We know weight loss happens when we create a calorie deficit — which makes understanding how to track your calories a pretty important part of the equation. And while it seems like simple add and subtract, there's a bit more to it than that.
Here, we've pulled together seven of the most common mistakes when it comes to calorie counting, along with helpful tips on how to get it right.
1. Budgeting Calories by Day, Not By Meal
The age-old calorie-counting strategy has always been to set a target calorie goal for the day, but it turns out that budgeting by meal may be a better way to go. New research published in the August 2019 edition of the Journal of Consumer Research found that when dieters planned and budgeted their calories by meal, they actually set lower calorie budgets for the entire day, almost 100 calories less in fact.
How does this work? The thinking is that, because weight loss is the motivation, by setting goals at each meal, you are given more opportunities to act on this motivation versus just setting one goal for the day.
2. Overestimating How Many Calories You Really Need
You're working out, tracking calories and still not losing weight. What gives?
Chances are you're overestimating how many calories you're burning during your spin sesh or WOD. A comprehensive review published June 2012 in Obesity Reviews found that people tend to overcompensate for their workouts come meal time — and the harder the workout, the more calories they take in.
The fix? Try keeping a digital food diary. Using a tracking app like LIVESTRONG.com's MyPlate helps you see how many calories you're really burning in a workout, right alongside your meals and calorie intake, so you can plan accordingly and adjust as needed.
Read more: Recommended Caloric Intake for Weight Loss
3. Not Tracking on the Weekends
Many people feel extra motivated to start making healthy changes on Mondays, which is all well and good. But when they lose that motivation come Friday, or take the weekends "off," that's when results can stall.
According to LIVESTRONG.com's MyPlate data, 15 percent of users give up tracking by the weekend. Consider this: Saturday and Sunday make up almost 30 percent of the week — a significant chunk of time that can help or hinder your progress.
4. Misjudging Portions
Getting portion sizes wrong is a big deal when it comes to tracking your intake. An extra tablespoon of olive oil and a couple extra ounces of meat means a few hundred more calories. Knowing your portions helps you more accurately determine how much food you're eating at each meal, which will ultimately help you succeed at losing weight.
Portion sizes can be confusing, but meal prep is great practice, as it prompts you to pre-portion your meals in advance. Learning this skill can help you eyeball appropriate portions, which can be especially helpful when dining out. A May 2013 study published in the British Journal of Medicine found that we grossly underestimate the calorie content of our meals when dining out — in some cases by about 20 percent.
5. Not Tracking Between-Meal Snacks and Bites
A few pieces of chocolate from the office candy jar, a couple of bites off your partner's plate, a handful of trail mix from the pantry… they seem innocuous, but these between-meal noshes add up. And the truth is, we're all doing it — according to a July 2015 Mintel study, 94 percent of Americans are snacking on a daily basis.
Also, a June 2019 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that about 70 percent of the food employees are eating at work comes from the "freebies," i.e. birthday goodies or group lunches. Unfortunately, these foods are typically high in refined grains, saturated fat and sugar, and low in fruits, vegetables and whole grains (think: cake and pizza).
The takeaway: If you're going to track calories, make sure you're tracking your three squares along with any snacks and unexpected eats.
6. Misreading Food Labels
Does reading the nutrition label on food packaging sometimes feel like quantum physics? You're not alone. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently conducted a study on a group of more than 3,000 U.S. adults and found that most had trouble interpreting what the labels meant. About 25 percent couldn't determine how many calories were in the container of food, and 40 percent couldn't calculate the percentage daily value of calories in a single serving. Understanding the number of servings in a container and the number of calories per serving is crucial when tracking calories.
Need help? Check out LIVESTRONG.com's guide to breaking down a nutrition label.
7. Believing That 'a Calorie is a Calorie'
Tracking calories is important for weight loss, but we also need to consider the actual quality of the food we're eating, not just the quantity. If your daily calorie goal is 1,800 calories and you're filling up on chocolate cake and chips, you're really doing yourself a disservice. Junk food is void of any beneficial vitamins and minerals, and it's certainly lacking in satiating whole grains and fiber and, in most cases, protein.
Instead, maximize your calorie intake by focusing on nutrient-dense foods that will fill you up and keep you healthy.
- Journal of Consumer Research: "Contraction with Unpacking: When Unpacking Leads to Lower Calorie Budgets"
- Obesity Reviews: "Why Do Individuals Not Lose More Weight from an Exercise Intervention at a Defined Dose? An Energy Balance Analysis"
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Foods and Beverages Obtained at Worksites in the United States"
- Mintel: "A Snacking Nation: 94% of Americans Snack Daily"
- British Journal of Medicine: Consumers’ Estimation of Calorie Content at Fast Food Restaurants: Cross Sectional Observational Study""
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention: "US Consumers’ Understanding of Nutrition Labels in 2013: The Importance of Health Literacy"