Calorie Tracking Basics FAQ
The LIVESTRONG.COM community message boards are full of like-minded individuals on a similar journey working toward improved health and fitness. Tracking calories works, but, like anything, it can be a bit overwhelming when you first get started. With the help of our LIVESTRONG community members, we have put together a series of blog posts to help answer some of the most frequently asked questions by new users of the LIVESTRONG.COM Calorie Tracker (formerly known as MyPlate).
This first blog post covers the basics of tracking calories on the LIVESTRONG Calorie Tracker and joining the conversation on our community message boards. Be sure to also check out our other blog posts in this series, which answer the most commonly asked questions by new members about fitness and nutrition.
[Read More: Getting Started With Nutrition on LIVESTRONG.COM]
[Read More: Getting Started With Fitness on LIVESTRONG.COM]
WHAT DETERMINES YOUR CALORIE GOAL?
Your calorie goal is determined using the Harris Benedict Equation, which takes into consideration your gender, height, current weight, age and activity level. It is important to enter these details correctly in order to get an accurate goal. You can also set a manual calorie goal, which is helpful if you are working under the guidance of a health care professional or following a specific plan.
Your activity level should take into consideration your daily activity and not include deliberate fitness workouts. Choose "Sedentary" if you spend most of the day sitting (desk job); "Lightly Active" if you spend a good part of the day on your feet (teacher or nurse); "Moderately Active" if you spend much of the day doing some physical activity (mail carrier, waitress); "Very Active" if you spend most of the day doing heavy physical activity (construction worker, landscaper).
Your weight goal is where you specify if you want to gain, lose or maintain weight. If losing weight is your goal, many of our experienced and successful members recommend starting with a less-aggressive goal of losing one pound or less per week when you first begin tracking calories. (If your calorie goal seems very high, double-check that you have it set to lose weight, not gain. It happens.)
[Read More: A Guide to Getting Started With the Calorie Tracker.]
USING THE LIVESTRONG CALORIE TRACKER APPS
The LIVESTRONG.COM Calorie Tracker website has companion calorie tracking apps available for both iOS and Android mobile devices. You can find more information about using those apps in these handy app guides:
GETTING STARTED IN THE LIVESTRONG COMMUNITY
The LIVESTRONG.COM Community Message boards are a great source of motivation and support from others who are on similar health and fitness journeys. Members share tips and experiences, trade recipes and advice and generally support one another in the shared quest for a healthy life. The following are some suggestions to help you get the most out of your community experience:
CUSTOMIZE YOUR AVATAR: You can customize the icon others see when you post on the community message boards in the apps or on the LIVESTRONG.COM website.
Via the desktop website: Click on the miniature profile icon in the upper right of the orange toolbar on the website. Select "Profile" from the dropdown menu. Click on "Change Picture" in the upper left, directly above the profile image.
Via the iOS app: Select the community tab in the app. Tap "Edit Photo" in the upper left, directly under the profile image icon.
Via the Android app: Select "Profile" from the main app menu. Tap the profile image at the top center to add a custom profile photo.
INTRODUCE YOURSELF: Start a community post and let us know what your goals are. Be sure to share your stats if you would like advice, including your height, current weight and age. Tell us what kind of food and activity plan you're currently following. Ask questions -- we love to help!
READ AND LEARN: Reading community posts is a great way to get to know other members and start to take advantage of all the fantastic experience and knowledge exchanged in the LIVESTRONG community every day. Many of your initial questions can probably be answered, and you will be far ahead of the game if you take the time to read through some of the threads and get to know your new community.
Some of the terms and abbreviations you might see used in community posts.
NSV -- Non-Scale Victory (When you see progress in your journey, but maybe not on the scale -- lost inches when your weight stayed the same, for instance. It happens!)
NFR -- Non-Fitness Related (When a post might be off topic and not related to health and fitness.)
BUMP -- "Bring Up My Post" (Comment added to a thread to bring it to the top of the list so people will be more likely to see it and reply.)
LS -- LIVESTRONG
IF -- Intermittent Fasting
BMI -- Body Mass Index
BMR -- Basal Metabolic Rate
TDEE -- Total Daily Energy Expenditure
TEF -- Thermic Effect of Food (Calories burned processing food you eat.)
TEA -- Thermic Effect of Exercise Activity (Calories burned through activity.)
NEAT -- Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (Energy you burn during the day for everything that is not sleeping, eating or deliberate sports-like exercise.)
HRM -- Heart Rate Monitor
ON YOUR CALORIE GOAL
Your calorie goal is in net calories. Net calories are calories consumed minus calories burned. This means you can lose weight even if you don't exercise with that calorie goal, but you can eat more if you choose to exercise. Now that's a win-win! Think of your calories as a budget. You spend calories by eating and earn more by exercising. (So if you are wondering: Yes, you do "eat back" the calories burned.)
Worried that your calorie goal might be too low? Double-check your calorie goal using a BMR/TDEE calculator. A favorite of LIVESTRONG.COM community member's is Scooby's Workshop's calculator.
CALORIE GOAL IF YOU ARE UNDER 18
Are you under the age of 18? The Harris Benedict Equation might not work as well for you. This chart may be more appropriate to determine your calorie goal, in which case you might want to set a manual calorie goal. Instructions for setting a manual goal are included in the app guides linked above.
You should talk with your parents or a health care provider for help determining a healthy calorie goal for your needs if you are under the age of 18. And keep in mind, getting in better shape does not always mean losing weight!
WHAT IS BMR?
Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the calories your body needs just to be alive, even if you stay in bed all day.
WHY SHOULD YOU NOT EAT BELOW YOUR BMR?
Most of us don't lie in bed all day, so we use more calories than our BMR just to function. You should never eat less than your BMR because it basically means your body won't have enough calories to function normally, so your metabolism will slow down and your body will take energy from muscle instead of fat. (Fat is a backup energy supply, so when your body thinks you're starving, fat is used for energy after muscle.) Nobody wants that, right?
WHAT IS TDEE?
Your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is all of the calories you burn in a day via eating, sleeping, fidgeting, exercising, etc. Your TDEE is how many calories your body would need to maintain its current weight. If you eat less than your TDEE you will lose weight! To lose a pound of fat you must create a 3,500-calorie deficit. To lose a pound each week you must create a 500-calorie daily deficit. The deficit can be created through a healthy combination of diet and exercise.
WHAT IS A CALORIE DEFICIT?
If you eat less than your TDEE your body will have to use stored energy (fat or muscle) to function. It is important not to try to create too large of a deficit (lose too fast) or your body will burn muscle instead of fat. The calorie goal for best fat-burning success is less than your TDEE and more than your BMR.
SAFE WEIGHT-LOSS RATE
Safe weight loss is one to two pounds per week. Aiming for more than that without the supervision of a professional will likely result in muscle loss (which will result in a slower metabolism -- a vicious circle and something you want to avoid at all costs). Be patient! Slow and steady weight loss wins the race.
WHAT ARE NET CALORIES?
Your LIVESTRONG calorie goal is set in net calories:
Calories Consumed (Food) – Calories Burned (Exercise) = Net Calories
Think of your daily calories as a budget to spend. You can lose weight even if you don't exercise, but you can earn more calories to spend (eat) through activity. So if your net calorie goal is 1,500, one way to meet that would be to eat 2,000 calories and burn 500 calories through exercise.
SHOULD YOU EAT BACK CALORIES BURNED?
Yes, as described above, the calorie deficit you need to lose weight is already built in to the daily net calorie goal the LIVESTRONG Calorie Tracker assigns, so if you perform deliberate exercise (think walking or running for fitness, not gardening or taking care of the kids), you need to eat those calories back so that your body has the right amount of fuel to function (and won't start burning muscle for energy, slowing down your metabolism).
PLATEAUS AND FLUCTUATIONS
It's normal to see your weight fluctuate up and down and even occasionally slow to nothing for periods of time during your weight-loss journey, so don't get discouraged. Your weight can fluctuate as much as five pounds up or down in a day as a result of a variety of things, such as what you ate the day before, your food's sodium content, medication side effects, that time of the month, etc. True weight gain or loss is a slower process that takes place over a longer period of time, so don't focus on the scale alone to measure your progress. Be patient and stick with your program!
Plateaus are also normal as you lose weight and your metabolism declines. Patience and persistence are key to getting through these frustrating periods of no scale progress, but there are some things you can do to help your body push past a plateau, such as getting enough rest, drinking plenty of water and taking a close look at your calorie goal. Sometimes the best way to get the scale moving again is to eat a bit more!
[Read More: 10 Tips to Push Past a Weight-Loss Plateau]
HOW OFTEN SHOULD YOU WEIGH?
Most people recommend weighing once a week on the same day -- first thing in the morning after you use the bathroom and before you eat. Consistency is most important. Always weigh at the same time of day (on the same scale if possible) and wearing the same clothing (or none).
WAYS TO MEASURE PROGRESS ON YOUR JOURNEY
You should not rely on the scale alone to measure your progress on your journey. The LIVESTRONG community message boards are full of stories in which people lost inches and clothing sizes when the scale didn't move at all because body composition changes when one exercises and eats healthier, and that doesn't always show up on the scale. If you are exercising, you might also see progress in your fitness performance -- how heavy the weights you lift are, how fast you walk or run or how winded you get when you do cardio. Be sure to take your measurements (and "before" photos) to help track your progress. You won't be sorry!
DOES FAT WEIGH MORE THAN MUSCLE?
Contrary to popular urban legend, a pound of fat weighs the same as a pound of muscle, but a pound of fat does take up more space than a pound of muscle! This means you might lose inches or clothing sizes during a period when your weight doesn't change at all. It happens all the time!
ON 1,200 CALORIES...
When people first start out they are usually very motivated and select the most aggressive weight-loss goal, which often results in the minimum calorie goal of 1,200. We strongly urge you to consider a less-aggressive weight-loss goal of losing one or even half a pound per week to start. Going too extreme will likely result in you feeling deprived and following a program you'll have less chance of sticking with for the long haul. Sophieologie's blog on the infamous 1,200-calorie goal is a popular share by LIVESTRONG.COM community members on our message boards for good reason.
LIVESTRONG.COM welcomes individuals who are working toward or maintaining recovery from eating disorders and other eating-related illnesses. We have a very supportive group of people who share inspiration and provide support to others who are on the same journey.
If you think you could be suffering from an eating disorder, we encourage you to speak with a trusted family member, friend or school counselor about how you can get help -- life is short and you only get one!
STILL HAVE QUESTIONS?
Visit our community message boards to post your question for our experienced and knowledgeable LIVESTRONG community members!
Readers -- Are you ready to get started tracking calories and find the inner, healthier you? Are there any questions you wish we would have answered that might be helpful to future new calorie trackers? Leave a comment below and let us know! And again, be sure to check out our other blogs in this series:
[Read More: Getting Started With Nutrition on LIVESTRONG.COM]
[Read More: Getting Started With Fitness on LIVESTRONG.COM]
Ann Rusnak is LIVESTRONG’s Sr. Community Manager. Her quest to lose the “baby weight” before the “baby” finished elementary school sparked an interest in health and fitness that continues to be a passion to this day. She loves hiking and yoga, and thinks the best exercise is one you can do with a good friend. Over the years Ann’s desire to fit into a certain size has evolved into what she feels is the more important goal of feeling good and having energy to live life to its fullest.