Mary Cole's New Year's resolution was to lose about 20 pounds. She started with watching what she ate.
After keeping a calorie journal for a week, Cole, 28, said she couldn't believe the numbers.
"I honestly thought I only ate about 1,500 calories a day," she said. "In reality, I was eating more than 3,000."
Dr. Linda Berry, a certified nutritionist, said that kind of surprise is common.
She said studies show most people go above their caloric needs, but are lacking nutrients.
"We are sort of an overfed but undernourished society," she said.
According to the USDA, women 31 to 50 years old who are not physically active need about 1,800 calories a day. Those who are active need 2,000 to 2,200 a day.
Men in that age range need about 2,200 if they are not active and 2,400 to 3,000 if they exercise.
Many factors affect that number for each individual, including height, weight and genetics. Heavy exercisers and those who are pregnant may need more, while some with slower metabolisms may need less.
Once she got an idea of that, she said, she stopped counting.
"I got the basic grasp of what my body needed and what was in the food I ate often," she said. "I learned what to avoid and basically changed my whole way of thinking. I don't have to look at labels anymore."
Berry suggests people stop focusing on an actual number. She said calorie counting is more of an emotional thing that can start with social conditioning, parental influence and more.
"I don't think it is beneficial psychologically to be strict with calories," she said. "It puts people under too much pressure."
If you want to know if you are eating the right amount of calories, Berry said, look in the mirror. If you don't have a waist, it is time to adjust what you eat and your activity level.
Rather than count the number, she encourages people to look at what and how much they are eating.
No Drastic Cuts
One pound of body fat is equal to 3,500 calories, so most people need to cut back about 500 calories a day to lose 1 pound a week. Berry doesn't recommend cutting more than that.
Drastically dropping will actually hurt your weight loss, Berry said. It suppresses your thyroid and when you go back to normal caloric intake, the thyroid will need less food, causing more weight gain.
Malnutrition can also make you bloat.
"You will not have a lovely body by starving yourself," Berry said.
Cutting back calories in a health way can be simple, without pulling out the calculator.
If you are eating two pieces of bread per day, cut back one, or if you have three glasses of wine, only have two, she said. Skipping one slice of bread can save you about 100 calories and passing on a glass of wine can spare you between 70 and 200 calories.
Exercise is also important in this process.
"You can eat more if you exercise," she said. A one-mile walk burns 100 calories on average.