The purpose of this post is to discuss how I count calories.
The audience is someone who is interested in a perspective on how to count calories for weight loss purposes.
The post is not a general weight loss guide. It is focused on issues related to coming up with accurate calorie counts.
Some background: I used to be around 300lbs. I’m now ~180lbs. There were a lot of ideas that went into my successful weight loss, but a reality-focused and honest approach to calorie counting was key IMHO. So if this is a topic of interest to you, maybe you can learn from my experience.
The absolutely most important, totally non-negotiable factor for successful calorie counting is honesty.
There are various ways you can be dishonest with calorie counting.
You can intentionally not log food “cuz its just a little tiny bit.”
You can “forget” to log food.
You can give a too-low estimate of the calorie content of food you ate.
To succeed, you’ve gotta dump the dishonesty.
If you want to successfully count calories, you need to be energetically and enthusiastically figuring out ways to make your calorie counting more accurate.
If you don’t have that kinda attitude, you won’t succeed.
Some people make a half-hearted attempt to count calories so that they can convince themselves they “tried” and claim helplessness regarding being too fat. If that’s your goal, then this guide isn’t for you, cuz my purpose here is to give you some tips on how to actually succeed.
Get an app
You need a way to track your calories if you’re going to succeed at calorie counting.
You don’t strictly need a specialized app. You could just make a list of what you ate or something like that. The Notes app on iPhone could theoretically work.
But specialized apps have a ton of advantages, such as:
a. big databases of food pre-loaded in that you can search (like you can just type “apple” and get the nutritional information for an apple, or “mcdonald’s cheeseburger” and get the info for that)
b. nifty things like barcode scanners that can make calorie counting and getting other nutritional data for many things as trivial as pointing your phone’s camera at the food box
c. ability to set weight loss goals and see what your calorie budget should be
d. cool graphs and charts showing how you are doing as far as your goals this day/week, how you’re doing on your weight loss journey, etc etc
So get an app. They’re cool, useful, and cheap/free.
i’ve tried a few. I use MyNetDiary, mostly cuz I’ve been using it a long time and know how to get it to do what I want. There might be a better app out there, but I haven’t seen one yet that was clearly better enough and also worth figuring out how to use in the way I use MyNetDiary. Lots of what I say to do should work with tons of apps, though.
Get a kitchen scale (or two)
If you wanna know how many calories you eat, it’s very useful to know how much your food weighs.
A kitchen scale will help you tremendously.
(This one is water resistant)
When I say you should weigh your food, you may think there is a separate food weighing step and then a food preparing step. This is not necessarily the case. We can be efficient about this!
For example, say you are making a sandwich.
Basically every kitchen scale has a “Tare” button. This lets you reset the measured weight to 0 with some weight already on the scale.
So you can place the plate on the scale, then hit Tare.
Then put the bread† on the plate. Weigh it, log the calories in your app, hit Tare.
Put your deli meat on the sandwich. Weigh, log, hit Tare.
Put your cheese on the sandwich. Weigh, log, hit Tare.
Put your condiment on the sandwich. Weigh, log, hit Tare.
You’ve logged your food and now you have a sandwich on a plate ready to go 😀
Note that if you have the same thing a lot in the same amount, you may want to make a recipe out of it so you can skip the steps above. MyNetDiary (and I’d guess other apps) lets you save a set of ingredients as a recipe. But if you’re going to do that, make sure that you actually make it the same way, or alternatively, make sure you log the new ingredients in addition to your “base” recipe. E.g. if you saved a recipe for a cheesy omelette without bacon in an app, and then you make the omelette with bacon, don’t just log your cheesy omelette recipe; log the bacon!
†(Packaged bread typically comes pre-sliced with a given calorie amount per slice, so in that case you wouldn’t need to weigh the bread)
You may think scales are only useful if you cook at home. WRONG!
They can be useful on the go. I’ll talk about that more below, but for now know that portable kitchen scales are a thing, see e.g. this one.
Consider other ways to measure stuff
Scales aren’t the only way to measure stuff in a way that helps your calorie counting.
Volume measurements can be helpful.
E.g. these liquid measuring cups can be very useful.
I often put some milk in my coffee. Measuring e.g. an ounce of milk in a mini measuring cup is faster than turning on a scale, getting it set to the unit of measurement you want, Tare-ing it, and then weighing.
Make use of easily available information
Lots of the food you eat will have nutritional information already easily available for it. So use it!
Fast food places, fast casual places, and other big chain restaurants frequently have their nutritional information available in a variety of places, such as a) in calorie counter apps, b) on their websites, c) in their own proprietary apps, d) right on the menu.
Lots of the stuff you buy at the grocery store will also have nutritional information available in a variety of places as well, including right on the label. And as mentioned earlier, with a calorie counter app you can frequently scan the barcode and get the right information. Make sure you take serving size into consideration — like if you bar code scan a box of pasta in your calorie counter app, you will likely get the nutritional information for a single serving of pasta. So if you’re having two servings (or 1.5, or whatever), make sure you enter that.
BTW regarding correct serving sizes in calorie counter apps, you really need to be aware of the size of the item you are scanning. I have noticed errors of a particular kind sometimes which would throw your calories way off. This has come up with e.g. frozen meals and candy bars. Basically the issue is, when you scan an item, there may be an error where it gets the correct food but the wrong amount. An example: you scanned a 15oz stouffer’s lasagna and it gives you the calorie info for a 10oz box. Some solutions here could be a) just manually enter the correct amount of calories, as generic food calories, or 2) tell the app you ate 1.5 servings of a 10oz box 🙂
Another thing worth noting is that you should make sure you are looking at data for the actual configuration of food you are eating.
E.g. if you get a sandwich from Subway, and you get it with cheese, and you find an entry for the sandwich that reflects the calories without cheese, and you use that entry, you are faking reality. You ate cheese!!!
Sometimes there will be a nutrition calculator you can find online for a place, e.g. https://www.nutritionix.com/subway/nutrition-calculator or https://www.chipotle.com/nutrition-calculator. Other times you may have to reference a PDF file or something on the company’s website and figure it out yourself.
Proxies & Adjustments
Lots of people don’t always eat stuff they made at home, and don’t always go to some big chain place with easily available nutritional information.
What to do then?
One technique is to use some food with easily available nutritional information as a proxy for the food you are currently eating.
Here’s a practical example.
I sometimes eat at this no name mediocre pizzeria near work, and their kinda mediocre pizza seems roughly similar to me to a slice from Sbarro (of mall and airport fame).
So when I eat a pepperoni slice at Mediocre Pizzeria Place, i enter it as a Sbarro pepperoni slice.
There are perils here, both in terms of dishonesty and in terms of honest error.
In terms of honest errors, places make stuff differently, you might not remember what the proxy food is like super well, etc.
Also sometimes the first information you may find when researching is not good. For instance, literally as I was writing this and quickly looking something up, I discovered that my calorie counter app had an entry with a lowball estimate (by 70 calories) of Sbarro Pepperoni slices! This is the estimate I was using! Oops!
(Accuracy requires ongoing effort!)
If you have some information about the weight of a reasonable proxy food, one thing you can do is weigh the food you are eating now (perhaps using a portable scale like I mentioned earlier) and adjust for any differences in weight.
E.g. if some cheeseburger you are using as a proxy is 10ozs and the one you are eating right now is 14oz, then enter that you had 1.4 servings of the proxy cheeseburger.
Honesty is super important here. With kinda similar foods, some may have a higher percent of stuff that’s calorically dense (like meat and cheese). You wanna try and find a proxy that roughly matches the composition of the food you are trying to log. It’s fine if the proxy is kinda like a bigger or smaller version of what you are eating, but the composition should roughly match. E.g. some burgers are super meat heavy. If you are having one of those, don’t use a burger that’s heavy on bread and lettuce/pickles/tomatoes as your proxy!
Recipes & Servings
If you make a big thing at home that you’re gonna be eating a number of servings of over time (like a lasagna, say) it can be useful to use the recipe feature of an app like MyNetDiary. This involves you entering the amounts for all the ingredients of the recipe, and then saving the whole thing as a recipe with a number of servings you determine. So if you say a lasagna has 8 servings, it’ll give 1/8 of the calories of the whole thing to each serving.
Again, honesty is important. If you actually wind up eating all the portions and your initial tally of all the ingredients was accurate, you should be fine. But one way you could mess up here is by having irregularly-sized portions, eating the bigger ones first, then tossing the smaller ones (cuz they went bad or whatever). So try and cut the portions regularly, and if you’re not sure or its the kinda thing where determining portion size visually is tricky, weigh the portions.