Maintaining a healthy weight can be hard for many. Our on-the-go lifestyles combined with the prevalence of processed foods and oversized portions today means it is easier than ever to eat too many empty calories, and desk jobs keep us from moving as much as we should.
Each of us is different, and what may work for one person to help maintain a healthy weight may not work for someone else. No diet plan, after all, works exactly the same for every person. That’s why we’ve compiled this, the ultimate guide to burning calories. We share with you all the ways you can reduce calories, burn extra fat, and lower your weight. We’ll even share with you our very best tips for keeping the weight off, once you’ve reached your goal.
To understand how to burn calories, though, let’s first look at what exactly a calorie is and what types of foods provide us with the “right” kinds of calories.
Calories are units of energy. The amount of calories in a food or drink is an indication of how much energy it can provide to your body for use in metabolic processes or to fuel physical activity. When you consume enough calories each day, your body is able to use them all to move you around, take care of essential functions, and allow you to think. When you eat too many, your body cannot use all that energy and it stores it for use in the future in the form of fat. When you eat too few calories to supply your energy demands, your body uses your fat stores, burning the extra calories they store.
We don’t all require the same amount of calories each day for our needs, which is why it can be hard to know how many calories to consume. The USDA recommends that the average man eat about 2,700 calories per day while the average woman eats about 2,200. But, if your metabolism is slower or faster than average, if you exercise a lot or a little, if you have a medical condition, or if your goal is to lose weight, your calorie needs will differ from these averages.
What About Macros?
We all need calories to survive, which is why food is one of the essentials for living, along with water and shelter. Your body needs the energy in food to keep you breathing, keep your heart pumping, and support brain function. When you read a food label, it will tell you how many calories, or how much energy, is in that food. It will also tell you how many of those calories come from carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, which are called macronutrients or macros.
Not all calories are alike, and your body processes calories from various sources differently. One gram of carbohydrates has about four calories, as does one gram of protein. One gram of fat, however, contains about nine calories.
When you eat these macronutrients, they must be broken down into compounds your body can process. Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred energy source, because they are the easiest for your body to access. There are simple carbohydrates, which are easily converted to fuel for your body, and there are complex carbohydrates, which take more energy to convert and burn.
Proteins are the second most common substance in your body, after water. Proteins are comprised of chains of amino acids, which your body breaks down and uses to perform many vital functions. Amino acids are required to rebuild your cells and tissues, to regulate your hormones, and for the healthy functioning of all your metabolic processes.
Finally, fats are necessary for nearly all your organs, including your brain. Fat keeps you insulated and protects your internal structures, and fat is a significant source of energy that we can store and use on-demand. Your body stores fat under the skin, called subcutaneous fat, as well as in the midsection, which is known as visceral fat. You need healthy sources of fat in your diet, but you only need small amounts of these macros.
Knowing precisely how many calories and how much of each type of macronutrient you need can be a bit of a guessing game, depending on your activity level, physical fitness, weight loss goals, and medical history. In general, healthy people do well when they eat a diet that contains between 25 and 45 percent of calories from protein, between 45 and 65 percent from carbohydrates, and less than ten percent from healthy fats. These ranges offer many options to fit your individual needs, and focusing on healthy sources of foods will be vital to optimizing every calorie you eat.
What Are Healthy Sources of Calories?
With a basic understanding of calories and macros, you can now focus on the specific sources of calories you consume each day. It would be easier for us to eat well if all calories were the same, but unfortunately, they aren’t.
For example, calories that come from high-fat, fried foods with lots of excess sugar and salt are not as healthy for our bodies as those that come from whole foods that are fresh or raw.
Food isn’t just a source of energy but also of vital compounds and elements that organs and cells use to keep us healthy. Foods that are high in calories but low in nutrition are often referred to as empty calories. These foods lack the dietary fiber, antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and amino acids our systems need from food to function correctly. In the modern, Western diet, most empty calories come from either added sugars or solid fats.
Added sugars are simple carbohydrates found in sweeteners added to processed foods and drinks. They are very high in calories but lack any other nutritional benefit. Not only are these added sugars found in sugary drinks like soda and desserts, but they are also added to nearly all processed and packaged foods. If you look carefully at the ingredient list, you will frequently find some form of added sugar among the top ingredients for any given product.
Solid fats are commonly added to processed and packaged foods to enhance the texture and flavor of foods. While butter is one common solid fat, others with more detrimental health effects include hydrogenated oils, which are harmful to your heart.
The addition of sugars and fats to processed, packaged, and fast foods makes them taste better, but you are sacrificing nutritional density for quick sources of energy.
Other common sources of empty calories in the Standard American Diet (SAD) include alcohol and refined carbohydrates, like those found in baked goods, pasta, and bread.
Calories from Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are found in sugars, starches, and fiber.
Sugars are the simplest forms of carbohydrates and require very little energy to break down in the body. Starches are a more complex form of carbohydrates, but they are essentially sugars that have bonded together. It takes a little more energy to break these down, and they provide fuel for your body.
Fiber is the most complex form of carbohydrate, and your body actually cannot entirely break down this type of carb. Fiber ends up traveling all the way through your system and being eliminated as waste. But, along its journey, fiber helps clean up other wastes and toxins, removing them from your digestive tract.
Carbohydrates that break down quickly raise your blood sugar level, which can cause health problems such as insulin resistance and diabetes. Carbs that take longer to break down do not have this same effect on blood sugar and provide a steadier source of energy for your body.
What Are Diets to Help Burn Calories?
Unfortunately, there is not a single, simple answer to permanent, healthy weight loss. Our bodies each respond differently to food, and what works for you may not work for someone else. Patience, experimentation, and persistence will likely be your best tools when it comes to finding an eating plan and exercise routine that works best for you. There are, however, a few main strategies for calorie reduction that you can consider.
The simplest method for burning calories is to just eat fewer calories than you burn in a given day. This will force your body to use up stored energy in your fat cells, thereby helping you lose weight. Seems like a no-brainer, right?
Part of the issue with this type of calorie-burning strategy is your body adapts to conditions. When you deprive yourself of calories, you will start to burn fat, but you’ll also burn lean muscle and lose water your body has been storing. This slows your metabolism. Then you will need to eat even fewer calories to maintain the same effect, which can lead to feelings of deprivation.
This strategy also implies that all calories are equal. If you are only allowed, say, 1800 calories per day, but you fill those by eating sugary foods instead of fresh vegetables and lean proteins, you aren’t really doing your health any favors. So, cutting calories should be focused on eliminating the empty calories in your diet and focusing instead on eating more nutrient-dense foods.
Because eating is not just about satisfying hunger or getting the right micronutrients, deprivation of this kind can be psychologically hard, which can derail your dieting efforts, as well.
Another strategy for burning calories and losing weight is to reduce your consumption of carbohydrates, which have a significant effect on your insulin and hormone levels. Insulin influences how you store fat and how you metabolize food, among other functions. When you eat lots of calories from carbohydrates, your body uses these first before burning any from fat or protein. This means you are not burning any of your excess, stored fat as energy and also are likely storing more fat for use later on.
Reducing carbohydrate intake can help your body by lowering blood glucose levels, which requires you to produce less insulin. It also can force your body to start using stored energy from fat cells, which reduces your weight.
If you reduce your consumption of carbohydrates, you must replace those calories with some other form of food. The best options include lean sources of protein, including meat, fish, low-fat dairy products, and protein-rich plant sources.
It is important to remember that you should still be eating plenty of dietary fiber on a low-carb eating plan.
Most people would agree that eating less fat will make you less fat. And while it is true that you should limit your intake of unhealthy fats like those found in fast and fried foods, not all fats are bad for you. In fact, your heart, brain, and other organs need some amount of unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids to function properly. Fats also make foods taste better and more palatable.
Reducing your fat consumption should not mean substituting those calories for ones from unhealthy sources like sugars and other refined carbohydrates. This trade-off is not going to help you burn more calories and reduce your weight. Instead, focus on eating the healthiest fats, limiting your intake to small amounts, and filling your diet with whole foods that are mainly plant-based.
Moderation is Key
Finding the right balance on all these eating plans is key to successfully burning more calories and losing weight. A diet that is filled with fresh vegetables and fruits, plenty of plant-based sources of protein, small amounts of healthy oils, and minimally processed ingredients will give you the best chance of reducing your caloric intake. Pairing diet with exercise, though, will improve your opportunities for burning more calories and benefiting your overall health.
Burn Calories with Exercise
The benefits of exercise far exceed how many calories it burns. Exercise is known to boost your mood, increase your metabolism, lower stress, improve your sleep, and help you lose weight. Exercise will give you more energy, which can help you stick with your calorie burning program and meet your health and fitness goals, too.
Keeping your metabolism high can help you burn more calories. Cardiovascular exercises are effective at boosting metabolism, as is building more muscle mass through strength training exercise. Muscle uses more energy than other forms of tissue, like fat. The more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn, even when you are not active. Not only will you burn fat and calories while you are exercising, but the more you workout, the longer you will keep burning calories after exercise is complete.
Any type of exercise is better than no exercise, so start small and build your way up to more intense workouts as you gain strength. Once you lose a little weight, you’ll have more energy and find it easier to get motivated to workout more. Even if you don’t have time for a lengthy exercise session, start with several shorter intervals to get your heart pumping, the blood moving, and your muscles working.
Mixing up cardio exercise with strength training is ideal for burning calories and promoting weight loss. The key is to find activities you enjoy and to stick with it regularly. Exercise can be everything from walking on the treadmill and lifting weights at the gym to playing basketball with your kids. Riding your bike, swimming, yoga, Pilates, hiking, walking outside, playing catch with your dog, or working in your yard are also good forms of exercise. Find one or more that you enjoy doing, and it won’t feel quite so much like “work.”
Once you get comfortable with your exercise choices, look for ways to add more resistance or make it more challenging. Add an incline to the treadmill. Take the stairs two at a time. Add weights to ankles and wrists while you walk. Increase your speed or distance. Keep pushing yourself to improve, and you will continue to increase the number of calories you burn with each session. It can be helpful to enlist the support of others or to hire a trainer to give you suggestions for ways to improve your workouts.
Don’t forget your lower body. Strengthening your core as well as your legs, hips, and feet not only burns calories but also increases your agility, stamina, and flexibility. Since these are all things that decline in old age, it’s good to develop habits early that will keep you strong and healthy into your golden years. Squats and lunges are two great exercises that work on multiple muscle groups and promote many lifelong skills.
Once you found a method that works best for helping you burn more calories and meet your weight loss goals, it is just as important that you learn new, healthy habits that will last a lifetime, thus helping you keep the weight off. A weight-management plan is just as important as a weight-loss strategy. The following are the very best tips for maintaining your new, healthier you, compiled from those who have been able to successfully lose weight and keep that weight from returning.
Tips for Maintaining Weight Loss
Once you have lost the weight, it is important to still maintain the habits you started during your journey, and exercise is key. You need to do something every single day that benefits your physical self. Walking is a popular choice. You should also do something to work your muscles a few times per week, as well. This could be weight training, resistance work, yoga, or high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Build activity into your daily routine, and make sure you keep moving, even after you reach your goal weight.
When you start the day with a nutritious breakfast that fills you up, you have the energy you need to tackle your day, and you are less likely to make unhealthy choices later when you are starving.
Track your weight and activity
Once you’ve lost weight, it can be easy to never want to step on a scale again. But, tracking your weight is valuable feedback. It can tell you if you're slipping back into old habits and provide you with information to help you make minor adjustments in your habits. Many people who lose weight stop monitoring themselves and are surprised when, six months later, they step on a scale for the first time and see ten or more extra pounds. Stay on top of it by weight yourself once a week, and you can deal with it before it becomes a problem. You can also wear a fitness tracker that measures your steps, heart rate, calories, and other input. This data should be used to inform your activity and dietary choices.
Avoid the small screen
Watching too much television means you are not engaging in other, more active pursuits. Those who watch the least TV tend to have the fewest problems with regaining lost weight, so turn the set off, and find other ways to spend your time.
Focus on why you eat
Many people have an unhealthy relationship with food that led to their initial weight gain. It’s time to understand why you reach for food, when you are more likely to select unhealthy choices, and how to break these cycles. Track your emotions as they relate to your eating habits, and make a note of times when emotions guide your food choices. If you are eating from stress, it is time to find new outlets for stress reduction. If you are lonely or bored, seeking out other people is better than seeking out food. Eating out for anger or other intense emotion indicates a need for different types of support.
Be more mindful
Learning to focus on just one thing can not only reduce stress but also lead to making better choices. Mindfully eating means being aware of all aspects of the eating experience. This can help you avoid overeating and making unhealthy food choices. Mindfulness makes it easier to recognize when you are full and to stop eating, too.
Get some help
Staying motivated to maintain a weight loss can be difficult without some support. A cheering section can help you when you are struggling, and some find the support of others who have struggled with similar weight loss issues to be helpful. You can also find comfort in friends and family members.
Goals keep you motivated
Once you’ve met a weight-loss goal, it is important to set new challenges for yourself, giving you something toward which to work. Maybe you have a trip you want to be physically fit enough to take, or there is an outfit in which you would like to feel better. Find a fitness or nutrition goal that works for your life, and begin making progress toward that aim. Goals help you resist temptation and remember why you are opting for healthier habits.
Get plenty of rest
Sleep is necessary for many aspects of your health, including controlling your appetite and repairing your body from exercise. When you are sleep deprived, you are more likely to reach for unhealthy comfort foods or seek out quick but less nutritious sources of energy. Get to bed at the same time each night, and set your alarm for the same time each day, aiming for at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.
Fill up on fiber
Eat a diet that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other sources of dietary fiber at each meal. Fiber keeps you feeling full longer, helps you maintain a steady blood sugar level, and prevents you from overeating. Eat your veggies raw or steamed, not fried. Use small amounts of healthy oils along with herbs and spices to add flavor and variety to your produce, too. Include fruits and vegetables in all types of dishes, filling at least one-half of your plate with produce at each meal.
Cook for yourself
When you make your meals at home, you control your ingredients and portion size, unlike in a restaurant or with packaged foods. Foods made by others are likely to be higher in calories, fat, added sugars, and unnecessary ingredients like salt. Plus, cooking your own food helps you form healthier relationships with food, the process of cooking, and from where your food comes.
Make a plan
Planning is the key to any successful endeavor, and healthy habits are no exception. Plan your meals, snacks, and fitness activities and build these into your schedule. Create time in every day to dedicate to your health and wellness, showing yourself and others that it is a priority for you. Plans help you stick to your goals and avoid temptation, as well.
Drink lots of water
Staying hydrated helps you digest your food properly, keeps hunger at bay, and allows all your systems to work correctly. Hydration is just as important as nutrition, so don’t forget to drink at least 64 ounces of water each day.
Burning Calories for Better Health
Burning calories is not just a matter of eating less or exercising more, but these two fundamental principles should guide your weight loss plans. Finding the right combination of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats will be important, as will getting plenty of cardiovascular and strength-building exercise. The key to burning calories is to make sure each calorie you do eat is packed with nutrition and providing your body with some benefit.
Focus on eating whole foods, reducing processed ingredients and meals, and eliminating empty calories from your diet. Quality is definitely more important than quantity, and if you concentrate on eating a variety of fruits and vegetables at each meal, along with smaller amounts of lean protein, you likely won’t even be hungry for anything else after each meal or snack.
Lasting weight loss comes not from deprivation, counting calories, or extreme eating plans but from moderation in all things. Changing your lifestyle to include healthier, whole-food choices and more exercise will boost your metabolism, help you lose weight, and increase the number of calories you are regularly burning.