Many experts agree that when it comes to weight loss, it really boils down to how many calories you consume and how many you burn. If you consume fewer calories than you burn, dieticians generally agree that you will lose weight.

So how can you get to that ideal ratio? One idea is to exercise more and therefore burn more calories, but you still have to be conscious of how many calories you take in. After all, exercise can make you hungrier, so that your ratio of calories burned and consumed does not change much.

Cutting calories is considered by many to be a necessary first step to weight loss. One thing that is generally agreed upon in this regard is, don’t “crash diet” and cut calories suddenly and severely. This may result in rapid weight loss, but it may also result in nutrient deficiency and an overall shock to your system. Here are some tips on cutting calories the smart way.

1. Keep a food diary

Writing down what you eat and its caloric value is a good place to begin. The web has some great resources for the calorie-conscious. There are sites dedicated to counting the calories in an enormous variety of foods – you type in the food, and the calorie counter will show you how many calories that food contains.

Talk with your doctor or a nutritionist about how many calories a person of your build should take in each day. Rather than guessing, ask about how many calories you should cut in order to lose weight.

2. Focus on nutrient-dense foods

Nutrient-dense foods are those foods that pack a lot of nutrition into each calorie. Unlike sugary foods and junk foods that have very few nutrients but contain a lot of calories, nutrient-dense foods have lots of nutrients and relatively fewer calories. If you’ve heard the term “empty calories,” then this refers to foods that are the opposite of nutrient-dense ones. In other words, nutrient-dense foods have more nutrition per calorie than junk foods. Examples of nutrient-dense foods include:

* Vegetables such as avocados, spinach, tomatoes, and kale
* Whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat, oats, and millet
* Nuts and seeds including almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and walnuts
* Fruits such as pineapples, strawberries, apples, oranges and bananas

3. Start small

Sometimes diets fail because people try to do a major life overhaul and change everything at once. Maybe try a few things to start with, such as replacing butter and margarine with olive oil, or using a healthy sugar substitute instead of white sugar in your tea and coffee. You could cut out one food or drink, such as sugar-sweetened, carbonated beverages or French fries.

4. Restaurant tips

You could order appetizers for your meal instead of a large entree. Ask for your salad dressing on the side – it’s said that you use much less dressing when you dip each forkful of salad into the dressing than if you pour the dressing over the salad. The same technique works for pancakes and syrup. In a restaurant, watch out for high-calorie beverages, like specialty coffee drinks, sugary tea and lemonade, and alcohol. Stick with water when dining out.