Calorie Counting Works…But You’re Doing It Wrong

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If you’re attempting calorie counting to lose weight and you’re not getting the results that you want, there’s a few things that could be going wrong.

At the end I’m going to talk about how you can move on from calorie counting.

Underestimating Calories

You’re probably underestimating the number of calories that you’re taking in.

We are all very bad estimators. There’s pretty solid research that shows that most people will under report their calorie intake by 40 to 50 percent.

Even dieticians have been shown to be off by about 10 percent.

I’m going to give you some tips to increase the accuracy of your calorie counting.

 Calorie Counting In Real Time

Because most of us have our phones with us wherever we go, it’s a good idea to record your food intake throughout the day rather than waiting until the end of the day and trying to figure out what you actually ate.

Being as accurate as possible with your calorie counting is really important.

Weighing And Measuring For Calorie Counting

If you’re just starting out with the process, it’s a really good idea to have a food scale and some measuring cups so you can get a better idea of what those portion sizes look like.

What does a quarter cup look like? And what does one cup look like? How does a tablespoon look like compared to a teaspoon?

Weighing and measuring is really important at the beginning. And it can be really eye-opening.

If you start off just guessing chances are that you’re going to be underestimating your calorie intake.

People like to think that serving sizes are a lot larger than they actually are. This is particularly important for things like peanut butter that a lot of us enjoy and have a tendency to over consume this is one tablespoon of peanut butter that’s 90 calories and I think most of us could probably have three or four of these at once.

It’s really important to pay attention to the serving sizes on the packages and make sure that you’re just having the amount that you’re recording.

Guessing on that serving size is generally going to mean that you’re under reporting.

Serving Sizes And Calorie Counting

This is a three-quarter cup serving of ice cream and it’s about 480 calories. I know I could eat a couple of servings like this at once. That would be 960 calories.

This is a serving of corn flakes. One cup is 110 calories. That’s not much but most people won’t have this size of a serving. And then of course you’re probably having milk which adds more calories as well.

This is one serving of tortilla chips. They’re 270 calories for 50 grams. I’m sure you’ve eaten more than this at some point.

Not Recording Everything When Calorie Counting

Another mistake is that you’re not recording everything all the time.

Some people will be recording things very carefully during the week and on the weekend they’re not so careful.

If you eat 1500 calories a day from Monday to Friday and then end up eating 4 000 calories on a Saturday and 3 500 calories on a Sunday, you’re going to end up not being in a calorie deficit and not losing any weight. You might be in a caloric deficit during the week but then over the course of the week it’s actually balancing out and you’re going to stay at maintenance.

So it’s okay if you want to eat more calories on the weekends than you do during the week. In fact, you can adjust your totals so that you can enjoy yourself a little bit more and have a few more treat foods on the weekend. But you need to make sure that the overall average for the week is going to hit your calorie target.

Add Oils And Sauces

It’s also important to add oils and sauces to your calorie totals. I’ve had clients put in a chicken stir fry and they’ll put in though meat and the vegetables but they’ll forget that they mixed in some olive oil and quite a lot of olive oil actually.

Oils are 120 calories per tablespoon and it’s very easy to add three or four or five tablespoons of oil to your cooking. And if you’re not including that as part of your calorie total you’re always going to be under reporting.

Eating Out

When you eat out at a friend or a family member’s place it’s not really practical to try to figure out exactly what you’re eating.

You really just have to give it your best guess and maybe overestimate it a bit to get it a little closer to reality.

But then I suggest you just don’t worry about it. Do the best you can and then leave it move on to your next meal.

It’s a lot easier to lose weight if you’re eating more of your meals at home. But that’s not always possible we often have to eat out for work or for social occasions. You just have to be a bit more careful and try to bump up those calories beyond what you actually think they are.

It’s very common to see a restaurant meal that’s 1500 or 2000 calories. And that would be just one meal of the day. So if you make space for that in your calorie allotment for the day then you can still enjoy those things.

Using The Wrong Entries On Apps

If you’re using an app to track a big mistake is using the wrong entries so if you’ve used these apps for a certain period of time you’ll notice that there are some entries in there that are a little bit wonky.

So if you see a muffin in there and it’s like 100 calories and no fat and no sugar then it’s probably an entry that someone added that doesn’t make any sense.

You can check by perhaps Googling and finding another search besides the app that you’re using. Calorie data can vary a little bit. It’s actually one of the limitations of calorie counting but we just have to do our best guess.

Underreporting Bias

I’ve actually had a client tell me that they saw several entries for noodles and they intentionally chose the one with the lowest amount of calories.

Who wouldn’t?!

But really then you’re just kidding yourself. Just because the entry you chose has lower calories doesn’t mean that the food that you’re eating actually does have lower calories.

So it’s really important to be honest with yourself about what you’re eating and how much. If it says that a slice of cake is 350 calories, don’t go looking for the largest slice of cake. If it’s a bigger slice of cake it’s going to have more calories.

This all seems obvious but when people are recording it’s very easy to get biased towards under reporting.

Because losing weight is hard and it means breaking up habits that you might have had for a very long time.

Not Actually Hitting Your Calorie Target

Another reason you might not be getting results is because you’re not actually hitting your calorie target. You need to start off the process of weight loss by figuring out your maintenance calories and then calculating how much you need to get yourself into a calorie deficit.

Generally I set this up for my clients at 250 to 500 calories below their estimated maintenance.

The app that you’re using might already give you a calorie target based on your current weight and your particular weight loss goal.

But how often are you actually hitting that target?

I gave one of my weight loss clients a calorie goal of 2000 a day and when I looked at his daily entries he only had one day out of the entire week where his calories were 2000 or below. It’s okay to be slightly higher occasionally. So in that case maybe 2100 a couple times a week no problem. But his entries were literally 2300, 2400, 2200, 2250. Enough to actually stay in maintenance and not lose any weight.

Now your calorie deficit target is a rough estimate, so you want to treat it that way. But you need to meet that goal initially so that you can see where to go from there.

So set that number and hit that number as close as you can every day.

Allowing Extra Calories For Exercise

Now this is the one that I think is a real problem.

You’re allowing yourself extra calories for exercise.

Some of the apps are actually set up this way so I’m not surprised that people start recording their physical activity and then eating more as a result.

I don’t like this system.

The “calories in” side of the equation is already prone to inaccuracies (which we’ve already been talking about), but I would say that the “calories out” part is even less accurate.

There are rough estimates that you’ll find online for particular exercises based on your body weight and what they think that particular activity burns off.

But it’s hard to know how many calories you are actually burning off while you’re doing those activities. A lot of it depends on intensity. And if you’re not working at the intensity that they tested that particular activity then and you’re not burning off as many calories. But you think you are so then you’re going to eat more, because you think that’s okay and you’re going to end up right where you started and not losing any fat.

Inaccuracies With Calorie Counting

Cardio machines at the gym are well known for vastly overestimating how many calories you’re actually burning off.

So if a machine tells you that you’ve burned off 400 calories and you eat an additional 400 calories as a result you could end up worse off than if you didn’t exercise at all.

Here’s why.

As we’ve already talked about, most people underestimate the number of calories that they eat. So those 400 calories you think you consumed are probably 600 calories. And those 400 calories you thought you burned off are probably 250 calories. That means you could be off by 350 calories for the day. You do that often enough and you won’t be losing weight.

So make sure that you have a plan for your exercise and you know how often you’re working out. But stick to just recording your calories and keeping that constant.

Issues With Calorie Counting

Some people can get very obsessive about calories after a while. I had one client who would worry if she went over by 50 calories on a day. Then it became my job as her coach to let her know that that was okay. That’s a perfectly reasonable range and that she was still going to get the fat loss results that she wanted.

Other people get to the point where they don’t want to eat any food if they don’t know the calories. And I think you’re probably missing out on a lot of great food that way.

Moving On From Calorie Counting

Once you’ve hit your weight loss target, here’s how you can move on from calorie counting.

Most of us eat the same foods over and over again. So once you accurately know what you’ve been eating and you keep the portion sizes the same, then you can just repeat those meals over and over again. You’ll know that you’re going to stay within the right calorie range.

That means that you’re creating your own meal plan over time. Then you can keep using this and you know that you can just add or subtract certain foods if your calorie goals change. If you start to put on a little bit of fat, then you might want to drop down the servings of something or reduce one treat food that day.

That’s essentially the system that I’ve worked out for myself. I haven’t counted calories for years, but I am still using calorie counters with my clients who are just in the process of learning how to eat while keeping the calories in mind.

If you want more help to get yourself on track to weight loss click the link HERE.

Ivana Chapman

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Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman BSc BA CSCS is a Canadian fitness and nutrition coach, happy wife, and mom to an energetic 8-year-old boy. She is a YouTuber, writer, published fitness model, speaker, 3rd Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, former World Cup Karate Champion, one-time marathoner, and CBBF National level Natural Bikini competitor. She loves weight training and chocolate, not always in that order of preference.
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