How to Count Calories for Weight Loss (or Weight Gain)

Counting your calories may seem like a tedious task, but it doesn’t have to be. The internet is home to hundreds of free food tracking apps – you only have to find the one that works best for you. Many people don’t really get how to count calories for weight loss (or weight gain). Calories in versus calories out are the most basic concept of any weight change. If you eat more calories than your body needs, then it’ll take all those extra ones up and store them for later use. 

If you eat fewer calories than you need to function, your body will find ways to cope with the energy demand. It does this by mobilizing its fat stores to ensure that you have enough energy to get you through to your next meal.

If you're wondering about how to count calories for weight loss, a kitchen scale is a useful tool. In this image, an analog kitchen scale measures a handful of sugar cubes.

It may sound simplistic, but it does make sense. Take a look at the different diet fads and trends out there. They either restrict food intake or focus on food with less bioavailable calories. Those who practice them end up in a calorie deficit. As a result, the body shifts towards utilizing the energy stored in fat. 

Counting calories is the best way to ensure that you stay in a calorie deficit. Some people may find this tedious and time-consuming (it’s not!), but there’s no denying that it works. If you haven’t tried calorie counting yet and would like to start, it’s only natural to feel a bit lost as you begin. This article goes over the basics of calorie counting to help you get started.


We know the word, but what does it mean? The term ‘calorie’ refers to the unit of energy that we get from the food we consume and use in our daily activities. A thousand calories make up a kilocalorie (kcal, or Calorie with a capitalized C). Confusing, right? That’s why both calorie and Calorie are both commonly used to refer to a kilocalorie.

Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE)

The TDEE is an estimation of the total number of calories you burn in a day. Your calorie-counting plans hinge upon this figure. Two components affect it: your BMR and additional calories burned elsewhere.

Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)

From the name itself, your BMR is the rate at which your body uses up energy to sustain the essential functions of life. These functions include your heart beat, the flow of air when you breathe, and other processes the body does to survive. Even if you decided to have an extremely lazy day and laid in bed for 24 hours, you’d still burn this set amount of calories.

Several factors affect the BMR: weight, height, body composition, and age. All these factors are relatively constant, so it only makes sense that your BMR is the same. This doesn’t mean that it is an absolute number, though. Some examples of when your BMR may change are the following:

  • Aging. Your BMR decreases as you get older. The body uses more energy as it grows and matures and uses up less as aging deteriorates its muscles. 
  • Changes in muscle mass. Your muscles are the engines that use calories as fuel. Going by this logic, you burn more calories when you have more muscle. This is also why building muscle should be one of the priorities of any weight loss plan. (Read: What Happens to Your Body When You Stop Working Out?)

Knowing your BMR is essential in creating effective diet plans, whether you’re trying to lose or gain weight. Even if you figure out how to count your calories for weight loss, you’ll have a tough time if you don’t have a baseline. There are different formulas to find your numbers, though that can be somewhat complicated. Make your life easier by using any free BMR calculator on the internet.

Additional Calories Burned

There are many other ways to burn calories besides your body’s base energy expenditure. Any activity where you move your body counts towards your TDEE. You burn calories from household chores, running errands, and going to the gym for a workout. 

You can even burn extra calories when your body generates heat to cope in cold conditions. Also, when your body works to replenish blood that you donate (but don’t expect to get specific numbers for those). 

The best example of calorie-torching situations, however, is still when you exercise. Steady-state exercises and low-impact cardio exercises such as cycling and running are moderate-intensity. They can be maintained for extended periods, giving them the capacity to burn more calories in a single workout session. But honestly, the results they offer in terms of afterburn are negligible.

Knowing how to count your calories for weight loss isn't enough. You still have to exercise! In this image, a girl sits and reaches for her right foot, keeping her prosthetic left folded in front of her.

On the other hand, high-impact routines such as weight training and HIIT use significantly less energy during the workout. The upside is that they keep burning calories for hours afterwards. The afterburn effect can be attributed to the muscle rebuilding that occurs after exercise. Aside from that, the muscle mass you gain enhances your BMR. These combined effects help decrease the overall amount of body fat.

There is no way to estimate the afterburn, but you can find any calorie calculator for common exercises online. This will help you track and monitor your calorie intake and output.

Calculating Your Daily Calorie Target

Your daily calorie allowance or your calorie currency depends on your TDEE and target weight. Calorie counting leverages the fundamental concept of intake versus cost. It is a versatile practice you can apply to any diet or weight management plan.

Whether you’re trying to gain or lose weight, there is 3,700 kcal in a pound of fat. An increment of up to a pound per week falls within the recommended range for weight change plans. That entails an excess or deficit of 528 kcal/day. It’s not the absolute maximum value you can go. It’s possible to change weight faster, but expect to meet your physician’s disapproval.

Once you know your TDEE and how many calories there are in a pound, the computation becomes so much simpler:

  1. Identify how much weight you want to lose or gain in pounds.
  2. Multiply that by 3,700 to find the total deficit you need to achieve for your goal.
  3. Divide the product by the number of days you aim to hit your target weight.
  4. Add the quotient to your TDEE to find your daily calorie goal for weight gain, or subtract it from your TDEE to find your daily calorie goal for weight loss.

Food Tracking

With the knowledge of how to count your calories for weight loss, you’ve already got everything you need to know to start your calorie counting journey. You can do it the old fashioned way, with the traditional pen-and-paper method. Don’t worry too much about finding the caloric value of foods. They’re easily accessible on nutrition facts on packaging or online.

Another option is the more convenient method of using a tracking app. Some apps can identify your BMR, track the calories you eat, as well as the ones you burn in working out. There are many food tracking apps that can take care of everything for you. You only need to find one that works best for you. If you don’t know which ones to try out, Under Armour’s MyFitnessPal is a crowd favorite.