Counting calories can be an effective way to lose or maintain weight. But, for most people, tallying every bite of food isn't fun, realistic or sustainable in the long run.
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That said, without calorie-tracking tools, the majority of us are pretty bad at guessing how many calories we eat each day. Indeed, people tend to be misinformed about calories and often underestimate the number they consume, according to a study in Appetite published online in October 2019.
But don't panic. You don't need to number crunch for the rest of your life. Here, registered dietitian Laura Burak, RD, CDN, shares tips on how to estimate and monitor calories without tracking every last one.
1. Use a Calorie-Tracking App at First.
Even if you don't plant to count calories forever, a calorie-tracking app like MyPlate could be a useful tool when it comes to estimating calories in the long run.
Calorie-tracking apps not only show you calorie counts for foods, but they can also teach you about a healthy range of calories for someone your weight, height and age, says Burak. That way you can make healthier, more informed choices.
For example, when you walk into a Starbucks, you'll know that a 500-calorie Frappuccino represents one third of the calories you should consume in a day, and that your calories may be better spent on wholesome, nutrient-dense foods.
Download the MyPlate app to get started.
2. Get Familiar with Portion Sizes.
When you're estimating calories, knowing proper portion sizes is half the battle. "Most of my clients have no idea what a standard portion looks like," says Burak, adding that portion distortion is to blame. Over the last 20 years, portion sizes have doubled, per the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (These days, on average, a single restaurant portion can feed a family of three!)
With super-sized servings at fast-food joints and restaurants skewing your judgment, how can you tell what a healthy portion size really looks like? Check out the LIVESTRONG.com guide to portion control, which breaks it all down.
Then, to really get the hang of things, Burak suggests buying a set of liquid and dry measuring cups: "Practice measuring out a standard portion a few times so that, eventually, eyeballing a serving becomes second nature."
3. Overestimate Calories When You Dine Out.
Odds are you're underestimating the number of calories you consume when you eat at a restaurant. In a 2018 poll of 2,200 Americans conducted by Morning Consult, people who were asked to estimate calories for 40 popular restaurant foods miscalculated by an average of 110 calories. What's more, they tended to undercount by 165 calories. The problem? If you think you're ingesting fewer calories, you're more likely to eat more.
In fact, a November 2014 study published in Public Health Nutrition found that people who eat out end up consuming an extra 200 calories, plus more saturated fat. So, what can you do to curb overindulging when you're dining out? For starters, overestimate your calories. That is, assume that your meal is going to cost you more calories and prepare in advance.
"Try to have a snack within two hours before your meal so you don't head to the restaurant famished, dive into the bread basket, order unhealthy choices on the menu and end up overeating," says Burak, who also suggests filling up on foods with high water content like salad and veggie-based broths or satiating, protein-rich appetizers like shrimp cocktail.
4. Mind Your Body
"There is no better tool than listening to your body to show you how much food you need," says Burak. When you honor your hunger and heed your stomach's signals of fullness, you trust your body to know what it wants and needs from food.
The practice of intuitive eating can take a great deal of time and patience. "But eventually, when you begin to pay attention, you will discover that your body is completely capable of telling you how much you need without ever having to count or measure anything," says Burak.
5. Don't Try to Be Perfect
Don't drive yourself nuts trying to estimate every measly calorie. Practicing portion control and having a general idea about calorie counts will help you stay on track when it comes to healthy eating. Fact is, you'll never be able to guess right 100 percent of the time, and that's okay.
What's not okay? Putting pressure on yourself to be perfect 24/7. "Eating will never be perfect, you will not always make the healthiest choices and you will overeat at times," says Burak, who chalks it up to normal life. "One meal or day will never affect your weight or health unless you let it turn into many days, weeks and months." So, instead of beating yourself up, just make a healthier choice next time.
- Morning Consult: “Americans Are Actually Pretty Good at Counting Calories.”
- Public Health Nutrition: “The impact of restaurant consumption among US adults: effects on energy and nutrient intakes.”
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “Do You Know How Food Portions Have Changed in 20 Years?”
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: “2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
- Appetite: “Mixed messages: Assessing interactions between portion-size and energy-density perceptions in different weight and sex groups.”