Don’t Make These 5 Calorie Counting Mistakes! by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD, FAND

Don't Make These Calorie Counting Mistakes

Counting calories can help you keep track of what you’re eating – but you need to do it right!



Counting calories can be a great tool when you’re trying to control your weight. But, in order for calorie counting to help you, you need to do it correctly – the term “garbage in, garbage out” certainly applies here. If you don’t record everything you eat and drink, and record the portions properly, your numbers could be way off.

Related Article: Calories: What They Are and Why You Need Them

And, if you make mistakes when you count your calories, it can lead to a lot of frustration. When you think you’re capturing every calorie, but your weight just won’t budge, you may come to the (wrong) conclusion that you “just can’t lose weight”.

When people complain to me that calorie counting doesn’t work for them, I ask them to bring in their food diaries so we can look at them more carefully. And, invariably, I can usually spot where they’re making mistakes – mistakes that can sometimes add up to hundreds of calories a day.

The good news is that once you identify your calorie-counting mistakes – and correct them – your weight should start moving again.

Five Common Calorie Counting Mistakes

  • You Count Your Calories After You’ve Eaten Them. Ideally, I think the best way to keep track of your calories is to plan out your eating in advance, and tally up the calories. Having a plan in place can make you feel more committed and keep you on track but, admittedly, it can be time-consuming to pre-plan. The next best thing is to write down everything just before you eat it, for a couple of reasons. First, you’ll probably get a more accurate count since the food is sitting right in front of you. And secondly, if you tally it all up and realize it’s more than you had planned to eat, you might adjust accordingly. What you want to avoid doing is writing everything down at the end of the day. For one thing, if you ate more calories than you had planned, the damage is already done. And, if you’re relying on your memory to tell you what you’ve eaten all day, there’s a good chance you’ve forgotten something – like the five large French fries you stole from your co-worker’s plate at lunch (100 calories), the half slice of buttered toast left on your child’s breakfast plate (75 calories), or the last few spoons of mashed potatoes left in the saucepan on the stove (120 calories).
  • You Forget the Extras In and On Your Food. It’s amazing how quickly the little extras can add up, and yet many people fail to count the “extras” like condiments, cream and sugar, salad dressings and sauces. You may think you only put a “splash” of cream in your coffee, but just 2 Tablespoons of cream adds about 40 calories to a cup of coffee. Repeat that a few times during the morning and the calories start to add up. If it’s “just a salad” you’re having for lunch, you need to break it down completely – and make sure to account for items like salad dressing (at about 75 calories a tablespoon), croutons (100 calories for a large handful) and sunflower seeds (50 calories a tablespoon). A drizzle of oil on your veggies, a smear of almond butter on your apple, a squirt of mayonnaise in your tuna salad… they all add up.
  • You Forget to Count Liquids. I don’t know why so many people forget to account for liquid calories, but often when I’m looking over someone’s food diary, there are no beverages listed. I think it’s a good idea to write down everything you drink – even if you think there are no calories – because it can help you to keep track of your fluid intake. But, there’s another good reason: the calories can add up fast. Most people know sugary sodas are loaded with calories, but are less aware of the calories in beer, wine, mixed drinks, sweetened teas, coffee drinks, lemonade, and fruit and vegetable juices. Then there are the more trendy beverages such as chia seed drinks, kombucha and vinegar based drinks, coconut water and maple water…the list goes on and on. Calories vary, but they all count.
  • You Don’t Weigh and Measure. I can’t stress enough how important it is to weigh and measure as much as you can, and not just rely on averages like “half a chicken breast” or “a medium apple”. I’ve seen cooked chicken breasts as small as 3 ounces (100g) and as large as 8 ounces (250g). What you call a “medium” apple could, in fact, be twice as large the standard size that’s used to calculate the calories – and, therefore, it has twice the calories, too.
  • You Don’t Pay Attention to Portion Sizes on the Package. If you assume that your package of chips or bottle of green juice is one serving, you might want to take a closer look at the nutrition facts panel. Many people make the mistake of thinking that moderately-sized packages and bottles contain just a single serving – and, therefore, assume that the calories listed on the nutrition facts panel are for the entire package. But on closer inspection, don’t be surprised to find that the package of chips or bottle of juice you just polish off contains two or more servings, which means you just took in twice the calories – or more – you had thought.

Susan Bowerman is Director of Nutrition Training at Herbalife. Susan is a Registered Dietitian and a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics.


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