Arthritis Resources: Calorie Counting

by David W. Golann

Arthritis Resources: Calorie Counting

Calorie counting — the process of ­figuring out and record­ing how many calories you eat every day — has been around for years. Although some people think it’s too much trouble, others find it motivates them and helps them become more aware of what and how much they eat on a daily basis. It has its limits, but calorie counting remains popular and can be an effective tool to help you lose weight, gain weight, or even maintain your present weight.

A calorie is a unit of energy. Your body’s cells all require energy to function, and to get energy they use up, or “burn,” calories. To replenish its energy supply, the body needs calories from food and drink. If the body does not get enough calories from these sources, it will eventually take energy from its stores of fat; the result is weight loss. If the body takes in more calories than it burns, most of these excess calories will eventually be stored as fat, causing weight gain. Calories “in” and calories “out” thus exist in a relationship. Burn more calories than you take in and you will lose weight.

Calorie counting is most often used by people trying to do just that: lose weight. For people who are overweight, the health benefits of weight loss are well known. Less well known is the connection between weight and osteoarthritis (OA). People who are overweight are at greater risk for OA in the hips and especially in the knees. A loss of even 5 pounds can help substantially ease the burden on the knee joints. This puts many people in a difficult situation: as their arthritis makes it more difficult to exercise, the need for weight reduction becomes more pressing. For these people, cutting calories may by necessity play a greater role than exercise in weight-loss strategies, and calorie counting may make the cutting easier.

How many calories do I need?

The recommended place to start is by estimating how many calories a day it takes to maintain your present weight. This depends on your sex, height, weight, age, and activity level. You can use an Internet calculator such as the Daily Food Plan section of Plug in your pertinent information (including your height and weight) and the calculator comes up with an estimate of how many calories you need every day to maintain your weight. If you would like to estimate your calorie needs yourself, you can use this simple formula: Multiply your current weight by 10 and then increase the result by 30% (to account for what you use up in routine physical activity). If you weigh 150 pounds, for example, multiplying by 10 gives you 1,500. Add to that 30% of 1,500 (450) and you get a total of 1,950 calories. Estimating this way is rather rough-and-ready because it doesn’t take into account factors such as age, sex, and different activity levels. But it can give you a general idea of your calorie needs or at least a starting point for your calorie counting. Remember, the number you are trying to get with these calculations is an estimate of what you need to maintain your weight. To lose weight, you will have to cut whatever number you come up with. To bring about a loss of a pound in a week, eat 500 calories fewer a day than your weight-maintenance levels. (To gain weight, do the reverse: eat 500 extra calories a day to gain a pound a week.)

Five hundred fewer calories a day is considered a good pace for weight loss. Cutting more than 500 calories can be counterproductive and dangerous. Also, people should generally not have fewer than about 1,200 calories daily, except under medical supervision (and many people, including exercisers, need more than that). If cutting 500 calories seems more than you can handle, or if it would take you below the 1,200 level, don’t be discouraged. Even a more modest reduction of 100 calories a day can help you lose 10 pounds in a year.

Counting your calories

Of course, to decrease your calorie intake you have to know how many calories are in the food or drinks you consume. For packaged foods, the best way to do this is to examine the label, where calories are listed per serving. Determine how many servings of the food or drink you have had and multiply that by the number of calories per serving. But, you are probably thinking, some foods — a piece of fruit or a deli sandwich — don’t come with a label. If you frequently eat out, order in, or cook from scratch, you may be dealing with many foods that do not advertise their calorie count. What to do? In these cases you need an independent resource, either a calorie-counting Web site or a calorie count book.

A calorie-counting Web site or calorie count book collects information on the calorie content of many foods and drinks. The idea is that people will look up what they have eaten and drunk each day and record its calorie content in a journal or logbook. Some of these Web sites even have “diaries” that can keep track of your calorie intake over a period of time. Many of these books and Web sites also have calorie and nutrition information for a variety of offerings from fast-food restaurants and other popular eateries. If you want to know how many calories were in that grande caramel frappacino or that Big Mac you just enjoyed, check one of these Web sites or books. (In this case, 430 and 560, respectively.) Most chain restaurants also list nutrition information on their Web sites.

Last Reviewed on March 7, 2013

David W. Golann was an Associate Editor at Arthritis Self-Management.

Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.

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