“I eat only 1200 calories a day. I don’t get it.”
“I think there’s something wrong with my metabolism.”
“I bet it has something to do with my thyroid. Or maybe it’s the antidepressant I’m taking.”
As a coach, I hear these comments a lot when I meet someone struggling to lose weight. And I get it; it’s frustrating when you think you’re putting in the effort, but not getting the results. However, in many cases, an inability to lose weight isn’t attributed to an undiagnosed medical condition or a prescription medication, but instead has everything to do with one simple thing:
WTH is Under-Reporting?
When it comes to weight loss, under-reporting refers to one’s perception of their daily caloric intake versus the reality of their daily caloric intake.
In other words, people are eating more than they think they are. And it’s far more common than you’d think. In fact, according to one study the number of people under-reporting their dietary intake can be as high as 70%, while another study determined that the difference between reported calories consumed and actual calories consumed can be as high as 1,000 calories. That’s a big margin of error!
What is the reason for this discrepancy? I think most people believe they are truly sticking to their nutritional goals, so what is causing this unintentional miscalculation?
How Under-Reporting Happens (And What To Do About It)
There are several reasons someone might miss the mark on their daily caloric estimates. After all, if you’re not counting every calorie you eat, it can definitely be difficult to accurately guess how much energy you’re actually consuming each day. In fact, even if you are one of the brave calorie counters out there, you can’t be entirely sure that number is spot on either (more on that later).
So let’s look at some reasons why under-reporting is so common, and how to go about making sure it doesn’t happen to you.
The assumption that eating fewer meals = fewer calories.
While in theory it would seem that eating fewer meals means less calories, this is often a case of quality versus quantity. I’ll use my pretend friend “Sue” as an example. Let’s say Sue skipped breakfast, but had McDonald’s for lunch. She orders a quarter pounder with cheese, a small fry, and a regular Coke.
Sue then goes about her day not snacking and making sure she stays hydrated with water. However, dinner comes along and Sue is bushed, so she looks in the freezer and decides to microwave a Marie Callender Turkey Pot Pie. She eats it all without any side dishes and washes it down with a big glass of water.
And that’s all Sue ate the entire day. Because she only had two meals, she is certain she’s stayed within her 1,500 calorie limit.
So how much did Sue really eat?
Well, as it turns out her McDonald’s lunch cashed in approximately 880 calories, while her turkey pot pie came in at around 820 calories. That’s a total of 1,700 calories for the day; a couple hundred more than she intended.
While a couple hundred calories over is not a huge deal once in awhile, imagine the toll it can take when it’s repeated every day. Those extra hundreds can quickly turn into thousands without even realizing it.
So what should you do? Be very mindful about the type of food you are eating if you aren’t paying attention to its nutritional label. “Winging it” doesn’t often work, but if that’s the best you can do then stick with whole food sources like fruits, vegetables, and protein (meat, eggs, dairy, soy, etc). While it’s absolutely possible to overestimate calories even with healthy foods, it’s far less likely than when you rely on pre-packaged, processed, or fast foods whose calories are often outrageously high despite a seemingly small portion size.
Also note your body will signal you to consume the calories it needs to survive and maintain weight whether you eat 1 meal a day or 6. Intermittent fasters can easily consume all calories needed in 2 meals per day. Planning ahead and portioning or tracking food consistently is key!
You’re Not Considering Everything You Eat
Even if you’re pretty good about paying attention to the nutritional content of your meals, there’s a chance that you may be forgetting some of the small stuff. Flavored drinks, condiments like ketchup/mustard/mayo/etc, gum, supplements, and “only two bites” of that birthday cake all add on to the total calories you eat each day. For example, we already know that Sue likely consumed around 1,700 calories in the example above, but what we didn’t factor in was the ketchup she dunked her fries in, the mayo she added to her quarter pounder, or the five sticks of gum she chewed between meals. One tablespoon of mayo alone can add 100 calories; just think what all those tiny “extras” can do.
So what should you do? Consider every single thing you put in your mouth as a source of calories. Sadly, there’s no such thing as a food freebie.
You’re Binging on the Weekends
Maybe you’re pretty strict about what you’re eating during the week, but go all out on the weekends. While it’s totally fine to work in a “cheat day,” if it’s a regular occurrence then you should factor it in when adhering to your regular dietary goals. That’s because a calorie surplus that consistently occurs once or twice a week can accumulate. If you simply go back to your regular dietary pattern during the week without making any adjustments to mitigate that day or two of consistent overeating, then your body will have more calories than it needs and will store them away in case it needs them for later (aka: turns them to fat).
So what should you do? Who doesn’t want to go out and let their hair down on a Friday night? I get it! However, if this is a regular pattern each week, then you will want to consider eating a little less than usual a day or two before or after your food extravaganza, work in one or two HIIT routines during the week to burn up those extra calories consumed OR take that night in moderation, have 2 drinks not 6, opt for a side salad not fries, you know that whole moderation thing.
Looking ahead at your monthly calendar to see how many events you have planned out on the town or parties and other gatherings is a good way to understand how many times you really are letting loose. Plan your nutrition or fitness accordingly. Bring dishes to share that you choose to eat, don’t go hungry and have a protein shake before the party and/ or get in a good workout that day or they day after.
In the end, it all boils down to balancing the energy you consume versus the energy you use.
You’re Overestimating Your Physical Activity
How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m going to reward myself with a cookie because I walked on the treadmill for 40 minutes today?” Maybe you’ve said it yourself. But the truth is 40 minutes of walking on a treadmill doesn’t burn as many calories as you may think. And unless it’s a single Oreo, it probably won’t cover the caloric cost of a chocolate chunk.
This happens all the time; people exercise and think that they are burning hundreds of calories, so they eat an extra goody or two thinking they are breaking even. Sadly, this is often not the case.
Steady state cardio like walking, jogging, or even stair stepping is great for cardiovascular health and of course, burning calories. However, people overestimate how many calories they actually use for these activities. People who strength train or do high intensity interval training on a regular basis have far more wiggle room in this regard, but by no means does any physical activity give an “eat any food and it won’t matter” pass.
Also watch out for food tracking apps telling you you can eat x amount of calories because you burned them on that 3 mile run. Leave those calories in the dust.
If you’re serious about losing weight, then consider your physical activity an additional boost in calories used – not an excuse to overeat.
Nutritional Labels Are Approximations; That Means Your Calorie Totals are Too
Even if you are one of the few calorie-counting diehards in the crowd, you are still not likely in the know as far as your exact caloric totals. That’s because in the U.S. food companies are given wide berth when reporting nutritional information. They can be off as much as 20%! This means that your 100 calorie granola bar might actually be 120 calories (or in a better world, 80 calories).
So what should you do? While calorie counting is by far the closest way to estimate how many calories you are consuming each day, it is still not a perfect science by any means. The biggest thing is to BE CONSISTENT with food tracking and measuring/ weighing food. If you want to lose weight and it’s not happening despite counting every calorie you eat, consider decreasing your daily caloric intake slightly (maybe 100-300 calories) keeping that consistency in tracking and measuring. (See more info: How to Cut Calories)
Fewer meals doesn’t mean fewer calories. Especially when it comes to eating calorie dense fast and processed food.
Little things add up; condiments, a bite here and there, gum. Watch all the little things.
It all comes down to balance. Being good for 5 days and not for 2 can undo all your hard work. Find balance with a healthy lifestyle through all your events, work and home life. Moderation is key.
Don’t use exercise as an excuse to eat more or eat junk.
Be consistent tracking food and getting in your workouts. If you are not making the progress you want, make changes from there. Consistency and perseverance are key!
Are you struggling with weight loss and not sure where to start? I can help! Simply drop me a line and together we can explore ways to reach your goals successfully. You might also consider joining the GF2 Fitness and Contest Prep forum, a private group on Facebook where you can ask fitness and diet-related questions, find motivation, and get much needed support from me and others just like you.