Most people eat by habit, not with intention. People tend to eat the foods they ate growing up or whatever the chef in the house has fixed for the night. This leads people to be divorced from the caloric value of their foods. Weight maintenance and weight loss are based on the difference in the calories you take in and the calories you expend each day. For many people, understanding what they eat and where their calories come from is the first step leading to better nutrition and a healthier lifestyle.

For packaged goods, you can use the information the government requires to be provided on the box. There are very good websites available which can help you find out the caloric value of whatever meal you are putting together at home. The added benefit of looking things up is that you will be able to see which foods have a higher value than others.

Proper record keeping is essential. You can create a spreadsheet or just keep track on a notebook, noting how many calories you consume each day. Make a column for each day and record what is in your meals, tabulating at the end of the day. Take special note of meals eaten out or special celebrations so you can see the difference. In the beginning, try to keep track of everything you eat-candy bars, energy drinks, that piece of cake at work-as well as your regular meals. Those calories can add up quickly. Subtract your daily caloric output and any exercise, and you’ll have an idea about how much you are over or under your daily use.

The amount of calories you use every day will change based on age, gender, physical activity level and weight. A pound of body fat has 3,500 calories, which means that, if are expending 500 more calories each day than you are taking in, you’ll lose about one pound per week. To put it in perspective, the Food and Drug Administration recommends men take in 2,000-2,500 calories daily, and women, 1,500-2,000 calories daily.

Of course, you don’t want to be counting calories for the rest of your life, so give yourself a goal of counting every day for two weeks. This will give you a wide enough sample to see some general trends without overburdening you. You can try to make small changes in your dietary habits and then, after a few months, count calories again for a couple of weeks to see if there are significant differences. Five hundred calories per day isn’t that many, and even small changes can make a big change.

Counting calories seems like it could be an onerous activity, but once you have your system down, it’s easy to keep track. If you eat the same meal regularly, you can quickly learn the values, and you’ll start to see healthier options as you learn more about the real caloric value of foods. Keep track of your calories and you can keep yourself on track to your weight maintenance goals.