Natalie Stein

Exercise, Fitness & Nutrition Expert | Lark Health

Daily limit for a green badge: Based on height, weight, and weight loss goals

Meal limit for a green badge: Same

Calorie Basics and Body Weight

Calories are necessary. They are a unit of energy.  Your body needs energy not just for exercise, but for staying alive: for keeping you warm, for breathing, for pumping blood, and for maintaining electrolyte balance. 

The trouble comes when you take in too many calories. Energy that you do not use for fuel now gets stored for fuel to be used later. A bit gets stored in a form of carbohydrate called glycogen, but most gets stored as body fat. When you do not take in as many calories as you need (or burn), body fat gets used as fuel.

Every time you take in 3,500 calories more than you need, you can expect to gain about 1 lb. of fat. Every time you take in 3,500 calories less than you need, you can expect to lose about 1 lb. of body fat.

Weight gain and obesity are risk factors for many chronic conditions, including prediabetes, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, arthritis, cognitive decline, and hypertension. That is why Lark suggests keeping calories at a level that will help with weight loss if you need it, or weight maintenance if the goal is to prevent gain.

Sources of calories

Your body gets calories from carbohydrates, fat, protein, and alcohol. Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram and are usually the most common source of calories, providing nearly 50% of total calories in the average American diet. Fat has 9 calories per gram and comes next, providing about 35% of calories. Protein has 4 calories per gram and provides 15% of calories. Alcohol has 7 calories per gram and intake varies.

Except for water, all foods and beverages have calories. Foods higher in fat and starch or sugar tend to be higher in calories. These are just a few sources of calories.

  • Starchy vegetables
  • Bread, cereal, pasta, rice and other grains, and other grain products
  • Nuts, seeds, peanuts
  • Oil
  • Fruit
  • Beans, peas, lentils
  • Dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese)
  • Meat, chicken, fish, shellfish, eggs
  • Tofu, soybeans
  • Vegetables
  • Butter, shortening, lard
  • Sweets and desserts
  • Juice, sugar-sweetened beverages

As you can see, both nutritious and less-nutritious foods have calories.

Tips for keeping calories in check

  • Serving sizes are important in determining calories in a meal or snack. 
  • Cutting back on a high-calorie food saves a lot of calories. For example, having half a piece of pie instead of a full one can save 200 to 300 calories.
  • It is important to read calories per serving and serving size when reading nutrition facts panels. 
  • Water is a calorie-free choice.
  • Foods with fiber, fat, and protein can help you stay full.
  • Some foods have the same number of calories in a similar serving size, but the more nutritious choice tends to be more filling and better for weight loss. For example, slices of whole-wheat and refined grain bread have the same amount of calories, but the extra fiber, protein, and fat in the whole-grain bread can make it satisfy hunger for longer.
  • Vegetables are low-calorie, making them good choices to fill up your plate and your belly.
  • Fat is highest in calories, and you can save calories by limiting easy fat targets, such as poultry skin, meat fat, and butter used for spreading and cooking.
  • Egg whites are a lower-calorie swap for eggs in most baking recipes and in cooking.
  • Foods with lower calorie density, or fewer calories in a larger serving, are more filling and better for weight loss than high-calorie-dense foods. For example, a cup of carrots has 50 calories, while a quarter-cup of chocolate candies has 250 calories.

Ideas for calorie-controlled dishes

  • These ideas can give you flavors and satisfaction without as many calories.
  • Instead of fettuccine alfredo: spiralized noodles (“zoodles”), shirataki noodles, or strands of cooked spaghetti squash tossed with shrimp or chicken and a sauce with melted fat-free cream cheese, black pepper, and parmesan cheese.
  • Instead of lasagna with ground beef: sliced eggplant or zucchini instead of noodles, tomato sauce, lean ground turkey or soy protein, Italian seasoning, and mozzarella or parmesan cheese on top.
  • Zucchini stuffed with a mixture of garbanzo beans, feta cheese, oregano, tomatoes, and bell peppers.
  • Instead of a burrito with ground beef, rice, and cheese: Taco with ground turkey or shredded chicken and Mexican seasoning, shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, salsa, and avocado
  • Pepper nachos with mini bell peppers or bell pepper strips instead of chips, fat-free refried or low-sodium pinto beans, diced tomatoes, olives, shredded cheese.
  • Soup with buckwheat noodles, low-sodium broth, snow peas, bok choy or cabbage, sliced carrots, sprouts, cilantro, and sliced hard-boiled eggs.