Counting Calories for Weight Loss? Stop Making These 13 Mistakes

Stop making these mistakes when counting calories for weight loss

counting calories weight loss mistakes

Counting calories for weight loss consists of tracking the calories consumed to put the body in a state of negative energy balance. 

A negative energy balance means to spend more energy than what is consumed, leading to weight loss.

Therefore, counting calories can help to achieve weight loss goals when applied correctly.

In this post, you will learn how to minimize possible mistakes when you are counting calories for weight.

Let’s get started.

How does counting calories help with weight loss?

The equation to lose weight is to create a negative energy balance or energy deficit. This means spending more energy than we consume. 

In other words, it means eating fewer calories and burn more calories through physical exercise.

The maths simply work.

But, it can be difficult to apply it in practice and calculate the calories of everything you eat.

First, how do calories work?

Calories are the unit used to measure energy. The body is like a machine and calories like fuel. 

Any excess of calories will be stored as fat, leading to weight gain in the long-term. And that’s why counting calories matters for weight loss.

Let’s take this clinical trial as an example. 

Researchers studied the effect of including counting calories as a behavioral technique during weight loss programs with over 16000 participants. 

The results revealed that plans including counting calories led to around 7 lbs (3.3 kg) more weight loss than those that didn’t.  

So, it’s important.

But, the nutritional content of the food matters too, and not all calories are the same.

In other words, the principle to lose weight healthily is based on creating an energy deficit within a nutritious wholesome plan.

And also, be aware that counting calories are not an exact science – more factors affect the energy process.

Considering all this, counting calories method can help for weight loss when applied correctly.

Common counting calories weight loss mistakes

Let’s have a look into the 13 most common mistakes you may face with this technique.

1. Overestimate portion size 

We are not always good at estimating how much food our bodies need. 

Portion sizes in restaurants are most of the time bigger than what someone requires in a meal. 

This research studied the difference of portion sizes chosen by young adults between 16 to 26 years in the States compared to a similar study conducted two decades ago.

Turns out that the portion sizes in this study were 2 to 3 bigger than those selected by young adults twenty years ago.

This phenomenon has led to higher energy intake and obesity and can hinder the efforts for becoming healthier. 

Calorie counting techniques can give a better understanding of how much we are consuming. 

It can help undistort what we perceive to be a normal portion size. 

2. Misreport food intake

Reporting what we eat means to keep records of the food intake after we consume it. 

But, most people aren’t good at reporting accurately what they eat.

Let’s look at this research that estimated the misreporting energy levels in food records from thirty-seven relevant studies. 

The percentage of under-reporters was about 30% and energy intake was underestimated by approximately 15%.

This can be a problem in making dietary assessments and can hinder weight loss efforts.

3. Make imprecise measurements

When we apply the calorie counting method we need to measure the quantities of the food and drinks we consume.

We can use the following measurement techniques: 

  • Food weigh scales
  • Standard measuring cups and spoons
  • Hand-size portions 
  • Eyeball measurements 

The first one is the most accurate, but can be impractical.Measuring cups and spoons can also be accurate if applied correctly. 

For example, one spoon is measured by filling the spoon and scraping its level, but not overflowing it.

Hand-size portions are the most practical way to control food intake. 

Here, the palm, the fist, a cupped hand, and the thumb are the references to evaluate portions sizes. 

And, eyeball measurements are the most common ones, which means to estimate roughly by sight. 

But we are not very good at this, especially for big portion sizes.

In this study, they compared the underestimation of calories by overweight and normal-weight adults of small and big portions sizes. 

They didn’t use any measurement tool but their sight.

Turns out that the obese participants made much greater underestimations in the calorie count. 

And the bigger the portion size, the larger the miscalculation. 

4. Misinterpret the serving size in food labels

Understanding food labels correctly are not always easy. 

We may assume that a packet or a bottle is one serving, without reading properly the nutrition facts.

But this is most of the time, not the case.

So, have a closer look at the nutrition facts and small letters. 

It’s always written the serving size, and sometimes, also the number of servings per container.

5. Underestimate the inaccuracy of food labels and databases

Methods to calculate food calories are averages, and therefore, food labels are also very imprecise.

Did you know that the FDA (Foods and Drugs Administration) allows an error in labels of  20%?

That means that 100 calories mean something from 80 to 120.

If you add this margin of error in each food along your day, the calories you consume may be different than what you think.

6. Forget to count the liquids

Drinks have calories – except plain water and herbal teas.

The replacement of water with other beverages has been an important factor in the increase of obesity in modern times. 

Fruit juices, fizzy drinks, and flavored milk provide important quantities of calories.

A typical serving of fruit juice can provide between 100 to 200 calories. 

So, don’t forget to include them in your records.

7. Disregard the extras in and on the food

Underestimating sauces and salad dressings is a common mistake when counting calories.

A salad may be perceived as healthy, even when it is topped with a processed cheese sauce high in sugar and fats.

Then, the number of calories increases more than you probably were expecting.

For example, taking the USDA database as a reference, one tablespoon of mayonnaise adds 90 calories and one of Caesar dressing 60 calories, while one of French dressing just 9 calories. 

8. Take no account of cooking methods and oils

The calorie content from eating veggies raw or deep-fried is not the same. 

Certain cooking methods require oil, butter, or other fat, adding up calories to your meal.

Also, cooking food causes a loss of water content, affecting the number of calories by weight.

For example, 100 gr fried chicken gives 187 calories, while 100 gr fast food deep-fried chicken gives 387 calories.

9. Underestimate the importance of fiber

Fiber is a type of nutrient essential for your health.

Fiber balances your gut bacterias and helps create important nutrients for your body. 

But it has no calories and it can be overlooked in diets based on counting calories.

Sources of it are vegetables, fruits, and wholesome grains.

10. Believe all calories are the same

It’s not the same 100 calories from carrots than 100 calories from a cake.

Not all the calories are the same.

Calories in your meal come from its content of fat, proteins, carbohydrates, and simple sugars.

But, although they all provide calories, they have different impacts on your body.

For example, sugar is more likely to be stored as fat than the same amount of complex carbohydrates.

11. Overlook the nutritive value of foods focusing on calories

Focusing too much calorie counting can underrate the importance of the nutritive value of foods. 

A healthy weight loss plan has to be balanced in all nutrients.

Counting calories is not the only principle for weight loss, but a tool for food intake control. 

12. Choose processed products over fresh wholesome foods

Counting calories may make people choose processed foods to use the information on the nutritional labels or attracted by “low-calorie” claims.

But fresh wholesome foods have more content in vitamins and minerals.

And most low-calorie processed products have higher content in sugar and artificial sweeteners.

So, as a general rule, fresh and wholesome foods are always recommended.

13. Define diet mainly in terms of calories 

Defining your diet only on the calories consumed overlooks all the other factors and nutrients essential to health.

Some of these factors are:

  • The balance of all nutrients
  • The presence of fresh unprocessed over-processed foods
  • The variety and diversity of foods
  • The intake of fiber and water
  • The intake of alcohol and coffee 

Takeaway

The principle of weight loss is to put the body into a state of negative energy balance, which means the energy expenditure exceeds the energy intake. 

More energy out than energy in.  

Therefore, the method of counting calories can help with weight loss when applied correctly within a nutritious and wholesome program. 

(Nutritionist coach and health writer)

Miriam is a certified Nutritionist and coach by ISSA and in Advanced Nutrition by Hong Kong University, and she has dedicated last decade to promote healthy lifestyles and education in nutrition. She is the author of the book series Food Wisdom under the pen name Broccoli People, in which she explains the principles of nutrition in an easy and intuitive way. You can follow her at www.broccolipeople.com.