On Your Health

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The Skinny on Counting Carbs or Calories to Lose Weight

Today we have a post from our guest blogger, Karen Massey, RD, LD, who is a registered dietitian at INTEGRIS, where she has been a community nutrition dietitian for more than 25 years. Karen’s primary role is helping people (employees, patients and members of the community) prevent or delay chronic disease by making healthier food choices.

Did you know that keeping a food diary is one of your most powerful tools to make dietary changes? As my colleague Brent Wilson wrote in yesterday's I On Your Health blog post, you will be amazed at the difference keeping a food log can make in your journey to better health.

Today, it’s easier than ever before to keep track of what you eat because nutrition information is literally at our fingertips! For example:

  • If you google “calories in a banana” you’ll get more than 13 million results in half a second.
  • There are hundreds of apps for tracking your food intake, including myfitnesspalLose It! and CalorieKing.
  • Legislation calling for restaurants and vending machines to post nutrition information is gaining widespread popularity with many states already requiring it.
  • 95 percent of all products in grocery stores have a Nutrition Facts label.
  • For the nostalgic among us, hard copy calorie books still exist.

What Should I Count?

Unfortunately, it might be confusing to have so much information readily available. You might be wondering: What should I focus on?  Should I count carbs or calories?

Well, the answer depends on your personal goals. For most people, their first priority is probably weight-related, given that almost 70 percent of the nation is overweight. Losing weight, even if only a few pounds, can decrease the risk of many health problems, like heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and orthopedic issues such as sore knees and lower back pain.

While counting carbs or counting calories can give you a caloric deficit, which means either can be effective for weight loss, consuming fewer calories than you use is the most important factor in losing weight. So for most people, counting calories is the logical option and it's what I recommend.

Counting Calories is Easy and Effective

As I mentioned, the most direct way to address body weight is to focus on calories, and it's easy because there is only one number to tally. It’s effective because when you count calories you are, in fact, counting all the sources of calories simultaneously.

Put simply, there are four sources of calories in the human diet -- fat, carbohydrate, protein and alcohol. But calories are calories. Whether you consume calories from carbohydrates, fats, proteins or alcohol, anything that you don’t burn will be stored in your body, and an excess of storage leads to weight gain. (By the way, in case you are wondering, fat has nine calories per gram, carbohydrate and protein have four, and alcohol yields about seven calories per gram).

Counting total calories is efficient because you’re rolling them all into one list instead of trying to add each one separately. And as I said before, in the end, weight loss comes down to one factor: the ratio of calories in (through eating) to calories out (what your body burns). In order to lose one pound, it’s estimated that you must burn 3,500 calories. In other words, if you eliminated 500 calories from your diet per day, you’d lose one pound in a week.

Counting Calories Meets You Where You Already Are

Food preferences are acquired over the years, and are highly influenced by our surroundings, family, friends, mood and taste perceptions. Essentially, this is why specific diets don’t work for everyone.  No one gains excess body weight by eating foods they don’t like.

For those who gain their excess body weight by overeating ribeyes, bacon and cheese, going on a low-carb diet won’t help much, because you're not eating carbs, anyway. Similarly, people who gain weight by eating too much bread, pasta and sweets aren’t likely to do well on a low-fat diet since many high-carb foods are already low in fat. A beer drinker isn’t going to lose his beer belly unless he addresses his beer calories. And, (obviously) going on a beer-free diet isn’t going to help someone who doesn’t drink beer.

So, to wrap up, counting calories cuts to the chase. It’s the straightest path to achieving your personal weight goals and I heartily recommend it!

Karen Massey, RD, LD, provides education for a number of INTEGRIS resources including Senior Health Services, PACER Fitness Services and Health Essentials programs, plus an array of community programs and organizations that serve populations who may be at risk for developing chronic disease. Karen has been involved in community nutrition since 1983, when she completed her dietetic internship at Oklahoma State University. Karen is a member of the American Dietetics Association, The Oklahoma Dietetics Association, and is a member of the Sports and Cardiovascular Nutrition practice group. Karen can be reached at karen.massey@integrisok.com.

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