Stop Lying to Yourself About Calories

Stop Lying to Yourself About Calories

One key to maintaining a healthy weight is to balance the calories you eat with the calories you burn. But that’s sometimes easier said than done.

Balancing your calories sounds deceptively simple. Eat more calories than you burn and you’ll gain weight. Take in fewer calories than you burn and you’ll shed some pounds. Keep your “calories in” and “calories out” about the same, and your weight should stay pretty stable. So, why is it that hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t complain to me that they’re “exercising like a madman, but not losing any weight,” or “eating like a bird but the scale won’t budge”? It simply boils down to this: when it comes to counting calories accurately—the ones you eat and the ones you spend—there are so many ways it can go wrong.

Let’s say you’re a pretty big guy, and you’re fairly active. And let’s say that in order to maintain your weight, you need to eat about 2700 calories a day. That adds up to a million calories in a year. If you’re calorie counting is off by a measly 10%, you’d eat 100,000 calories more than you thought in the course of a year—and you’d gain 28 pounds in the process. And that’s just an error on the ‘calories in’ side of the equation. A lot of people have trouble estimating the calorie cost of their exercise—the ‘calories out,’ too. So, if you’re having some trouble with your ‘balancing act,’ here are some of the reasons you might be struggling.

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You don’t know how many daily calories you should be eating

The logical place to start is by estimating how many calories your body burns in a day. The problem is, there are a lot of variables—including your age, your gender, how much body fat or muscle you have, and how intensely you exercise. The bulk of the calories you spend every day (about 70%) are used just to keep all your systems running—circulatory, nervous, digestive, and so on. And this ‘resting metabolic rate’ is determined by how much muscle you have. The remaining calories you burn are used to fuel your daily activity.

You can find tools to help you estimate your calorie needs, and that’s a good place to start. But keep in mind that they’re only estimates, since they can’t take into account your unique body composition. One good way to estimate your calorie needs is to keep a very accurate food diary for a week or so, and look at your average daily calorie intake. If your weight is stable, then you’re eating about the right number of calories. If you’re gaining, then you’re eating more than you need.

You underestimate how many calories you eat

Unfortunately, the information you get from your food diary depends on how accurately you record everything. Most people underestimate how many calories they eat—by as much as 40%. If you don’t weigh and measure everything—and rely instead on ‘eyeballing’ your portions—you could be way off. Also, keep in mind that the calories listed on food packages can be off by up to 10%, and the calories in restaurant dishes can be as much as 25% higher than what’s listed on the menu. As you’re writing everything down, don’t forget the extras—the condiments, the gravies and salad dressings, the sugar and cream in your coffee, the handful of crumbs you found at the bottom of the cookie jar, the few bites of pizza you ate while standing at the kitchen sink. It all counts. Every single bite.

You overestimate how many calories you burn

Most people estimate that they burn 2-3 times more calories through exercise than they actually do. Your calorie burn when you exercise depends on lots of things—your body size, how long you are actually exercising, and how intensely you work out. Many times, people aren’t working out as hard as they think they are—or for as long. One of my patients wasn’t exactly lying when she swore to me that she was ‘in the pool for an hour every day.’ It’s just that she spent most of the time sitting on the steps chatting with her girlfriends.

And your body size matters, too: the more you weigh, the more calories you burn doing a particular exercise. Someone who weighs 120 pounds burns 250 calories walking for an hour at a speed of 3 miles an hour. But a 200 pound person walking at the same speed burns over 400 calories. If you’re relying on the exercise machine at your gym to tell you how many calories you’re burning, it may not be accurate. You can find online calorie/exercise calculators that will tell you how many calories you burn per minute, based on your body weight, for a variety of activities. Just keep in mind that an hour of swimming means 60 minutes of actual movement—which isn’t the same thing as, ‘an hour in the pool.’

You reward yourself with too much rest after working out

Maybe after exercising you’re convinced that you’ve burned up a lot more calories than you actually have, so you figure you’ve earned a treat (see below). But adjusting our “calories in” as a result of exercise isn’t the only way we compensate. Sometimes we adjust our “calories out.” And after a spell of activity, we overcompensate by simply becoming a lot less active for the rest of the day. So, when all is said and done, we’ve burned about as many calories as if we hadn’t exercised at all. You need to keep up with your usual exercise and your usual daily activities, too.

You reward yourself with food after working out

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard, “I worked out really hard, so I deserved that (pizza, ice cream, beer, etc.),” I’d be a wealthy woman. Once you’ve convinced yourself that you burned off a lot more calories than you actually did (see above), it’s equally easy to convince yourself that you’ve got calories to spare—and that you couldn’t possibly overeat.

So, here’s another way to look at it. How much exercise would you actually need to do to burn off that pizza, ice cream or beer? The chart below shows how much exercise a 150 pound person would have to do in order to burn off the calories in a variety of foods—and it takes a lot more than you think. Imagine what you could accomplish if your exercise actually burned up as many calories as you thought it did—and you didn’t refuel afterward with a double cheeseburger and fries.




Exercise required

Microwave popcorn   –  4 cups   –  140   –  20 minutes of biking
Average candy bar   –  1 bar   –  280   –  30 minutes of singles tennis
Chocolate fudge brownie ice cream   –  1½ cups   –  780   –  90 minutes of racquetball
Potato chips   –  15 chips   –  160   –  90 minutes of Frisbee
Meat and cheese pizza   –  2 slices   –  1000   –  2 ½ hours of ice skating
Beer   –  16 ounces   –  250   –  1 hour of water aerobics
Chocolate chip cookies   –  4 small   –  400   –  120 minutes of bowling
Mixed nuts   –  ½ cup   –  435   –  165 minutes of dusting
Macaroni and cheese   –  1 cup   –  430   –  45 minutes of stair-climbing
Double burger with fries   –  1 burger + large fries   –  1100   –  2 hours of jogging
Ranch dressing   –  2 TBSP   –  150   –  30 minutes of aerobics
Mayonnaise   –  1 TBSP   –  100   –  22 minutes of brisk walking