The problem with counting calories

Nutrition Facts

Let’s face it, counting calories is a…pain…in…the…ass.  Nobody wants to do it.  Some don’t know how to do it.

Who wants to spend time looking at the food label on every product they’re eating?

There’s really no easy way to do it although some websites have tried to make it easier by having a searchable database.  Then all you have to do is figure out how much you scarfed down while mindlessly playing your favorite Facebook game and punch it in.

“Was that six fists full or seven?  Hmmmmmmm.  Crap, a fist isn’t a serving size.  Now what?”

Even if you did tally it all up, what does the number mean?  What are you supposed to shoot for?

Generic guidelines

Recommended Daily ValuesWhat is the right amount of calories?  If you look at a food label, you see that “Daily Value” percentages are based on a 2000-calorie-per-day diet.  Does that mean everyone should eat 2000 calories per day?

Nope.  For most women, that’s way too much.  Although, I’ll admit, when I was a kid, I thought it was the right amount.

Others suggest a good guideline for women is 1600 calories.  But what if you’re short?  What if you’re not very active?  On the other hand, what if you’re training for a marathon?

Another problem is food label inaccuracies.  Food manufacturers could be off as much as 20% from the number they list per serving.  Translation?  In the extreme, that means what you thought was 1600 calories could be as much as 1920 calories.

Those excess calories could become a 33-pound gain over the course of a year if you’re not active enough to burn them up.

Other common mistakes

Servings Per ContainerBack to the food label and serving sizes, a common mistake is to assume the container you’re eating from is a single serving.  You record the calories per serving from the food label, but fail to realize the package contained 2 ½ servings.  But you ate the whole thing.  What you thought was 100 calories was actually 250.  Oops.

Don’t worry; even a seasoned veteran like me has stumbled into this trap a few times.  My eye jumps right to the calories line even though the serving size and servings per container are listed first.

Another mistake is assuming your measuring cups and measuring spoons are accurate.  Trust me, they’re not.  I have two sets.  One set measures much more generously than the other.  And how many extra calories sneak in with our “rounded measures” which just compounds the inaccuracy?

How many calories are in natural foods?

If processed food labels aren’t bad enough, next is figuring out how many calories are coming from non-processed foods.

What do I mean by non-processed foods?

These are foods like fresh Whole Foodsfruits and vegetables, meat, fish, nuts; stuff that comes in varying sizes depending on how big they grew.

We tend to think of a chicken breast as a serving no matter what size it is.  But if you always grab the biggest breast on the platter, you could be eating double or triple the calories the serving was based upon.  The same holds true for a fish fillet.

When it comes to fruit and vegetables, this distortion isn’t quite as detrimental, but for those who treat a calorie as a calorie, no matter its source, the extra calories add up after a while.

What does this all mean?

Am I suggesting you shouldn’t bother counting calories?  Not exactly.  I happen to be a calorie counter.

I adjust what I eat by figuring out what my weight and activity level is now, and what I want them to become.  I start with the calories in / calories out formula.  Then, I shave 200-300 calories off the final answer to compensate for all the inaccuracies.  I might need to make tweaks if my body doesn’t respond, but it’s a good place to start.

From there, I decide what percentage of my calories should come from carbohydrates based upon what activities I plan to do.  Runners need more carbs than walkers.  The more intense and more frequent the aerobic activity, the more carbs you need to fuel that activity.

Fats need to be 30% of your calories or less.  So after subtracting what goes to carbs and what goes to fats, the rest gets allocated to protein.  It’s just a math thing. 😉

Getting around the counting problem

We all say we want a large variety of foods in our diet and we don’t want to consider anything off limits.  But the truth is we tend to make the same meals week after week.  I use that to my advantage.

Once I know how many calories I’m dedicating to each category of carbs, fats and proteins, I look for recipes that naturally hit those levels.  If I want to use a recipe that is too high in protein, I’ll find another meal that is higher in carbs to eat at another time that same day to balance out the day.

grocery listI go through and create a week’s worth of menus all at once, and I do it one time only.  I also use my grocery store’s online list creator and create my grocery list at the same time.

There.  Thinking is done once and never has to be done again – unless I want to change goals or I get bored with my meals and want to change things up.

But otherwise, I can return to automatic pilot while knowing I’m roughly eating the number of calories I planned and from the sources that properly fuel my exercise.

Is there a way you can do this too?

Jump Start My Weight LossI created a service I call Jump Start My Weight Loss.  It’s in pre-launch meaning until the end of July, I’m offering it for more than half off.

In this service, I’ll collect the same information from you that I use when I do my own calculations.  I’ll also ask you what your goals are.  I’ll perform all the calculations and make my recommendations the same way I would do it for myself.  I’ll even include a bonus Sample Calorie Day with recipes to get you started creating your own meal plan.

If this sounds like just the thing for you, you can check out this page to learn more.

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Need more info? Search for it here.


  1. Thomas says:

    Nice post! My wife use to count calories but was mislead by general information. You have to remember that height like you mention plays a big part in how many calories you body needs. A person 6’5 needs more daily calories than a 4’11 person. At the same time you have to determine how active a person is. Look a M. Phelps I read he ate more the 15k calories a day but is working out and burning almost of all them. Counting calories works you have to put in all the variables to make it work though. Great job on creating Job Start My Weight Loss.

    • Lori Stalter says:

      Welcome Thomas, and thank you!

      I remember seeing a news skit about Phelps eating tons of pizza all day to fuel his exercise. I forget how many pies he said he ate. I wondered how he had time to eat that much and still have time to swim. 😀

      But you are spot on. When you’re not working with someone one on one who knows your physiology, your goals and your circumstances, the advice you get (or read online) is generic and broad stroke. It’s a well-intentioned place to start, but without knowing how to tweek that information for your circumstances, you can end up doing the wrong thing for you.

  2. Tammy R says:

    Wow! I l-o-v-e the look of this site. You have put together a great package, and we’re so excited for you. Counting calories is rather challenging (translation: I stink at it), and I think your product and services will help anyone who wants to lose weight. I love how you say this is not for you if you get advice and do the opposite. No program will work without a willing participant, but I know you will work alongside anyone who wants to make that commitment. So happy to see this out there for anyone who wants it!

    • Lori says:

      Tammy, you just validated all of my long late nights spent hunting down snippets of php and css code so I could make the site look and function the way it does now. Thanks you!

      I’m so happy to have this service out there for the general public at last. I can’t thank you and CJ enough for sticking around, cheering me on and giving me all the support that you do. You two are awesome!

  3. cj says:

    I love all the automation here Lori!! It makes it so easy for people to get started and continue. Nicely done too on making clear and correcting the common pitfalls of counting calories. A grand post all the way around!

    • Lori says:

      Thanks, CJ!

      I go through cycles from loving to cook to hating to cook. When I’m in hate to cook mode, I need everything push button easy. It seems there are lots of people out there who want to eat healthy but don’t like to cook either. lol Hopefully, I’ll be able to help them out with that.