Counting calories accurately is a lot easier said than done. Here are eight tips to help you get more skilled at counting calories—those you eat, and those you burn.
It’s been reported over and over again that most of us eat a lot more calories than we think we do. And when we exercise, we don’t burn off nearly as many calories as we’d like to think. Yes, there’s probably a little bit of self-deception and wishful thinking involved. But learning how to accurately count your “calories in” and your “calories out” can be a real challenge. If you unknowingly make errors in calorie counting, it can leave you really frustrated. You’re sure that you’re doing everything right, but the scale says otherwise. And you’re tempted to just throw up your hands and give up dieting altogether.
It’s understandable. After all, when you’re sure that you’re counting all your calories correctly but nothing is happening, it’s easy to convince yourself that the only way you can lose weight is to practically starve yourself. Or work out for hours a day. Or both. You might even start to think that you just can’t lose weight at all.
Before you throw in the towel, let me say this: Counting calories accurately takes a lot of practice, and an understanding of where things can go wrong. If it makes you feel any better, even dietitians have a trouble estimating calories sometimes—and we do this all the time. But there are some things you can do that will help to make your calorie counting more accurate, and help you to feel less out of control.
If you’re not very familiar with portion sizes, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to weigh and measure your foods. Invest in a scale, measuring cups and measuring spoons to get you started. In order to be as accurate as possible, you need to know when to weigh and when to measure. Liquids can be measured by pouring them into cups, jugs or measuring spoons.
Ideally, solid foods should be weighed, rather than put into a measuring cup, because there’s less room for error. Let’s say you’re measuring a cup of cooked pasta. You might not have thought about it, but a cup of small pasta shapes like little shells is going to have more calories than a cup of a large pasta shapes like big tubes. Why? Because the shells pack more tightly in the measuring cup; therefore, the cup of shells will weigh more. And that’s how you’re eating more calories.
Even if you think you know portion sizes pretty well, I’d encourage you to weigh and measure as often as you can. If you eat a grilled chicken breast every day, it’s better to weigh it so you can better calculate the calories, rather than just noting that you ate one chicken breast. Not all chicken breasts are the same size.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is that they only write down the major items that they eat and omit the “extras.” With the exception of plain water or tea, write down everything that passes your lips, no matter how small. Yes, the cream in your coffee, spreads on your sandwich, dressings on your salad, sauces on your fish, your taste tests while cooking and the fries you swipe off your friend’s plate. It may seem trivial, but even things like breath mints and certain sweeteners can add up if you eat enough of them.
If you’re logging, do it every day. Too many people abandon their food diaries on the weekends, during which time they can do a lot of damage. Keep track of what you’re eating as the day goes along (ideally, before you even eat). If you wait to write it all down at the end of the day, it’s unlikely that you’ll remember every little thing you ate. Whether it’s a pen and paper diary, an online tracker or an app for your phone, find a system that’s easy and convenient for you to use every day.
You might have a handful of recipes that you turn to frequently at home. If that’s the case, it’s worth taking a little extra time to calculate the calories in the entire recipe, and then determine the calories per serving. And a bonus tip: once you take a closer look at the calorie count in your recipe, you might want to give your recipe a makeover to lighten it up.
The number of calories burned during a particular exercise varies from person to person, because of differences in body weight. The heavier a person is, the more energy (calories) required to move that body—and, therefore, the more calories burned per minute of exercise.
If you’re charting how many calories you’re burning through exercise, make sure that your weight gets factored into the equation. A 110-pound (50kg) person who plays racquetball for an hour will burn about 525 calories. But someone who weighs 175 pounds (80kg) will burn more than 850 calories during that same hour.
Exercise equipment at your gym might provide you with an estimate of calories burned, but unless you input your body weight into the machine you won’t get an accurate reading. Without that option, exercise equipment typically uses a ‘standard’ body weight of about 150 pounds (68kg) to estimate calories burned. If you weigh less than that, your calorie burn will be less, too.
Again, if your gym equipment gives you an estimate of the calories you burned while exercising, the assumption is that you were doing the exercise correctly. But if you hang onto the handrails while you’re on the treadmill, or you take short steps on the stair climbing machine (instead of using your full range of motion), you’ll burn fewer calories than you would if you were performing the exercise correctly.
Suppose you find an online calculator that allows you to look up the activity you’re performing, and it also lets you plug in your body weight and the number of minutes that you exercised. So far, so good. But keep in mind that you should only be counting the actual minutes you’re engaging in that activity. If you are swimming, for example, and you stop every few laps to take a breath, that’s a minute or two that you’re not swimming. Even if you swim laps for an hour, did you really swim laps nonstop at the same pace for exactly 60 minutes? If not, you didn’t burn as many calories as you think you did.
Also, be skeptical of ads for workouts that claim to burn hundreds of calories per session. In many cases, the workouts are extremely demanding, and you’ll only torch hundreds of calories if you give 100% effort for the entire workout with no slowing of your pace and no breaks. That’s something that few people may actually do.
Susan is the Sr. Director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife, where she is responsible for the development of nutrition education and training materials, and is one of the primary authors of the Herbalife-sponsored blog, www.discovergoodnutrition.com. She is a Registered Dietitian and holds two Board Certifications from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and a Certified Specialist in Obesity and Weight Management. Susan is also a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Susan graduated with distinction in biology from the University of Colorado, and received her master’s degree in Food Science and Nutrition from Colorado State University. She then completed her dietetic internship at the University of Kansas. Susan has taught extensively and developed educational programs targeted to individuals, groups and industry in her areas of expertise, including health promotion, weight management and sports nutrition.
Prior to her role at Herbalife, she was the assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, and has held appointments as adjunct professor in nutrition at Pepperdine University and as lecturer in nutrition in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Susan was a consultant to the (then) Los Angeles Raiders for six seasons, and was a contributing columnist for the Los Angeles Times Health Section for two years. She is a co-author of 23 research papers, 14 book chapters, and was a co-author of two books for the public: “What Color is Your Diet?” and “The L.A. Shape Diet” by Dr. David Heber, published by Harper Collins in 2001 and 2004, respectively.