or below it for a couple of weeks, we suggest adjusting your calorie intake upwards, adding blocks of 100 calories a day so the number on the scales stops going down.

If it starts going up again, drop your daily intake back again in 100 calorie increments.

"You can often work out your calorie needs by monitoring your food intake, activity level and your weight or how your clothes are feeling," Georgie explains.

So, are any Calorie Calculators Worth Using?

Certain calorie calculators are useful, but not the ones that try to tell you what to eat based on your height, weight, activity level or even your bodyfat percentage (if you know how to work it out!).

The ones that are most useful are better known as calorie counters. These traditionally come in the form of a book. Yes, very old-school, we know!

These calorie counters list all the different types of food and drink you might want to consume along with their calorie value, so you can see exactly how much energy you're taking in.

For those who like things a bit more advanced, you can also find online versions. There are websites where look up the food you're thinking of eating, or even phone apps, where you just tap in the name of the food or drink and the app shows you its nutritional value.

They often add up all the calories as you enter items over the course of a day, so you can easily track the total.

Time to Get Clear

There are a few basics you need to be clear about first, like how many calories a day you should eat to lose weight and how this is different for women and men.

And you'll then need to start planning your meals.

Choose a calorie counter that's most suitable for the country you live in, with foods, drinks, ingredients, brand names and so on that reflect where you are.

After all, there's no point in choosing one that refers to commonly used American products that are hard to find in Australia (or vice versa).

If you want to use a book, find one that's easily portable and up to date. For example, Michelle Bridges' Calorie Counter (Penguin, $9.99) will fit into your bag with no problem and was fully updated in 2013.

You'll also need a small notebook and pen so you can write down everything you eat and drink and add it all up.

Otherwise, research online or smartphone calorie counters to find one that works for you.

Record All Your Calories

Write down everything you eat and drink, and at the end of each day you can work out how many calories you've taken in, using the counter.

That will enable you to compare what you're eating with the calories you should consume to reach your goal weight, and see how many calories you need to reduce (or add) each day.

We also recommend measuring out foods whenever possible, either using kitchen scales and measuring cups or by reading the nutrition labels of different foods, taking into account the calories per serving size and/or per 100g.

This will give you as accurate a calorie count as possible.

Counting Calories Gets Easier

Now, you might be reading all this and thinking, "That's way too hard!" But the more you do it, the easier it becomes - and you won't have to do it forever.

Keeping your goals at the forefront of your mind will help you to stay focused on what you're aiming to achieve.

Try it for a month, and you'll find you quickly start to remember the calorie counts for various foods and drinks - especially the ones you eat every day.

You'll also be able to judge portion sizes by looking at them, rather than having to weigh everything.

You'll then find it will take less and less time to work out your daily amount, and to spot whether you're within your daily calorie allowance.

Here's a Calorie-Count Example

Let's try an example for just one meal, using Michelle Bridges' Calorie Counter to work out the calculations:

  • Breakfast
    45g Kellogg's All Bran: 148 calories
    1 cup (250g) skim milk: 88 calories
    Half a banana (50g) sliced over cereal: 45 calories

    Total for breakfast: 281 calories

This figure is ideal for a woman following a 1200 calorie a day plan.

You can see how this puts you back in the driver's seat. It gives you a real sense of control over the choices you make, and you'll no longer have that hopeless feeling of floundering around blindly in the dark.

Give it time and the calorie counter will soon be your new best friend!