There's nothing trendy about calorie counting for losing and maintaining weight, but because of apps and fitness trackers, the practice is more popular than ever. Calories in, calories out is scientifically proven. How do you make calorie restriction work long-term — without becoming obsessed?
According to a 2014 marketing study, 31 percent of Internet users in the United States track their health through apps and fitness trackers, and of those people, 42 percent are tracking their diet and their calorie intake.
“At the end of the day, unless science can prove otherwise, maintaining your weight, losing weight, gaining weight is really just a function of how many calories in versus how many calories out,” NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar said on TODAY.
As part of the TODAY "Secrets of Diet Trends" series, nutrition expert Joy Bauer joined Matt Lauer Thursday to discuss the benefits and challenges of calorie counting.
“If you take in fewer calories than you are burning, you are going to lose weight,” Bauer said. “Also, when you journal your food, it makes you more accountable. It’s empowering, so you’re going to stick with the plan.”
Another bonus: all foods are allowed.
However, counting calories can take a lot of work, and people can become obsessive.
“Because you’re crunching numbers, you have to be focused and committed,” Bauer said. “If you have an obsessive personality, this is definitely not for you.”
Also, it can be frustrating when you can’t find the calorie information on restaurant menus. And remember, not all calories are equal. A strawberry daiquiri that has 500 calories “is going to be very different on your insides than 500 calories of a nice grilled chicken salad,” Bauer said.
How many calories should we eat a day?
For women, the sweet spot is between 1,200 and 1,600. For men, who have faster metabolisms, it is between 1,600 and 2,000.
Can you save calories for a big splurge at the end of the day or swap out a healthy food and give in to a junk food craving?
Absolutely, with a catch.
“As long as you stick with your calories, you’re going to lose weight,” Bauer said. “But if you want to keep your energy up and you want to have staying power, you want to focus on those high quality foods.”
It worked for Ashley Davidson. Having been overweight and obese for most of her life, Davidson didn’t like what she saw as she looked at photos of herself several years ago.
“It really hit me as I was graduating college and graduation day came, and I was looking at pictures afterward of myself in my cap and gown,” Davidson told TODAY. “I was like, I really, I don't like myself. I don't like who I am or what I've become.”
In 2012, Davidson began to keep track of the calories she consumed through an app called “Lose it.” The tracking inspired her to eat more fruits and vegetables and home-based foods instead of takeout meals and processed foods. After three years of diligent calorie counting, she dropped 63 pounds.
“Calorie counting has allowed me to motivate myself,” she said. “I ran a half marathon last year. This is all because I don't have as much weight on my body anymore and that I can do these things.”
These sample meals from Joy Bauer are a good way to jumpstart a calorie counting regimen:
300 calories for women; 400 calories for men
Scrambled eggs with toast and fruit
1 egg + 2 egg whites in 1 tsp oil/butter
1 slice whole grain toast, dry
Coffee with skim milk, 1 packet sugar
MEN: Add 2 additional egg whites and eat the whole grapefruit
Vanilla Greek Yogurt 120 calories
3 TB granola 75 calories
1/2 banana 50 calories
Coffee with skim milk and 1 packet sugar (30)
MEN: Enjoy 4 TB granola and eat the whole banana
400 calories for women; 500 calories for men
Turkey sandwich & veggies
2 slices bread
4 ounces turkey breast
Lettuce + tomato + dijon mustard
1 cup baby carrots
MEN: Add 1 apple
Salad with Chicken & Feta
Tossed salad (greens and veggies)
4 ounces grilled chicken
1 ounce feta cheese
2-4 Tablespoons light balsamic vinaigrette
MEN: Double up on chicken OR cheese
Snack — About 200 calories (1 per day for women, 1-2 per day for men)
Apple with peanut butter
1 tablespoon peanut butter
Nutrition bar (Any bar less than 200 calories)
500 calories for women; 600 calories for men
Shrimp stir-fry with rice
6 ounces shrimp
Unlimited vegetables and seasonings
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 cup cooked rice or pasta
1 cup berries for dessert with a squirt of whipped cream
MEN: Add 1/2 cup brown rice
Steak, potatoes & spinach
4 ounces lean beef
1/2 baked potato with 1 tsp butter
Unlimited spinach with 1 teaspoon oil and seasonings
MEN: Enjoy 6 oz steak and full potato
TODAY.com contributor Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter.