2.Enter them in a food log.
It seems so straightforward, doesn’t it? Then why do so many people feel frustrated that their fat loss stalls, despite faithful calorie counting?
Learning to eat in a way that sustains our goals is a skill that we have to build. For the long haul, building sustainable habits should make meticulous tracking unnecessary. However, for many people, counting calories can be a very useful way to gain data when they’re initially embarking on a fat loss program.
Yet so many people encounter brick walls when it comes to progress, despite feeling like they’re doing all the right things. I feel you — it is frustrating! We swear up and down that we’re eating at a number that should easily produce results. It makes NO SENSE to us that we aren’t losing weight. So what gives? Read on for 4 ways that calorie counting goes off course and what you can do about them.
1. Humans make mistakes.
User error is a huge factor in tracking. It doesn’t make us stupid. It’s just what people typically do. In the 1980’s, the USDA’s Beltsville study demonstrated that the vast majority of people underestimate their calorie intake. During a carefully-controlled study period, people’s actual intake was on average 13% higher than what they reported. 1 Yikes! Those 200-300 calories a day might not seem like that big of deal, but they can definitely put the kibosh on your progress.
Bites, Licks, and Chews
We tend to forget about little nibbles throughout the day. I’ve become pretty good at remembering to track my food when I’m monitoring my intake, and I still forget about things here and there. The 4 bites of my kid’s insanely delicious mac and cheese at dinner the other night. 6 Jelly Belly Jellybeans. Cream in my coffee counts too. Those are no big deal on their own, but the calories can quickly add up. Don’t eliminate them, for heaven’s sake, but if you have given yourself a calorie intake range, be aware of what you’re eating and account for them, at least at first so you have a better idea of how many calories you need to consume to actually put yourself in a deficit and lose fat.
The day I first looked at what 2 tablespoons of peanut butter actually looks like, I nearly wept. I love peanut butter so much I might marry it. Small handfuls of nuts seem like a healthy snack, and they can be — but they are calorically dense and if you’re tracking and mis-measure what you write down, it can heavily impact your overall intake.
How to Fix It: Buy a scale, preferably one with 1g increments. Is it insane to weigh everything you eat for the rest of your life? Yes, yes it is. A healthy lifestyle comes with being able to let loose and eat some cookies without worrying about how many grams of carbohydrates were in them. At the same time, getting a handle on exactly how much you’re actually consuming can be extremely illuminating.
Look at the my sample diary to see how underestimating our portions can result in big changes in actual calories consumed:
2. Reactive Eating.
Let’s say that you actually ate very few calories each day for 6 days. On day 7, you devoured an entire pan of brownies, 6 slices of pizza, and multiple bowls of cereal. Nobody likes to talk about it, but it happens. This behavior can put your overall caloric balance higher than where you need it to be for weight loss. Most of us can’t even bring ourselves to log it. If we set a poor target initially, all the tracking in the world won’t prevent a nose dive.
The body needs fuel. If you deprive yourself excessively, eventually the dam will give way. These are a different sort of binge than those commonly associated with eating disorders. While those are emotional in nature, reactive eating is your body’s way of trying to maintain homeostasis. Sometimes it takes the form of mindless nibbling, and other times it comes in one big binge.
The Fix: First of all, ditch the extreme diets – the ones that ban food groups or demonize a particular food. There’s nothing that makes us want a damn brownie like a diet that tells us we can’t have one. Secondly, set your caloric deficit conservatively enough that you don’t feel ravenous.
3. Calorie Tracking Apps Can Be Filthy Liars
Let’s be fair, the apps themselves are potentially great tools. But again, user error makes them only as good as the person inputting information. Last night I went onto MyFitnessPal to enter 4 ounces of beef brisket. Here’s what popped up:
When you have a label available to verify, use it. Most often I encounter trouble when logging food from a recipe I’ve made or from cooked meat.
- Raw meat will have roughly the same amount of calories as it does cooked, but due to water loss during cooking, it will weigh less. Some entries on tracking apps are measuring the calories based on the final cooked weight. Others are based on raw weight. Raw meat nutrition labels indicate the calories per ounce before cooked. When some meats are grilled or broiled, fat from the meat drains off and is not actually consumed. So that can skew your totals as well. Understanding that how you prepare your food will help you look for entries that closely match what you’ve prepared.
- Look for “verified” entries when you have multiple choices. Myfitness pal uses a green check box.
- Pay attention to how the entry is measured. Where possible, choose entries that measure with ounces or grams instead of cups or slices. What’s a slice? It depends on who’s slicing!
- For recipes, my favorite trick is to make the entire recipe and enter it as a recipe onto my app. I weigh the entire batch in grams and enter 1 serving in the total grams. From there, I weigh my portion, enter in the total grams, and like magic, it calculates my calories and nutrients for my meal. (I can’t even math, so whoever taught me this along the way, thank you thank you.)
4. Embarrassment over our choices.
I used to neglect to track my foods accurately on Myfitnesspal, a social tracking app. I mostly did this because I felt embarrassed about writing down that for lunch that day I actually ate a handful of cheetos. What would my friends think? Not all days are great days, but if we don’t have accurate information, then tracking loses its best utility – data.
Until you get to a place where you feel emotionally okay about eating without guilt or shame, make your diary private. It’s a lot easier to be honest.
Do any of these feel familiar to you? I’ve experienced all of them! Leave a comment below with any questions or challenges you have with tracking. Let’s chat about them!
- Mertz W, ed. Beltsville one-year dietary intake study. AJCN 1984;6(suppl):1323s-403s. ↩