Calorie counting is simple, right?
It’s as simple as:
- Step 1: Look at nutrition info
- Step 2: Add everything up
As someone who failed the math in high school, even I can do that.
But there’s one big mistake people make.
With more and more people relying on Google and food tracking apps like MyFitnessPal, our biggest assets is actually causing the biggest problem.
Here’s what I mean.
Let’s say you go out to a Japanese restaurant and order some teriyaki chicken bowl with white rice.
You want to track calories but you’re not sure how many calories are in the bowl.
So you go to google and literally search “teriyaki chicken bowl calories.”
The following information shows up:
Oh man, this is my nightmare.
Because I know a huge chunk of people are going to literally take 220 calories and log that as their meal.
The biggest mistake people make with calorie counting is blindly using calorie data they find online.
I get it.
You’re at a restaurant where the nutrition info isn’t available.
So you Google it, trusting Google will be somewhat accurate.
But this is soooo wrong.
“Generic chicken teriyaki white rice bowl” means absolutely nothing.
You have no idea how Myfitnesspal came up with 220 calories.
The ingredient breakdown isn’t listed.
The amount of chicken or rice used isn’t listed.
Not to mention that 220 calories is not a lot, in general.
That’s the equivalent of 2-3 slices of bread or 1 scoop of ice cream.
Chances are that chicken teriyaki bowl was a lot closer to 600-800 calories.
The sauce some places use are absolute calorie orgies.
And when you do this multiple times per day/week, it’s no wonder that so many people don’t lose weight despite “counting calories.”
Yes, technically you are tracking calories…
…But the way you’re doing it is highly inaccurate.
Blindly taking nutrition info off any website can heavily skew your calorie intake so you end up eating much more than you think.
“That’s what Myfitnesspal said.”
You can go to a coffee shop and order a chocolate doughnut.
But you can’t just log whatever calorie value you want.
Take a look at the search results for “chocolate doughnut” in Myfitnesspal.
I once had a client tell me that he was tracking calories like a mad man but wasn’t losing weight.
He sent me his Myfitnesspal food logs.
I looked through his logs and he was eating a doughnut every day.
Which is cool if it’s being tracked correctly.
But then I saw that he was logging each doughnut as 200 calories.
He said “That’s what Myfitnesspal said.”
But turns out, the doughnut he was eating was much closer to 500 calories per doughnut.
That calorie 300 difference, done on a daily basis, will destroy your results.
So what can you do to actually track calories accurately?
Well above all else, stop blindly following nutrition content for anything you Google or find on Myfitnesspal.
But I’ve also found these 2 tips help the most:
Learn to estimate the calorie count for “base” foods
“Base” foods are foods like:
- 3 oz chicken breast
- 3 oz salmon
- 3 oz lean beef
- 1 bowl of rice
- 1 large egg
- 10 almonds
- 1 slice of plain white bread
These foods, no matter where you eat them, will have approximately the same calorie counts across the board.
No matter where you eat plain steamed white rice, it’s the same calorie count.
Why should you learn to estimate the calorie count for base foods?
Because they form the foundation for more complex foods and dishes.
Looking at the chicken teriyaki example again…
If you know the base food calories, you can break down the entire dish pretty accurately.
In other words, if you know there’s about 300 calories worth of rice in the bowl already, then you wouldn’t use the 220 calorie count that Myfitnesspal listed for the entire bowl.
Let’s break the entire bowl down.
Random Chicken teriyaki bowl breakdown:
- 1.5 cups of steamed white rice – 300 calories
- 4 oz grilled chicken – 200 calories
- Steamed veggies – not worth tracking
- Teriyaki sauce – About an extra 100-300 calories.
So on the high end, the entire bowl might be 800 calories, which sounds a helluva lot more accurate than 220.
Of course nothing is ever 100% accurate, but the important thing is that you’re in the right ball park now.
Ask yourself – Does this make sense?
Let’s say you’re eating the slice of carrot cake in the picture below.
How many calories would you say that is?
If you Google it, and it says it’s only 120 calories for one slice, ask yourself – does this make sense?
Does it really make sense for a slice of carrot cake to have the same amount of calories as a 1.5 eggs?
No it doesn’t.
Most carrot cake uses a crap ton of butter, sugar, and nuts, so the calorie count is going to be naturally high.
If I had to take a guess, I’d say the slice of carrot cake above is 300-400 calories.
So the next time you look up the calorie count of a dish online and it sounds too good to be true…it probably is.
It’s okay to not give a shit (every now and then)
I really don’t like or enjoy strict calorie counting.
It restricts your ability to eat the foods you want and enjoy life.
But at the same time, I really don’t like it when people are royally fucking up their diet because they think the hot dog they ate that’s the size of Ron Jeremy’s dick is only 200 calories.
Balance is key.
You should be able to go out to eat whatever you want.
But you can’t do that every day, be misinformed of the calorie counts, and wonder why you’re not losing weight.
That’s not how this works.
How do you track calories? Are you just using whatever information you find online, or are you making strategic and educated guesses?
I personally check several sites to see if they say the same thing and if it matches the nutrition label. Usually they do so no problem. Another great and useful article. Thanks a lot !
Ya that’s good.
Problem is a lot of people will take the lowest value or whatever value just “looks good” or is convenient and that can heavily skew their calorie intake if done enough.
I actually heard someone at the gym the other day say they thought something was medically wrong with them because they couldn’t lose weight. They went to the doctor and found out nothing was wrong so then said they must just be fat. If you say a slice of cake is 100 calories when the icing alone is probably 200 that doesn’t mean there is something medically wrong with you or that you’re just fat.
I, on the other hand round everything up to my best WAG (Wild Ass Guess).
Portion is my goal- enough for taste, but not a gut filler either.
I always overestimate on calories, and try not to eat food with extra sauces and stuff piled on top of it. Every so often I eat whatever, but I can’t do that everyday. Intermittent Fasting has really helped me control my diet. Thanks Keith as always for your blog and advice.
Ya the sauces on some stuff can be killer.
I try to follow more what you are saying in this article. Actually, this same example is perfect. The frozen steamed teriyaki chicken is about 400 calories. That would be awesome, but unfortunately, my favorite Chinese restaurant is more akin to 1000 calories in their chicken teriyaki. I try to be honest with myself as much as possible, so my (not) weight loss is not a surprise. I try to use common sense, knowing my glazed doughnut is probably not 150 calories 🙁
Cracks me up that people count exercise into their calorie total. What a joke. I use the exercise to make up for the “Fudge Factor” on what I log. I would never go for a walk and credit myself with 200 calorie bonus. Most online calculators give you more calories to spend when you work out…I consider that a joke big time…
hah yeah. I usually don’t count exercise calories unless I really do something extreme that day, then I’ll eat a little bit more without guilt.
Awesome article. I always try to break up the meal when I go out. It’s definitely not the most accurate, but if you’re only doing it now and then I think it’s fine. I think a lot of people get overwhelmed with “counting” and just go through the motions to say they do it instead of being thoughtful about it. I tend to eat a lot of the same foods anyway so it’s really not that big of a deal to track. Overtime it gets a lot easier. I really like the approach you took on this article.
thanks man. Calorie counting is simple in theory but when put in practice, it’s a little harder than it looks. Just takes time.
As You said the biggest mistake people make with calorie counting is blindly using calorie data they find online
You don’t need to count calories so meticulously if you
1) eliminate the rice, bread, and sauces… and other carbs
2) eat one main meal a day
3) are active
You’ll lose fat
true but then you lose too much flexibility with your diet.
You messed up your article with bad language and referring to Ron Jeremy’s size!
have you seen it? it’s quite impressive.
I started losing end of September 2019, 5 foot 7 and started at 208.6 pounds. I know some have told me that’s not a huge number compared to what people see online, but IMHO that was pretty piggy; too much letting myself go over the years, too many beers, etc.
Anyway I’m completely blind so some of the package related stuff is kind of challenging when it comes to reading all the info.
Beside that, I cut out all sugars except for frozen berries and maybe an occasional other piece of fruit, all processed foods and all grains. Each day I pick between meat or mixed nuts, and have a portabello mushroom and either uncooked greens or roasted cauliflower and brussels sprouts. Doing the One Meal A Day. I supplement that with some frozen berries. Eat them frozen, you won’t eat too many, maybe a handful or two.
Very imprecise, I get that, but as of Nov 6 I am down 20 pounds.
Now I just have to learn to be content if all I lose is one or two pounds a week, would rather it be more. But I just want back to my thinner self. Feels like shedding that uncomfortable suit you wear to the rare occasion.
I know this isn’t calories, but taking the stairs all the time helps. I don’t mean just take the stairs, but if you need to go up / down a few flights, use that as a perfectly good excuse to turn around and redo that up / down a few more times for good measure. Every time.
Oh and no grazing / snacking at all. I’d allowed myself to get into the snacking habit, something I just didn’t do much of when I was younger. So my studio is food-free forever. I eat in the kitchen or at the table only. Those little things add up. And the devices that cound calories like to cound prepackaged foods which I’m not eating anymore, or want you to judge ounces, which I guestimate.
Anyway, ‘preciate the article, Mother Earth must have turned me on to your website else I’d have never found it haha.