Calorie vs. Carb Counting: Which Method’s Best?

Calorie vs. Carb Counting: Pros and Cons

What are calorie counting and carb counting?

When you’re trying to lose weight, calorie counting and carbohydrate counting are two approaches you can take.

Calorie counting involves applying the principle of “calories in, calories out.” To lose weight, you must burn more calories than you eat. According to the Mayo Clinic, burning 3,500 more calories than you take in can equal one pound lost. To lose weight counting calories, you would set a daily goal for your calorie intake. An example could be cutting 500 calories a day. Over the course of the week, this would equal about 1 pound of weight lost.

Carbohydrate counting is an eating method that involves counting the number of carbohydrates you take in for your meals and snacks. Carbohydrates, such as starchy, sugary, and refined foods, can be common sources of fat and empty calories in a person’s diet. By emphasizing healthier, lower-carbohydrate choices, a person will ideally eat in a way that promotes weight loss.

Like calorie counting, the approach you take to carbohydrate counting depends upon your daily carbohydrate goal. One example could be to get about 45 percent of your calorie intake each day from carbohydrates. If you eat 1,800 calories per day, this would be about 810 calories from carbohydrates or 202.5 grams per day. You would then portion these out by your daily meals and snacks. A general example could be 45 grams of carbohydrates per three meals per day and 30 grams of carbohydrates per two snacks a day.

Each weight loss method has its own pros and cons, and one may appeal to you more than the other given your overall eating patterns. It’s possible to incorporate considerations from each approach for weight loss.

Reading food labels using both approaches

Reading food labels is an important part of either diet approach. When you are using a calorie counting approach, you are reading the calories per serving. The “per serving” portion is an important consideration. The food you are considering eating may contain more than one serving. You would need to take this into account.

Carbohydrates are also listed on a food label. Three listings are for carbohydrates:

  • Total carbohydrates means the total number of carbohydrates present in the food.
  • Dietary fiber is the amount of the food that contains dietary fiber and therefore isn’t digested. Fiber can add bulk to your stool and make you feel fuller, longer. Healthier foods, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, tend to be higher in fiber.
  • Sugars are carbohydrates that will break down into sugars and fiber. While some foods, like fruits, naturally have sugars, others have sugars added to them. Because excess sugar can mean extra calories, a spike in blood sugar, and “empty” calories that don’t help you feel full, you usually want to avoid these foods.
thumbs up Pros of calorie counting:
  • You can easily read a nutritional label and get a number to count toward your daily intake.
  • A low-calorie diet can benefit health conditions like high blood pressure and congestive heart failure.
thumbs down Cons of calorie counting:
  • Calorie counting doesn’t take into account your nutritional needs, only your intake of calories.
  • Cutting calories to an unhealthy level (usually less than 1,500 to 1,200 calories per day) can be a harmful way to lose weight.

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Portion control in both approaches

When counting calories, determining calorie intake by simply eyeing or memorizing food intakes isn’t so easy. While you can certainly practice portion control by reading serving sizes on a food label, the amount of calories isn’t as easily known.

Portion control is a very big part of carbohydrate counting because you may not always have a nutrition label available. Dieters who count carbohydrates will often memorize certain portions to make their food choices easier. For example, the following foods typically have about 15 grams of carbohydrates:

  • one slice of bread
  • one small piece of fruit, such as an apple or orange
  • 1/2 cup of canned or fresh fruit
  • 1/2 cup of starchy vegetables, such as cooked corn, peas, lima beans, or mashed potatoes 
  • 1/3 cup of pasta
  • 1/3 cup of rice
  • 3/4 cup of dry cereal

Some foods, such as nonstarchy vegetables (like lettuce or spinach) are so low in carbohydrates that some people may not count them.

Medical conditions for each approach

Doctors don’t usually recommend a low-calorie diet for any one particular medical condition. However, a low-calorie diet can benefit most health conditions, such as high blood pressure or congestive heart failure.

Carbohydrate counting is an approach those with type 1 and type 2 diabetes commonly use to maintain a steady blood sugar level throughout the day. Those with diabetes may need to take insulin so their bodies can use carbohydrates for energy. By using a carbohydrate counting approach, they are better able to predict about how much insulin will be needed.

thumbs up Pros of carbohydrate counting:
  • This approach can be beneficial for those who must watch their carbohydrate intake, like people with diabetes.
  • You can easily read a nutritional label and get a number to count toward your daily intake.
thumbs down Cons of carbohydrate counting:
  • Not all foods contain carbohydrates. For example, a porterhouse steak doesn’t have carbohydrates, but is very high in fat and calories.
  • Watching carbohydrates alone doesn’t guarantee a healthy diet.

Takeaways for each approach

The decision to eat healthier is a positive one, whether that approach is via a low-calorie or low-carbohydrate one. Keep these thoughts in mind for each approach:

  • If you choose low-calorie, don’t let your calories go too low in an attempt to lose weight faster. This will make you feel weak. And your body has protective mechanisms that may actually keep you from losing weight if you eat too little.
  • If you choose carbohydrate counting, you’ll still need to establish an average daily calorie count and percentage of calories from carbohydrates.
  • Nutritionally “healthier” foods are the best choices in both approaches: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and lean proteins are usually your best options.

Your nutritional needs may increase based on your height, weight, and daily exercise. Talk to a doctor or dietitian to first establish a healthy calorie and carbohydrate intake for your health. 

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