You Probably Suck At Tracking Calories
1422 words, 7 min read time
Sorry to let you know, but it’s true.
But it’s not your fault. Truth be told, most of us do. It’s simply human nature.
Tracking your caloric intake is a fantastic way to manage your nutrition. When it comes to weight gain or weight loss, the end-all-be-all truly is your calorie intake. There aren’t many absolutes with this sort of stuff, but this is one of the few.
Don’t take this as me saying you should disregard everything that isn’t calories. It’s still important to eat a mostly balanced diet, for a variety of reasons. But for weight gain or loss, calories are #1. To gain weight, you must be consuming more calories than you burn in a day, thus to lose weight, you must consume less calories than you burn in a day.
Formally referred to as the Energy Balance Equation, or informally as CICO (calories in and calories out), this phenomenon is guaranteed by the laws of physics. It does work. Yet, many still find when they track their calories and consume less than they burn, they don’t lose weight.
There’s a lot of small but significant ways you can screw up the process and left frustrated and bewildered as you’re stuck not losing weight while evidently hardly eating anything.
Now the first logical assumption is that counting calories doesn’t work. That fat loss has nothing to do with the calories and it must be something else. Too many carbs, or sugar, or artificial ingredients or something.
Or that maybe something is simply wrong with your body and that you can’t lose fat.
But thanks to scientific research on the subject, we know that people tend to simply suck at tracking calories.
The study I’ve linked here is often used as a popular example of this being the case.
Several obese subjects who had previously failed to lose weight eating under 1200 calories a day (far under the limit required for them to lose weight) were compared to a control group of people who had no history of struggling to lose weight tracking their calories.
The researchers suspected these individuals were simply vastly underreporting how many calories they were consuming, and overestimating how many they burned while exercising, not that anything is wrong with their bodies preventing them from losing weight, or that there is another factor worth considering like sugar intake etc.
Sure enough, it was found that there were TONS of calories they were eating that were unaccounted for, up to and over 1000 calories per day, and they weren’t burning nearly as many calories working out that they thought they were.
This infographic by Ben Carpenter (Instagram: @bdccarpenter) illustrates the study very well.
Now you may be thinking, okay, I’m not obese, I have experience dieting and counting calories and have lost weight successfully. I know what I’m doing, I’m in a caloric deficit, but nothing is happening. What gives?
You probably still suck at tracking your calories and are consuming too many for weight loss.
It’s been shown that even dieticians, degree-holding experts on nutrition, still tend to under report their calorie intake.
Compared to a control group of normal people under reporting by an average of 400 cals per day, the dieticians did by 220 per day. Not much, but still enough to slow down or halt progress.
Combine that with the fact that the calorie counts on food labels we’re measuring from can be inaccurate, and that many of the entries on apps like MyFitnessPal that are user entered are vastly inaccurate, it’s incredibly easy to completely destroy any caloric deficit without realizing it.
It is possible that you have metabolic issues such as hypothyroidism which are preventing you from losing weight eating calories low enough for most to lose weight. But in 99.9% of cases, you’re just under reporting. Unless you are expressing several symptoms of hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s, it’s not really worth considering.
Common Mistakes When Tracking Calories
Measuring off inaccurate entries
By now you’re probably wondering what you could be doing which is throwing your measurements off.
First, I highly suggest double checking the accuracy of any entries on calorie tracking apps like MyFitnessPal. Most of their databases entries are created by other users, and needless to say, there’s lots of stupid people out there you shouldn’t trust.
I tell my clients to use Cronometer instead. All entries are from government databases. If you absolutely need to use an app which has a user-entered database, it’s better to just create your own entries of your most commonly eaten foods based off of government databases.
There are plenty available online with a simple google search. I like the website nutritiondata.self which is vastly more thorough compared to many other resources, including plenty of information about micronutrient content, amino acid balance, and lipid types. Overkill for what most people need, admittedly.
Not accounting for raw or cooked food
Many foods like meat lose moisture (water weight) when cooked, so weigh less than when they were raw, with largely the same nutrient content.
This means that if you’re trying to weigh out a cooked chicken breast but measure the calorie content based off of data for a raw chicken breast, you’re going to think you’re eating less calories than you really are.
This goes for foods like beans or rice as well, which take on water when cooked. If you’re weighing raw but measuring off of cooked data, you’ll be taking in way more calories than you realize.
ALWAYS make sure you weigh and measure the same exact way. As a general rule, weigh and measure as purchased. If it comes already cooked, use a cooked entry to measure with. If an entry doesn’t specify between raw or cooked, don’t use it.
Not accounting for leanness of meat
Different cuts of meat will have different levels of fat.
Chicken breast is almost entirely lean, whereas chicken thighs can be pretty fatty, and contain a lot more calories. This is why you can’t simply track “chicken”. It’s important to specify what part of the chicken.
If you’re not sure? Well, you probably shouldn’t be including large amounts of unspecified “chicken” or “pork” into your diet in the first place. What parts of the chicken are all in a nugget, anyway?
Missed little bites and snacks
Do you have a mindless eating habit? There’s a chance some things are going untracked that you don’t even realize. You may want to avoid eating anything outside of set meals.
Or, do you take little nibbles of things here and there, figuring that it can’t amount to much? It might not. It may only have a very minimal impact, but coupled with some of the above issues, can add up to enough to matter. Especially for something packed with calories like nuts. A small handful can be a few hundred calories as is.
Only tracking during the week
If you track 5 days a week, creating a calorie deficit of 500 per day, it’s entirely possible to ruin it over the weekend by eating too much.
Let’s say you burn 2500 cals a day, so you eat 2000 to create a deficit of 500. If you eat 1250 over that only two days in a week, or 3250 calories, that completely cancels out any deficit you created, as the average of your weekly calorie intake comes out to 2500 calories, how much it takes for you to maintain weight.
Now 1250 sounds like a lot. But a few 300 calorie slices of pizza, 200 calorie sodas and beers, with slightly larger portions of your other foods because you’re not weighing them, and that can go by quickly and easily.
Eyeballing instead of weighing
I’ll let this infographic by @thefitnesschef_ do the talking.
You’re not actually counting calories if you’re not using a food scale. That’s just estimating.
Making several of these mistakes!
Oftentimes, it isn’t just one of these mistakes that are the culprit. It’s a combination of several in small degrees that all together, make a sizable difference.
For further reading on the subject, James Krieger, who is a fantastic resource for evidence-based information, put out a fantastic article on the subject that dives much deeper than I did here, with all sorts of other links and references on the subject. If you’re into that sort of thing.
If instead you prefer things that are made simple and practical for the average person and skip over most of the science of how and why things work, feel free to browse more of my articles, and sign up for my free program full of all sorts of other goodies. You’ll also receive an email notification every time I put out a new article.
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