4 Tips on How to Count Calories Without Losing Your Mind

Elle Penner, MPH, RD
by Elle Penner, MPH, RD
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4 Tips on How to Count Calories Without Losing Your Mind

Calorie counting is one of the most effective ways to lose weight. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it requires time, attention to detail, honesty and accountability. And that’s not as easy.

During your calorie-counting journey, you may feel overwhelmed when you’re logging those not-so-straightforward foods, or you might have an off day that makes you want to stop tracking altogether. To help, here are some tips that will hopefully make calorie counting work for you in a way that won’t drive you crazy:


Rule number 1: If you’re counting calories to lose weight, don’t cut calories too low. In order to make calorie counting a sustainable habit, you must give yourself enough of a calorie budget to enjoy nourishing foods that fuel your body and leave you feeling satisfied between meals and snacks.

Go too low and your body and brain will fight back even harder, most noticeably by increasing hunger and desire for food, and reducing calorie expenditure. In addition to that, you’ll feel terrible and lack the energy and drive to exercise, another important component of losing weight and keeping it off.

As you set your calorie goal, consider starting with a modest deficit of 250 calories per day, and tweak as needed if you don’t see any results within a couple of weeks. Ultimately, determining what calorie goal is best for you boils down to what is most sustainable. Aim for one you can realistically stick to, within reason. Which brings us to tip number 2.

READ MORE > 21 Dietitian-Approved Tips to Jump-Start Weight Loss


In the world of clinical nutrition, dietitians commonly prescribe their clients a target calorie range. This allows for a bit more flexibility because, after all, not every day is the same. Some days you’ll feel hungrier or want dessert; others you may crush your step goal and burn an extra 150 calories just by running errands.

If you find it difficult to live by one number, try giving yourself a range, maybe plus or minus 100 calories of your goal. Over the span of a week, your daily average should fall within that range. If you find you’re on the higher end of your range more than a few days each week, see if you can fit in a little more physical activity or make some simple food swaps to balance things out a bit. The goal of a calorie range is to add flexibility to each day while also keeping you on track over time.


As it turns out, most of us are habitual eaters, meaning we eat similar foods on a daily, weekly and even seasonal basis. Thankfully, the folks at MyFitnessPal have designed the app with this in mind. If you’re new to logging, one thing you’ll realize is the more you track, the easier it gets.

To make counting calories easier, make use of the Recent and Frequent lists within your Food Diary to quickly log commonly eaten foods. Create Meals for foods you often eat together and import your go-to recipes, complete with your own personal modifications, directly into the app. For even more tips, check out this helpful Go-To Guide for MyFitnessPal.

READ MORE > 10 of the Best Workouts for Weight Loss


Somewhere along your tracking journey, you’ll probably come to the realization that you can’t log calories with 100% certainty all of the time. Several factors come into play here. First, the healthiest foods don’t come with bar codes or Nutrition Facts labels and (thankfully) most of us don’t walk around with food scales in our back pockets to weigh every gram of food that enters our mouths.

Second, the numbers on Nutrition Facts labels in the U.S. can vary by up to 20% from what’s printed, so even if you do have a food with a label, there’s no guarantee it’s accurate. Third, not all restaurants or food vendors are required to provide nutrition information. As frustrating as these things may be, especially for us detail-oriented Type A folks who strive for perfection, it’s important to realize that counting calories will never be an exact science, but it also doesn’t need to be.

Millions of MyFitnessPal users have been successful simply by sticking with it and making educated guesses, something that gets easier with practice. So, when you’re having a hard time choosing which of the 37 veggie-and-bean burritos to log, just make your best guess. Most likely, whatever you select is closer to what you actually ate than logging nothing at all.

When put into practice, these strategies can certainly make calorie counting easier and help you take a healthy approach to the practice. Should you ever find keeping a food diary to be disruptive to your life, however, this approach may be more problematic than it is helpful. Just know that there are other ways to lose weight and achieve your health goals. For more on that or to seek help in managing a potentially problematic relationship with food or calorie counting, check out our eating disorder resources page.   

About the Author

Elle Penner, MPH, RD
Elle Penner, MPH, RD

Elle is a nutrition and wellness writer, recipe developer, blogger and nutrition consultant whose favorite things include her camera, carbs and quality time with her toddler. For more from this busy mama, check out Elle’s lifestyle blog or connect with her on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook.


5 responses to “4 Tips on How to Count Calories Without Losing Your Mind”

  1. Avatar Jimmy NoChit says:

    Should I be weighing my poo?

  2. Avatar John Dwyer says:

    My advice: use the notes app on your phone and add up your calories by hand. Here’s an example:

    1/27 250 eggs coffee
    400 banana almonds
    Golf 7 miles
    850 sushi and miso
    1000 hummus and octo salad
    1500 Chilean sea bass rice

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