Counting Calories – Your essential guide to calculating calories in … and out-
by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD, FAND
It’s been reported over and over again that most of us eat a lot more calories than we think we do – and that 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. And, 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.
Calories In and Calories Out – Tips for Counting Calories More Accurately
Counting Calories Takes Practice
But 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.
Calories In – Tips For Counting The Calories You Eat More Accurately
Know when to weigh and when to measure.
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 poured into cups (or jugs or measuring spoons) and measured that way, but solid foods should – ideally – 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 – and therefore the cup of shells will weigh more – and so you’re eating more calories.
Measure accurately and write it down.
Even if you think you know portion sizes pretty well, I’d encourage you to weigh and measure as often as you can. Even 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 “1 chicken breast”. Not all chicken breasts are the same size.
Count everything you eat.
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 – the cream in your coffee, spreads on your sandwich, dressings on your salad, sauces on your fish, the “tastes” you take while cooking and the fries you swipe off your friend’s dinner plate. It may seem trivial, but even things like breath mints and certain sweeteners can add up if you eat enough of them.
Log every day.
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. And 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.
Know the calorie counts of foods you make at home.
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. Another plus – 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.
Calories Out – Tips For Counting the Calories You Burn More Accurately
Calculate calorie expenditure according to your body weight.
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) is required to move that body, and therefore the more calories burned per minute of exercise. If you are using a chart or online tool to determine 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 if you aren’t able to 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.
Perform your exercises correctly to get the most accurate measure of calories burned.
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 little short steps on the stair climbing machines (instead of using your full range of motion) you’ll be burning fewer calories than you would if you were performing the exercise correctly.
Be accurate about the duration of the exercise.
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 ‘swam 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. Similarly, 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 – something that few people may actually do.
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