Losing Weight – a Guide to Calories and Calorie Counting

Losing weight can be as simple as calorie counting or taking up more regular exercise. But in most cases, it is a slightly more complex process – especially if you are looking for a long-term solution.

The Losing Weight series at Fitness Savvy covers a broad range of topics. Given the volume of information available on the internet, we see it as our duty here at Fitness Savvy to bring together everything you’ll ever need to know about losing weight in a simple and informative guide. We will often link to other pages on the site, and other external sources where you can find more detailed information on the subjects discussed.

A Beginner’s Guide to Calories

If we’re talking about weight loss, there’s no avoiding the fact that your body will normally require a caloric deficit in order to do so. And so that is where we shall begin.

In this article, we are going to keep things simple and to the point. The Losing Weight series here on Fitness Savvy will ensure we cover everything in detail, but not all at the same time within this article. That would be sheer craziness and the volume of typing would probably lead to us developing carpal tunnel syndrome!

What Are Calories?

A calorie is simply a unit of energy. It is a measurement of the energy required to heat up the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius – to be more precise. We consume calories to provide our bodies with energy. We walk, talk, think, run, push stuff, pull stuff, lift stuff and – well you get the message. Your body (generally speaking) will be in one of three caloric states:

  1. A calorie surplus – calories consumed are greater than calories burned.
  2. A calorie deficit – calories consumed are less than calories burned
  3. Maintenance level – calories consumed are equal to calories burned

However, your body will be changing throughout the day and different foods will produce different chemical reactions, be digested and broken down in different ways and stored differently depending on a huge variety of factors including daily activity, general health and genetics – to name a few.

But a great starting point is to look at how many calories you are eating, and calculate your BMR – Basal Metabolic Rate.

Basal Metabolic Rate

The basal metabolic rate is a measurement of the energy required to keep the body functioning at rest. When measuring the rate in the laboratory, there are strict criteria that must be met. The subject must not be disturbed psychologically or physically, must be in a post-absorptive state (i.e., not currently digesting food) and in a thermally neutral environment.

Check out this cool BMR calculator. Once you know your BMR you can work out how many daily calories you should consume to meet your goals.

The 3,500 Calories Equals 1lb Myth

You may have read (or heard) that 1lb equates to 3,500 calories. This is not entirely true: several studies have been conducted which show this is to be an overestimation. 1. In fact, over the space of just one year, the 3,500 calorie rule has been shown to overestimate projected weight loss by 63% 2. One of the studies includes a model which you can download here. You enter your height and weight, your target calorie reduction and the time frame for the diet and compare the 3,500 calorie projections with the model. It graphically shows what happens after extended periods of losing weight (and putting on weight – if you want to check that out, too).

The various simulations I ran for my body size showed that for the first 4 weeks or so, the 3,500 calorie rule was about the same. But after 4 weeks, the rate of weight loss begins to slow. There are a few reasons for this – the primary one being that smaller people require less calories to maintain their weight. Therefore, we suggest reducing your calories further after about a month if weight loss shows signs of slowing. Always make sure your calories meet the minimum of what you need to remain healthy and happy. Undereating for sustained periods can be damaging, so if you’re not sure you should consult your doctor.

For the rest of this article, we are basing our calculations on the 3,500 calorie rule. This will be a perfectly fine assumption to make for the first few weeks. Just be aware, that as the weight drops, you will need to up your exercise or slightly cut your calories further to reduce at a similar rate as before.

Calorie Counting

As mentioned, a calorie deficit is when calories consumed are less than calories burned. The first thing to consider here is over what time frame? Many people fall into the trap of thinking they must be in a calorie deficit every day to lose weight. This is not true. When considering your calorie intake, it is far better to look at the week as a whole. So let’s have a look at a basic example below:

You’ve entered you weight, height and sex into a BMR calculator, stated the level of activity you engage in (likely “sedentary” if you are only just looking to start engaging in exercise), and you have been provided with how many calories you need to maintain your current weight, also known as TDEE (total daily energy expenditure). For this example, we are going to say that it is 2,500 calories.

1lb of weight loss per week means you would need to drop 500 calories per day (3,500/7 = 500).

2,500 – 500 = 2,000.

This does not mean that you need to eat 2,000 or less every day. You are much better off looking at your weekly requirements, as follows:

So long as your weekly calories, after diet and exercise come to 14,000 per week, you should roughly hit your target. So the following example shows how that could be distributed throughout the week:

Plan Ahead

If you have a birthday meal planned on Monday, adjust for it. You might skip breakfast, have a light lunch and then use 2,000 calories for your night out! If by Saturday it looks like you will overshoot your target, have a strict day on Saturday and whatever is left over for the week is your target for Sunday.

This provides flexibility and means you won’t punish yourself for having a binge, or a “cheat day”, as some call it. What you don’t want to do is have a cheat day, and then think “oh sod it, my diet is ruined, I may as well give up”. This is why it is sometimes a good idea to plan your week so that your cheat days are more likely to happen at the end of it – maybe the weekend, for example.

There are diets out there that sell the fact that there is no calorie counting involved. But unless you count the calories you consume over a sensible period of time, you will never know how many your body actually needs. After a few months of counting, you can check how much weight you have put on or lost, and then work out a more accurate version of your BMR.

Calories from Food vs Exercise

For this article, we are concentrating on the idea of counting calories. So it is not so straightforward to say “60 minutes on the exercise bike burns 400 calories” when looking into how much of your 3,500 calorie target is made up of exercise versus food. All we will say here is to remain consistent. If your exercise bike tells you 60 minutes burns 400 calories, yet the one at the gym tells you 750 (and you were cycling at the same rate and resistance), whatever you do – don’t change the estimates you have been using. Not at first, anyway.

Once you have consistently monitored for a few months, it may turn out you have been underestimating how many calories you burn, and it might be almost entirely from inaccuracies with your exercise bike, for example. This could be for various reasons – one of which being that you burn more calories when heavier, and burn at different rates depending on a wide variety of factors such as age and general health.

Calculating Your Maintenance Calories

At the beginning, you used a calculator to work out your BMR, entered your level of exercise to get your TDEE and worked out a calorie target to reach your goals.

So long as you are tracking everything and counting calories in a consistent manner, you should be able to work out what your daily calorie requirements are.

So let’s say you calculated your BMR, based on being “sedentary” as 2,500 calories, like in the first example. You took up exercise for 3 times per week, which you have worked out to burn around 400 calories per session (you might have a monitor on your exercise bike, your personal trainer might have told you, or you might have looked it up online). So long as you keep these estimates consistent, you should be able to perform an accurate calculation. By consistent, I mean this: The 400 calories relate to 60 minutes of cycling. But next week, you up to 90 minutes each session. Estimate this as 600 calories to remain consistent.

So you are burning 1,200 calories per week through exercise, and you still need to cut a further 2,300 calories to reach your 1lb per week weight loss. So you diet and hit your target exactly – consuming 11,700 calories for the week. You continue this for 4 weeks. Your results are as follows:

Starting weight – 10 stone exactly (140lb)

Finishing weight – 9 stone 9lb (135lb)

So you have actually lost 5lb – 1lb more than what you were aiming for. Now, it might be that your calorie counting is not as accurate as it could be, you are underestimating how many calories you burn on the exercise bike, or it may be a simple fluctuation due to water retention. That doesn’t matter – so long as you continue to count that egg sandwich at 500 calories whenever you eat it, and the exercise bike at 400 calories per 60 minutes, you can work with these adjusted numbers. This means that over 4 weeks, you burned 3,500 calories more than you thought you would. That equates to 125 calories per day. Yup. Just 125 calories per day. So your BMR might actually be 125 calories higher. And if not, you know that the way in which you are counting everything is slightly overestimating – which so far as we are concerned is better than underestimating when looking at losing weight.

When your diet comes to an end, and you decide to return back to a normal calorie intake, you will know how many you should target, and if you need to go on a diet again you can refer back to actual statistics which relate exactly to you and your needs instead of generalised calculators.

Now that you know how to calculate your calories, the next article will cover the different food types, their calorie density and some neat tricks you can incorporate to help you achieve your goals. If you have any feedback, questions or want to suggest a topic for us to cover, comment below, or email us here

  1. Thomas DM, Martin CK, Lettieri S, et al. Can a weight loss of one pound a week be achieved with a 3500-kcal deficit? Commentary on a commonly accepted rule. Int J Obes (Lond). 2013;37(12):1611-1613.
  2. Lin BH, Smith TA, Lee JY, Hall KD. Measuring weight outcomes for obesity intervention strategies: the case of a sugar-sweetened beverage tax. Econ Hum Biol. 2011 Dec;9(4):329-41

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