Calories and carbs may seem like your worst enemies when it comes to weight loss, but the truth is it's all about building a healthy relationship with them. The first step is to understand how much of each you should be eating per day.
The second step is to recognize which calories and carbs you should be eating, since all calories are not equal and neither are all carbs.
Read more: The Difference Between Carbs & Calories
Calorie Intake for Weight Loss
The exact number of calories you should be eating per day varies from person to person, based on a number of factors like age, gender, height, weight, genetics, body fat percentage, diet and physical activity level, among others.
The USDA has developed estimates that can help guide you. The estimates range from 1,600 to 2,400 calories a day for adult women and 2,000 to 3,000 calories a day for adult men.
Whether you're on the higher or lower end of the range depends on how active your lifestyle is and how old you are. That's because the more active you are, the more calories your body requires to fuel your activity; however, as you get older, your metabolic rate drops so your body requires fewer calories.
When you consume more calories than you require, your body stores the excess calories that it cannot burn as fat, resulting in weight gain. Conversely, in order to lose weight, you need to create a calorie deficit, where you're burning more calories than you're consuming.
One pound of body weight equals 3,500 calories, according to the Mayo Clinic. So if you want to lose 1 pound a week, you need to create a calorie deficit of 500 calories per day for a week. Similarly, if you want to lose 2 pounds a week, you need to create a calorie deficit of 1,000 calories per day for a week. Losing weight at a rate faster than 1 to 2 pounds per week is not recommended.
You can achieve a calorie deficit through a combination of diet and exercise. For example, in order to create a calorie deficit of 500 calories per day, you could eat 300 fewer calories per day and step up your exercise routine so that you burn an additional 200 calories per day.
Cutting down on the number of calories you consume is fine as long as your calorie intake doesn't drop below the minimum requirement, which is 1,500 calories per day for men and 1,200 calories per day for women, according to Harvard Health.
Eating the Right Calories
A calorie is a unit of energy, so when you say a large strawberry has 5.76 calories, that's how much energy it is giving your body. However, the calories in the strawberry are also accompanied by essential nutrients like potassium, vitamin C and folate, as well as fiber.
Since the food you eat provides your body with not only energy (calories) but also nourishment, it's important to choose foods that are nutritious. Junk foods and fast foods contain a lot of calories, oil, sugar and salt, but not much nutrition.
Getting the nutrition you need at an appropriate calorie level is the key to not only staying healthy and preventing chronic diseases but also achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight, according to the USDA. The USDA recommends fulfilling your daily calorie requirement via a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats.
Read more: 10 Ways to De-Junk Your Diet
Carb Intake for Weight Loss
The USDA's 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that 45 to 65 percent of your calorie intake per day should be from carbohydrates. For a 2,000-calorie diet, for example, that works out to anywhere between 900 to 1,300 calories of carbohydrates per day. In weight terms, that's between 225 and 325 grams of carbohydrates per day, since 1 gram of carbohydrates is equal to 4 calories.
However, research shows that opting for a low-carb diet could help you lose weight and improve your health. An August 2012 study published in the journal Obesity Reviews found that patients with obesity who opted for low-carb diets lost a significant amount of weight. The patients also saw improvements in other markers of heart health, like blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and insulin levels.
Eating the Right Carbs
Your body breaks carbohydrates down into glucose (sugar) and uses it for energy. There are many different types of carbs, so it's important to choose the carbs that give you the most bang for your buck in terms of fiber and nutrients like vitamins and minerals, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA).
Read more: List of Good Carbohydrates to Eat
Processed foods provide very little nutrition and fiber for the amount of carbs you're consuming, so the ADA recommends opting for foods that are either not processed or minimally processed instead.
The three main types of carbs are starches, sugars and fibers. Starches and fibers are complex carbs, based on their chemical structure, whereas sugars are simple carbs.
Starchy foods include peas, potatoes, corn, beans and grains like oats, barley, wheat and rice, among others. Whole grains are grains that have been dried and harvested with minimal processing, leaving the entire grain intact. They provide fiber as well as nutrients like vitamins B and E. The USDA recommends that at least half your daily intake of grains should be from whole grains.
Sugars are of two types: the naturally occurring sugars in milk (lactose) and fruits (fructose) and the added sugars that are found in cakes, cookies, sweets, sauces and other processed foods. While the former are healthy, the USDA recommends limiting your consumption of the latter.
Read more: 16 Diet-Friendly Healthful Carbs
Fiber, the third type of carbohydrate, is only found in plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains and legumes. The ADA recommends consuming 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day; however, it also notes that most Americans get only half that. The equivalent of a natural scrub brush, fiber sweeps out the rubbish from your digestive system.
Healthy carbs are not only an essential part of a healthy diet; they can help you lose weight, too. The Texas A&M Health Science Center notes that complex carbs with longer chain molecules and fiber take longer to digest, keeping you full for longer. While added sugar is a culprit when it comes to weight gain, natural sugars can be a healthy addition to your diet since they are accompanied by lots of vitamins and minerals.
- American Council on Exercise: “Resting Metabolic Rate: Best Ways to Measure It — And Raise It, Too”
- USDA: “2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans”
- Mayo Clinic: “Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight-Loss Basics”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Losing Weight”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Calorie Counting Made Easy”
- USDA: “Strawberries, Raw”
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Fast Food Tips”
- Obesity Reviews: “Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Clinical Trials of the Effects of Low Carbohydrate Diets on Cardiovascular Risk Factors”
- American Diabetes Association: “Get to Know Carbs”
- Texas A&M Health Science Center: “Good Carbohydrates Versus the Bad”