How to make calorie counting work for you

If you've been trying to lose weight at the gym since New Year's, you may not be getting the results you wanted. The good news is it's not just you, and there is something you can do about it.

Weight loss begins in the kitchen, not the gym. This is what I tell my patients who are having trouble reaching their weight goals. And it's easy as 1-2-3. Because it literally is 1-2-3: calorie counting.

How does calorie counting work?

A calorie is the standard measure of energy contained in a food or drink. When we consume more calories than we use, however, the excess amount gets stored as fat. This is where most of us run into trouble. Research suggests that people are not great at gauging their caloric intake accurately, and often consume more than they think they have. We also struggle to get portion sizes right. Not all calories are created equal, either. Your body handles 100 calories from a banana differently than it does 100 calories from a slice of sponge cake.

By counting calories methodically, we make ourselves aware of how many calories our typical diet contains, and where those calories are coming from. Once we have an accurate count of our calories, we can adjust our diet and lifestyle so that we take in less than we use. The result over time is sustainable, safe and lasting weight loss.

Calorie-counting apps

The mobile phone has been the best thing to happen to calorie counting since the invention of numbers. With mobile applications ("apps"), it's never been easier to log your calories anytime, anywhere.

You'll have a lot of calorie-counting apps from which to choose. A number of these are free, with the option of paying for premium features. As you shop for the right app for your needs, keep these features in mind:

• Syncs automatically with health tracker apps

Sync your calorie-counting app with a fitness/health tracker app to automatically calculate your net gain or loss in calories on a day-to-day basis.

• Barcode scanner

This is hands down the easiest way to input the portion and nutritional information for almost everything you eat.

• Nutrient breakdowns

Some apps break down the calories of a food into carbohydrates, fat, protein and more so that you always understand the nutritional value of what you're eating.

• Easy-to-understand user interface and visuals

Many calorie-counting apps favor a bright, clean design and produce graphs and charts that are easy to decipher at a glance.

• "Gameification"

The best calorie-counting apps feel fun to play with. They deliver little endorphin-releasing rewards to keep you coming back to the app so it becomes a daily habit.

Getting started

For your first week or two after you've downloaded a calorie-counting app, focus on getting into the habit of using it to log what you eat every day, whether it's a full meal or a small snack. The data from this period should give you a good baseline on your caloric intake.

Next, it's time to calculate your calorie target. Multiply your current weight by 15. That is the number of calories per day you need to maintain your current weight if you are getting about 30 minutes of physical activity (including walking, yard work, shoveling snow) each day. A safe, sustainable rate for losing weight is 1–2 pounds per week. To achieve this, you need to trim 500–1,000 calories from your total caloric intake.

Count calories with your doctor

Now that you have your data and your target, I highly recommend that you meet with your primary care provider to design a food plan and an exercise regimen that suits your age, fitness level and unique health needs.

Remember, you will not see results overnight. It takes your body time to adapt to the changes in caloric intake and respond physiologically with a decrease in weight. Don't give up. Keep counting calories and stick to the plan. You'll be glad you did.

- Dr. Mohammad Adnan Ul Haq is a board-certified internal medicine doctor with Amita Health.