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3 calorie-tracking mistakes that might be sabotaging your weight loss goals, according to a nutritionist

Woman in kitchen with phone
Calorie counting can help you hit your goals.Getty/Wavebreakmedia
  • Weight loss happens in a calorie deficit, where a person burns more calories than they consume.

  • Calorie counting is not an exact science, but can be a useful educational tool.

  • Avoid common mistakes when using calorie-counting apps to help you hit your goals.

While you don’t need to count calories to lose fat — and it’s not for everyone — calories always count.

Weight loss occurs in a calorie deficit when people burn more calories than they consume. You don’t need to count calories to be in a deficit, but it can help take away the guesswork.

A few things can make calorie counting accurately complicated, however. It's well-documented that most people underreport how much they eat and drink, and nutritional information on packaging can legally be out by 20% in the US.

What’s more, the body doesn’t absorb calories from food equally — protein, for example, burns more energy being digested than fats and carbs. This means that calorie counting will never be an exact science, so it’s pointless stressing over the minutiae.

But tracking calories can still be a helpful way to educate yourself about the energy in different foods and ensure you get the results you want, whether that’s fat loss, weight maintenance, or muscle gain.

Registered nutritionist Angela Clucas told Business Insider three common mistakes to avoid when tracking calories, to help you hit your goals.

1. Adding in calories burned from exercise

As weight loss comes down to being in a calorie deficit, it’s understandable to presume that moving more should mean you can eat more.

However, it’s not as simple as that.

Fitness trackers have been shown to wildly overestimate how many calories users burn when they exercise, and research suggests formal exercise actually only makes up about 5-10% of our overall daily energy expenditure. The rest comes through simply keeping our bodies functioning and what is known as NEAT — non-exercise activity thermogenesis, which is essentially all the other movement you do in your life, from walking up stairs to cleaning.

“I'd never recommend that my clients eat their exercise calories back mostly because when you look at the data collected in terms of calorie burn on activity trackers, and when you compare it to the lab studies, they're up to 93% inaccurate,” Clucas said.

Rather than exercising to burn calories, exercise to build strength, maintain muscle (which aids fat loss), and improve your health and mood, Clucas said.

Set a calorie target that you can stick to, and don’t add back in however many calories you think you’ve burned, as doing so could take you out of your calorie deficit.

2. Logging food after you’ve consumed it

Clucas said that one of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to lose fat by counting calories is sitting down at night and tallying up what they’ve eaten that day. This is problematic because a) you can’t do anything about the food you’ve already consumed, and b) you’ll likely forget some things.

“Tracking retrospectively is kind of pointless because you can't change it, I try to encourage people to track proactively,” Clucas said.

She tells her clients that “the phone eats first,” meaning you should log your food before you consume it. By checking the nutritional information before eating something, they’re not surprised by its calorie content when it’s too late.

For instance, some foods that have a “health halo” can be more calorie-dense than many people think, such as sweet potato fries.

“Nothing's healthy or unhealthy, but you need to know they're the same calories as your regular fries,” Clucas said.

If you log the food first, you can decide, say, only to eat half a calorie-dense treat and save the rest for another day, or have the whole thing and make a lighter dinner to ensure you hit your target, she added.

Another strategy is logging what you’re going to eat the next day the night before, which will help you to stick to a meal plan in line with your goals.

3. Forgetting cooking oils, dips, and sauces

When tracking calories, it’s easy to forget to log oils, spreads, dips, and sauces in your home cooking, and it can be impossible to know how much is used in restaurants or meals prepared by others.

The fats that make our food taste delicious, such as olive oil and butter, are more energy-dense than protein and carbs, so forgetting to log them could mean you track a meal as 100 or more calories fewer than it should be.

Clucas said that if you know you will always forget olive oil, that’s OK, but maybe adjust your baseline calorie target accordingly.

The same goes for small nibbles like your kids’ crusts or a bite of your partner’s burrito. It doesn’t mean you can never eat these things, you’ve just got to factor them in.

Read the original article on Business Insider