Calories Are the Culprit—Why Caloric Intake Matters after All

how many calories are you actually consuming?

By Roberta H. Anding, MS, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Despite the popularity of low-carbohydrate, high-protein, and low-fat diets, we often ignore the fundamentals of healthy eating. Professor Anding explains why, when it comes to nutrition, simpler is better.

Diet planning concept with healthy food options on table
The simple rule still applies—calories in, calories out-—to loose weight or avoid weight gain. Photo by Pormezz / Shutterstock

Caloric Intake and Obesity

Caloric intake has gradually increased over the past 50 years. As simplistic as it sounds, following the principle of “calories in, calories out” will almost always determine whether you are able to—successfully lose weight or avoid excessive weight gain.

“I’ve been a registered dietician for almost 30 years, and I never thought I would see a man as large as Alan,” Professor Anding said. “Alan was referred to me as a homebound 25-year-old, who was literally laying in bed. When my graduate students and I went to see him, I asked him what he thought he weighed, and he thought his weight was in the 800s.”

As it turned out, Alan weighed 1,065 pounds. Alan couldn’t get out of bed; so someone was bringing him food. The amount of food he was eating was obviously large, but most likely neither his mother nor his sister who brought him food thought he was eating an excessive amount of calories. In reality, Alan was eating about 10,000 calories every single day, and with no physical activity, his weight continued to skyrocket.

How Many Calories in a Muffin?

In the past several decades, the Western diet has seen increasing portion sizes, and even muffins are getting larger. A muffin, in any kind of diet book, is typically listed at about 180 calories. 

The next time you go to the grocery store, see if you can find an average-size muffin that’s 180 calories. Some of the popular muffins may be as much as 440 calories. If you look up your portion sizes online or in a calorie book, you may think you’re only eating 180 calories in a muffin. The problem is that in this day and age, a standard muffin is hard to come by.

With increasing portion sizes and decreasing physical activity, weight gain is inevitable. If you need and consume 2,000 calories a day, but you start consuming an extra 100 calories a day, you’re going to gain 10 pounds every single year. The challenge is that a small increase in portion size that seems insignificant becomes a very significant factor in terms of weight gain over a lifetime. 

Monitoring Caloric Intake

Here are some simple steps you can take to monitor your caloric intake while burning excess calories.

1. Avoid empty calories. This includes chips, cookies, candy, and sugary drinks (yes, even fruit drinks) that do not satisfy your appetite but add excess calories and often added sugars to your diet. Eat healthy snacks, such as apples and carrots, which will hold you over until your next meal and and which are less likely to result in overindulgence.

2. Measure everything. As tedious as it sounds, the only way to actually know how many calories you are consuming is to measure everything. If eating packaged food, pay attention to the serving size on the nutrition label. For example, an “individual” sized bag of chips may actually contain three or more servings.

The best option, though, is to prepare your own food. This way you have complete control over the quality and quantity of ingredients. Here is a recipe for healthy breakfast muffins.

3. Incorporate movement into your day whenever possible. Even if you work a desk job, set a timer to stand up and do some stretches or walk around the office each hour. Consider investing in a standing desk. Although standing is not a substitute for exercise, studies have found that on average, a 140-pound person burns an extra 54 calories per day when standing as opposed to sitting.

4. Eat mindfully. When we eat while engaged in other activities such as watching television, we tend to overindulge because we are not paying attention to our intake. The one activity we should engage in while eating is talking with others, as it naturally encourages us to pause and take breaks (since we can’t eat and talk at the same time) and gives our body a chance to signal to us that we are no longer hungry.

Following these steps will enable us to effectively take charge of our caloric intake and burn off excess calories without resorting to deprivation or starvation diets. Soon, eating healthy will become second nature, rendering counting calories unnecessary.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.

Professor Roberta H. Anding is a registered dietitian and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She also teaches and lectures in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Section of Adolescent Medicine and Sports Medicine, and in the Department of Kinesiology at Rice University.