Shape Up & Drop 10™

Step 5 — Count Calories Because Calories Count


Step 5 is going to explain everything you need to know about calories in the food you eat and how they wind up as fat — when you overeat. We will also explain what happens to your body when you diet. The topics presented in step 5 will be:

  • Everything you wanted to know about calories but were afraid to ask
  • Why are Calories important for weight management?
  • Counting Calories — an investment in good health — your own
  • Homework assignments that tie it all together

Everything You Wanted to Know About Calories

What is a Calorie?

A "calorie" is a unit of energy. There are several different forms of energy. Specifically a calorie is a unit of heat energy. Without getting into too much detail, a calorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of a certain amount of water by one degree. The foods you eat contain energy and that energy can be carefully measured and reported in terms of calories. Scientists have a way of measuring the energy (calories) in foods and the data on the calorie content of foods are collected together and published so that you will know how many calories are in the foods you are eating. The calorie information is needed by food manufacturers who must publish it on food labels. There are many users of calorie information and the work done by the US Department of Agriculture to provide this information benefits us all.

One Calorie (spelled with a capital "C") is equivalent to 1000 calories (spelled with a small "c"), which scientists call a "kilocalorie". When a book or article is written about the calorie content of foods for consumers, it does not refer to "kilocalories." It refers to "Calories" (with a capital "C") or just "calories" (with a small "c") to keep things simple. Throughout Step 5 and throughout Shape Up & Drop 10™ we use "Calorie" and "calorie" to mean the same thing. Sometimes we remember to use the capital C and sometimes we don't. The bottom line is that the number of calories (or Calories) in a food is a measure of the amount of energy stored in that food that is available for your body to use.

What happens to the Calories in the food I eat?

When you digest your food, the majority of the calories in the food you eat are absorbed through the wall of your intestines where they pass into your blood stream and travel to your liver and then on to the rest of your body (to your muscles, brain, heart and other internal organs). The calories in the food you eat are used to run your body: they are needed to build your tissues, make blood cells and other types of cells, heat your body, pump your blood. The calories are needed to help your body do work or play. The calories are used up or "burned" when your muscles contract and extend as you walk, skip, jump, run or just wave your arms around in the air. The calories are even needed to digest food. Almost everything going on in your body and everything your body does require energy, and that energy comes from the food you eat.

Any excess calories you eat beyond what your body needs will be stored, primarily in the form of fat.

If you consistently eat more calories than you use, you will continue to store more and more calories as fat. When you diet, by definition, you are eating fewer calories than your body needs to run itself. Since your body has to get the energy it needs from somewhere, it has been designed to call up the calories stored in your body as fat. When you diet, the calories stored in your body in the form of fat will be broken down and used by your body to provide the energy needed to do the work (and play) that you do.

Calories are like money — sometimes you don't have enough and sometimes you have more than you need.

When it comes to calories, most of us have consumed more than we need, which is how we wound up with too much body fat. Whereas extra money is a good thing (to cover an emergency, or a retirement, or a college education), too much fat is a problem. So unlike money, the eventual goal is to have "just enough" calories to be in balance. The goal of Shape Up & Drop 10™ is to help you move toward a safer level of body fat and we want to teach you how to eat "just enough" calories to meet your daily needs. If we had always eaten "just enough" calories to meet our daily needs, we would never have gotten fat in the first place.

Why Are Calories Important for Weight Management?

The kind of dieting strategy we advocate at Shape Up America! is a slow and steady one, with a modest calorie restriction to allow weight (actually fat) loss. Think about it. To diet you have to consistently eat fewer calories than your body needs. If you have a lot of weight to lose, you are asking your body to shift from storing fat to losing fat, day after day, week after week. If you proceed slowly, withdrawing only a small amount of fat calories each day, you will stay safer, be less stressed, and you will be healthier because you are learning how to achieve a diet and lifestyle that will optimize your health. Wherever possible, we will be sharing nutritional and exercise information that good science says will help you live your life to the fullest and produce lasting weight loss success.

If you take it slowly and make a commitment to learn one "step" at a time, your body will be less stressed. You will not be starving yourself and you will have the energy you need to continue working and you can concentrate on learning how to change your lifestyle so that you can eventually learn how to eat "just enough" to meet your needs. That is why we designed Shape Up & Drop 10™ to cover an entire year, followed by a year of maintenance education. Our goal is to help you with every aspect of your life that influences your "calories in" (food and drink) and "calories out" (physical activity).

When "calories in" consistently exceed "calories out," the excess calories are stored as body fat. A diet, by definition, is the reverse: "calories out" consistently exceeds "calories in," so your body mobilizes fat.

To understand what it takes to achieve weight management, the first step is to estimate your personal total daily calories needs — the amount of energy required to run your body for an entire day. If you wanted to maintain your current weight, this would represent your total calorie allotment for the day, so you would have to eat no more than this number of calories in order to avoid increasing your body fat stores. To calculate your personal total daily calorie needs, visit the Shape Up America! Cyberkitchen and enter your personal data so the Cyberkitchen can calculate your personal daily calorie goal.

In ROW A of the Table 1 below we are showing you the Daily Calorie Goal of an average man and woman at two different ages (30 and 50 years of age). The numbers shown in ROW A are the number of calories required each day for Susan, Edna, Ralph and Bob to maintain current weight. To eat "just enough" calories, each would have to take care not to eat more calories than the figures shown in ROW A or the excess calories will be stored as fat. In ROW B of the table, we have shown you an ADJUSTED DAILY CALORIE GOAL for these four people. This adjusted goal was also calculated in the Cyberkitchen and it is the number of calories needed to support a weight loss of 1/2 pound per week for Susan and Edna and 1 pound per week for Ralph and Bob.

Susan — 50 year old sedentary1 female (150 lbs; 65 inches tall) Edna — 30 year old sedentary1 female (150 lbs; 65 inches tall) Ralph — 50 year old sedentary1 male (185 lbs; 70 inches tall) Bob — 30 year old sedentary1 male (185 lbs; 70 inches tall
ROW A — Daily Calorie Goal2 (for weight maintenance) 1425 Calories 1535 Calories 2208 Calories 2338 Calories
ROW B — Adjusted Daily Calorie Goal2 (for modest weight loss) 1175 Calories (to lose 1/2 pound per week) 1285 Calories (to lose 1/2 pound per week) 1708 Calories (to lose 1 pound per week) 1838 Calories (to lose 1 pound per week)

1We chose to calculate values for a sedentary man and woman because data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that most American adults are sedentary.
2Data calculated in the Shape Up America! Cyberkitchen —

To achieve weight loss, the "Adjusted Daily Calorie Goal" in Table 1 represents a calorie limit for the day for each of these four people. A "limit" is a number that should not be exceeded. In a future "Step" of Shape Up & Drop 10™ we will discuss each of these four calorie goals in greater detail. For now, we just want you to know what the numbers mean. To summarize, the numbers in Row A are the calories needed to maintain current weight. The numbers in Row B are the calorie limits calculated to lose weight: 1/2 pound per week for Susan and Edna and 1 pound per week for Ralph and Bob.

One striking thing about the data in Table 1 is how many more calories the men need each day as compared to the women. This difference is primarily due to the fact that Ralph and Bob are 5 inches taller than Susan and Edna, so they require more calories. But the fact is that if Ralph and Bob were precisely the same height as the women, the men would still have higher estimated calorie needs. This is because men, on average, have bigger bones and more muscle than women — and bone and muscle require more energy (calories) to maintain. This is one key reason why in Step 4 we advocated weight-bearing aerobic exercise (like walking) and also strength training for weight management. A weight-bearing exercise like walking — or any other exercise that puts you up on your feet so you have to carry your own body weight — builds denser bones. Strength training builds more muscle. It takes many weeks and months, but as you slowly make your bones denser and build more muscle, you are RAISING your calorie needs. In other words, more muscle and stronger muscle and denser bones helps you burn more calories each day, thereby making weight management easier.

Another thing you may have noticed about the data in Table 1 is how much your calorie goals change as you age. In this example, when you compare Edna to Susan, the calorie goal for Susan is 110 calories lower because Susan is older. In the men, the calorie goal for Ralph (who is 50) is 130 calories lower than the calorie goal for Bob (who is 30). This means that as you age, you must eat fewer calories or you will gain body fat. There are several factors that cause your body to burn fewer calories as you get older:

  1. You become less active as you get older
  2. Your muscle mass decreases
  3. Your muscle strength declines
  4. Your bone density decreases

All of the above are reasons why you require fewer calories to run your body as you age. If you eat the same number of calories at age 50 that you did at age 20 or 30, you will gain body fat. In another step we will tell you more about how to prevent this age-related decrease in calories required to run your body. In a nutshell, the secret to preventing this decline is to be more physically active and to include weight bearing exercise (like walking) as well as strength training (that increases muscle mass) in your exercise routine. More on this in a future step.

Calories are what count when it comes to fat. If you eat more calories than you need, you store fat. If you eat fewer calories than you need, you will mobilize fat. In a sense your body is "eating itself" when you diet as it uses up its own body fat stores to make energy. We will tell you more about that later because you want your body to eat its own fat, and spare muscle. A poorly designed diet will not do a good job protecting muscle and we just told you how important muscle is to weight management. That is why we want to take great care to design a diet that is balanced and nutritious — that will provide you with optimum nutritional delivery. Again, by definition, you are eating fewer calories than your body needs when you diet, so each bite of food you eat has to count more than ever. Our goal remains as it was in Step 1 — we aim to help you achieve fullness and balanced nutrition on fewer calories. The foods we emphasized in Step 1 were vegetables and fruits, salads, broth based soups, whole grain cereals like oatmeal, lean meats, poultry, fish, beans and legumes, and low fat or non-fat dairy products. The whole idea of Step 1 was to deliver plenty of food in as few calories as possible without compromising good nutrition. The food you eat needs to support the building of muscle, stronger bones and a more active lifestyle.

We are asking you to figure out how many calories are right for you. The Cyberkitchen makes it easy for you to estimate your calories needs. But you also need to understand more about the calories in foods. As recently as 1990, that was extremely hard to do because nutrition labels were not available on foods. But now they are available and that makes it easier to "count calories". Besides relying on nutrition labels on the foods you buy in the grocery store, there are also some excellent sources of reliable calorie information on the internet and in books (see below).

Counting Calories — An Investment in Good Health — Your Own

We get a lot of feedback (mostly grumbling) from people about calorie counting so this section is dedicated to sharing some of that feedback with you along with our responses.

I hate to count Calories — is there an easier way?

Most programs that avoid Calorie counting have replaced it with another system that is similar. For example, the Weight Watchers program replaces Calorie counting with a points system. Another program will ask you to count carbohydrates. Still another will have you count fat grams. We will discuss a few of these approaches below. The advantage of counting Calories is that Calories are what really counts when it comes to weight control. Learning about the Calorie content of foods so that you can choose reasonable meals for yourself is an investment that will pay off over the long term.

Another advantage of counting Calories is that the single most authoritative source of Calorie information in America is the U. S. Department of Agriculture Standard Reference 15 (SR15). You can access SR15 on the USDA website and you can use their search engine that helps you pull calorie and other information out of SR15. The USDA provides Calorie information on literally thousands of different foods and beverages, and the information they provide is free. Some people find it awkward or inconvenient to use a website and would prefer to use a book to look up calorie information.

If you want to purchase an authoritative reference book to keep in your home library (preferably in the kitchen) we highly recommend Jean A. T. Pennington's Food Values of Portions Commonly Used.

Why can't I use pre-packaged diet foods instead of counting Calories?

You can if you would like. Some programs rely on portion controlled liquid diet drinks or pre-packaged portion controlled foods. As long as you restrict your intake of calories sufficiently, you will lose weight. But weight regain is inevitable if you don't know how to handle re-entry into the world of real foods where you have to make the decisions about what to eat and how much to eat. Because eating out has become a way of life for busy Americans, you will find yourself in situations where you cannot rely on pre-packaged foods. Sooner or later, you have to develop an understanding of real foods if you want to achieve successful weight management. So why not start now?

Why can't I just cut out all fats?

Studies show that some (but not all) dieters can lose weight simply by cutting out fats from the daily diet — but we hasten to add that some fats are essential. That means that your body requires certain fats because the human body cannot make them. You must eat essential fats in your diet or you will eventually become deficient. It may take a while to become deficient because you may have substantial stores of essential fat that your body can use for quite a few weeks or months. We certainly advocate cutting back on fat, but eliminating fat entirely is unhealthy and unwise. The same studies that show you can lose weight by cutting back on fat also demonstrate that this strategy will not promote more than a few pounds of weight loss. So if you need to lose a few pounds, cutting back on fats might do the trick. If you are aiming at a weight loss of more than ten pounds, you are unlikely to reach your weight loss goal simply by restricting fats. [Note: We have included fat gram goals in our Cyberkitchen just for those people who want to restrict fats. If you want to limit fat, we wanted our Cyberkitchen to support you in that effort. The Cyberkitchen provides you with three levels of fat restriction to choose from and takes care of calculating the daily fat gram limit for each.]

Why can't I just cut out all carbohydrates? I have a friend who lost a lot of weight that way

You can lose weight by eliminating carbohydrates from your diet, but it is NOT recommended. And here's why:

  1. Your brain needs about 130 grams of carbohydrate each day. If you remove all the carbohydrates from your diet, after 4 to 7 days your body will have to convert to making other fuels for your brain to use. That is why you will typically experience headaches, dizziness, bad breath, mood changes, dull and brittle hair, hair loss and ketosis when you eliminate carbohydrate from your diet. (Note: ketones are chemicals made by your body that appear in your urine and in your breath — the presence of ketones is part of the reason your breath will smell bad) By the way, the effects of restricting carbohydrates on long-term brain function are unknown. Do you really want to run an experiment on yourself that may affect your brain?
  2. A diet that eliminates carbohydrates is, by definition, high in protein and fat. After all, if you eliminate carbohydrates, there is nothing left to eat but protein and fat. If you are healthy, we have no objection to cutting back on your carbohydrate intake and boosting your protein intake, provided that you keep your fat intake low. The body of scientific evidence that a high fat diet promotes heart disease and certain types of cancer is voluminous. There are four decades of research on the dangers of high fat diets — literally hundreds of studies are consistent on this point. So if you boost protein by choosing meats and dairy products that are rich in protein and high in fat, you are asking for trouble. If you want to boost protein, that is ok, but you need to take great care to choose lean meats, poultry and fish and be sure to select low fat or non-fat dairy products.
  3. Dietary fiber is found ONLY in carbohydrate foods. The scientific evidence is very strong that women need 28 grams and men need 33 grams of fiber daily to minimize the risk of heart disease and certain cancers. The prestigious Institute of Medicine announced this daily fiber recommendation in the fall of 2002, but we have known of the importance of high fiber diets for decades. There is absolutely no fiber in fat or protein. So when you cut out carbohydrates, you are eliminating valuable fiber from your diet. The diseases most strongly associated with low fiber intakes are heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke. According to a report published in 2000, these four diseases account for 1.5 million deaths in the U.S each year. Do you really want a diet that limits fiber?

I have tried the Weight Watchers points program and I prefer it to watching Calories

If you prefer to count points rather than Calories that is perfectly acceptable. Although the Weight Watchers program changes from year to year, the Weight Watchers diet has a good reputation for nutritional balance because it includes all food groups. But counting points accomplishes the same thing as counting Calories. You learn about how many points are in each food so you will know how much of each food is reasonable for you. The program is not extreme in its approach and it is sustainable in the sense that it prepares you for re-entry after the weight loss phase. So go for it if you would like.

What if I eat all foods but just cut back on my portion sizes until I take the weight off?

Sure you can do that if you want to. Of course, you won't know how much to cut back so you will be using a hit and miss approach. Such an approach is based on luck since you don't know how much you need to cut back.

There are computer programs (for hand-held computers and laptops and for the PC) that have Calorie information on a lot of different foods. What do you think of that approach?

We say go for it if you find it appealing. The authoritative source of information on the thousands of foods we eat is the US Department of Agriculture. The best commercial software relies heavily on the USDA data which you can access for free by visiting the USDA website. If you go there, look for the Standard Reference 15 (SR 15) database. The USDA even offers a SR15 database you can download to your PDA for free. The value of some of the commercial tools that you can purchase is that they are convenient to use. You can carry around a PDA in your pocket or your purse and you can keep track of the food you eat by logging it in right away before you forget it. On the other hand, you can't pull out a PDA when eating out in certain settings. But we consider these programs a useful tool for people who like computers.

Okay — I will learn more about the Calorie content of foods, but how does that help me learn more about portion control?

You become a "student" of foods while at home so you can navigate safely and successfully when you are eating out. You start out weighing and measuring and looking up the calorie content of foods when you are at home so that you can train your eye and learn good portion control techniques when you are eating out. You can learn how much rice or pasta is appropriate for you when you are eating at home, and then use that information to judge how much of a dish you can eat when you are eating out. You can also use the calorie information on the nutrition label to learn about portion control.

If you can afford to do so, we recommend you invest in a food scale, a set of measuring cups and a set of nesting tablespoon and teaspoons. After 20 years of learning about foods, we still keep a food scale and those measuring devices on the kitchen counter to weigh out pasta and many other foods and to estimate how much food to prepare and serve for ourselves and for others. If you use the food recipes in the Shape Up America! Cyberkitchen, you will discover most of the recipes serve more than one person. If you have a recipe that serves four people, you need to divide up the dish into 4 servings and eat only one serving if you intend to stay within the calorie limits specified in the Cyberkitchen menu plans. So keep in mind the calories posted in the Cyberkitchen are PER SERVING. The food scale and other measuring devices will help you divide up your dishes evenly into the required number of servings (check each recipe as they vary in the number of servings they provide). This can be a time saver because you can divide up the dish and refrigerate or freeze the portions you don't eat. In the next few days, you have home made meals ready to enjoy.

Step 6 will provide you more information about calories and will address the great American pastime — eating out. If you study Step 5 and carry out the homework assignments at the end, we guarantee you will become a much more expert navigator when it comes to understanding how much food is appropriate for you to reach your weight management goals.

Homework Assignments that Tie It All Together

It should be clear that your weight management success depends on both your eating and exercise habits. With respect to eating, it helps to know your daily calorie goal and the Cyberkitchen can help you there. Your next challenge is to gain an understanding of how to stay within your personal daily calorie limit. Step 6 will help you break your daily calories into approximate meal sizes (and snack size) based on the pattern of eating you typically follow. The challenge still remaining is to learn how much food you can have at a meal. This is learned gradually by studying the model meals and recipes in the Cyberkitchen and by doing your own research on the foods and meals you like to eat. In our experience, the learning about foods, calories and portion control takes place mostly at home, and then the learning gets applied as you estimate foods while eating out. The urgency of learning how to do this increases as more and more meals are eaten outside the home. The following exercise is intended to help you learn more about your own eating and the foods you typically consume. Remember that you can contact us via email to ask questions. So don't hesitate to do so.

Diary-Keeping for Mindful Eating

Your journal or diary can be very helpful to you as you become a master navigator of eating in or out. You can use your food scale and measuring cups to keep track of the food you eat for a two-week period by recording every morsel of food you eat in your journal. That means recording what you eat as well as the quantity. (You will need the quantity to figure out the calories in the food you eat) You will find that a food scale (we use an inexpensive postage scale that has a setting for either grams or ounces) is especially helpful in judging quantity and calculating calories because most calorie information is available by weight. You can use Jean Pennington's book (Food Values of Portions Commonly Used) or the USDA website to look up the calories in the portion of each food you ate. You will learn a great deal if you calculate your daily calories eaten each day and compare that number to the adjusted personal calorie goal you calculated for yourself in the Shape Up America! Cyberkitchen. Try doing this for a while so that you can learn how to judge the portions of foods you often select. Your journal will help you determine which foods you need to concentrate on first.

Supermarket Assignment

Take a trip to the supermarket to take a look at nutrition labels on food products. Bring your journal along in case there is something you want to note. This is a good assignment to carry out with children if you have them. You can learn a lot by checking out the number of servings in a package and the number of calories in each serving. Think about what the food manufacturer considers to be one serving (it will appear on the nutrition label for the product) and think about whether that is the same amount that you consider to be one serving. We believe there are no good foods and no bad foods, but there is such a thing as TOO MUCH FOOD. The important thing to concentrate on is what a serving is and how many calories are in one serving. Purchase some foods you would normally buy anyway and bring them home. Using a measuring cup or (if you have one) a food scale to measure out exactly one portion of each food you purchase. Take a look at how much food that is compared to what you usually eat. Now serve yourself the quantity you normally eat, but measure it by using your measuring cup or food scale. Figure out how many calories are in the quantity of food you normally eat. If there is a big difference between the two numbers, think about which number fits best within your personal daily calorie goal as calculated in the Cyberkitchen.

Proceed to Step 6 of Shape Up & Drop 10™

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