If America has two competing obsessions, it may be food and losing weight. But no matter what kind of food you eat, whether you lose or gain weight, in most cases, comes down to how many calories you consume and burn on a daily basis.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) generally puts the average adults calorie budget at 2,000 calories. While that's a guideline, your actual calorie consumption may vary, depending on a variety of factors.
If you have a sedentary lifestyle, working at a desk 8 hours a day and going home for an evening of television watching, you might not burn 2,000 calories. If you have an active lifestyle, you might burn more.
There are online calorie calculators, like this one from the American Cancer Society, that can help you find your calorie budget, but first you need to answer some questions.
At work do you sit in front of a computer all day or do you walk a lot? Do you have an intensely physical job, like construction worker or bicycle messenger?
What do you do when you get home at night? Are you in front of a screen or moving around, maybe going to a civic meeting or getting together with a community group several nights a week?
After finding out how many calories you burn each day, the next step is to choose food and drink that meet that amount, or if you need to lose weight, slightly less. That isn't always as easy to do.
The Department of Agriculture says you need to keep calorie awareness in mind when you decide what to eat or drink. For example, if your calorie limit is 1,800 calories per day, think about how those calories can be split up among meals, snacks, and beverages over the course of a day.
Your diet doesn't have to be rigid. If you eat a larger lunch one day, think about eating a smaller meal at dinner.
Be careful with snacks. That's where extra calories can quickly add up. A snack with 200 calories is usually a better option than another with 500 calories. Use your daily calorie limit to help you decide which foods and drinks to choose.
To learn how many calories are in the food and beverages you're consuming you usually have to rely on the nutrition label. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health point out the nutrition labels' recommended servings are based on the 2,000 calorie limit, so if your budget is less than that, you have to adjust.
Translating the label
The key to translating nutrition labels and using them to make healthy food choices, researchers say, may be an understanding of this basic fact.
In a study, published online in Health Promotion Practice, the researchers surveyed 246 consumers eating in the Johns Hopkins Hospital cafeteria, measuring what they knew and didn't know about their calorie limits and how they impacted food choices.
At the beginning, 58% of participants didn't know about the 2,000 calorie value used to measure servings. But those who received weekly reminders, either by text or email, were twice as likely to understand the connection as those who received no weekly information.
“While daily energy needs vary, the 2,000 calorie value provides a general frame of reference that can make menu and product nutrition labels more meaningful,” said study leader Lawrence J. Cheskin. “When people know their calorie ‘budget’ for the day, they have context for making healthier meal and snack choices.”
The FDA has proposed new menu-labeling regulations that will soon require chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets to post calories on menus, menu boards, and drive-through displays. But how helpful is that really going to be, the researchers ask?
Cheskin says knowing that a triple bacon cheeseburger has 1,200 calories might not be helpful information unless you know that eating it will use more than half your allotted calories for the day.
If America has two competing obsessions, it may be food and losing weight. But no matter what kind of food you eat, whether you lose or gain weight, in mos...