10 Common Mistakes Made While Calorie Counting (according to me)

Am I a calorie counting expert? No.

Do I have any formal education in weight loss or nutrition? Also no.

But what I do have is over a decade of experience calorie counting incorrectly, abandoning calorie counting, and gaining all the weight I managed to lose back. 

Now you may be asking yourself, how can you calorie count incorrectly? It's literally maths, and there are so many apps that do it for you. And for me, calorie counting incorrectly means doing so in a way that is not sustainable. I'm a big believer in not doing anything to lose weight that you won't do to maintain it so me and calorie counting are in it for the long haul 💛

Maybe one day I'll learn to eat intuitively and maintain a healthy weight while doing so, but right now that's not where I'm at and it's not what I'm working towards. If obesity really is a chronic disease and this is what it takes to control it then so be it. Plus, I really like numbers so I quite enjoy calorie counting and working out meals and snacks that fit my budget.

So please, sit back and take in all the mistakes I've made that I see replicated in weightloss forums across the web, and hopefully this can help you avoid making them too.

Setting your calorie goal too low

Remember Jillian Michaels from The Biggest Loser? Remember her saying if you have a lot of weight to lose the maximum amount of calories you should consume is 1600 a day, but aim between 12-1600? Ignore her.

Yes she has a lot more qualifications than I do but if you're obese and you're beginning or restarting your weightloss journey, the most important advice I can give you is to remember that this is supposed to be sustainable. If you're working towards a healthy weight then it's a marathon not a sprint. Unless you're working with a weightloss specialist - preferably a medical doctor - then a modest deficit is probably best. According to the Mayo Clinic, aiming to lose 1 - 2 pounds a week is a smart goal. That's a calorie deficit of 500 - 1000 calories per day.

If you're susceptible - like I am - to binging if you don't eat enough or if you let yourself get too hungry, then start with an even smaller deficit than that. 

There's no magic number that works for everyone. Work out your total daily energy expenditure and go from there. 

What's total daily energy expenditure?

Total Daily Energy Expenditure, or TDEE, is an estimate of how many calories you burn on average per day. A commonly recommended site on the subreddit r/loseit is https://tdeecalculator.net/.  

Find out your TDEE and subtract however many calories feels comfortable for you from that.

What I find works really well for me is the Lose It! app. I entered my stats, included how much weight I wanted to lose and it calculated my calories for me. As I lose weight, the app automatically recalculates my calorie budget so I'm reducing my calorie intake very slowly and in line with my weight loss. I opted for "Lightly Active" as opposed to sedentary because last time I tried sedentary (which at the time was 1600 calories), it was too low for me. I would last 3 - 4 days then eat whatever I wanted because I was so hungry, so lightly active balanced with working out and not eating my exercise calories back allows me lose weight predictably over time and without feeling the need to binge. 

Well mostly not feeling the need to binge. I'm going to count one binge in nearly 6 months as a huge win.

If 1600 calories works for you then by all means do it! If 1600 is a drastically smaller number than your TDEE then please speak to your doctor about it so they're at least aware of what's going on.

However if - like me - 1600 calories is too low starting off, then that's OK. We want to be happy and healthy when we get to the normal BMI range so we can maintain it. Unless there's a medically pressing reason to get there faster, it doesn't matter if it takes you 2 years instead of 1 (in my opinion, I should never be mistaken for a doctor). 

Thinking the goal is to eat as little as possible

This is one I have historically been horribly guilty of. I used to take pride in being as far as possible under my calorie goal as possible, but for me this had the same result as setting my calorie goal too low. I would end up over-eating to make up for it and if I was lucky this would lead to me maintaining my weight. 

Calorie counting can negatively impact some people especially when they focus on eating as little as possible and this can lead to unhealthy behaviours, typical of an eating disorder. If you're struggling to allow yourself to eat in a healthy range or you feel guilty about eating then it might be beneficial to speak with a professional because - remember - it's important to fuel your body.

What I found really helpful in avoiding this mistake when I started calorie counting again was to think of it like a game of 21s. I want to get as close to the number as possible without going over, that's how you win!

Now common wisdom is if you're not hungry don't eat but - if like me - you find structure helpful in controlling overeating, then planning your day to hit as close as possible to your calorie goal can be really helpful.

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This one took a while for me to come around to because the amount of effort and dedication needed to weigh food before you cook and / or eat it seemed astronomical but it's been so helpful when it comes to correctly tracking my calories and takes barely any time.

It also demonstrated how wildly incorrect my calorie estimates were every time I ate vegan mayonnaise, so yeah. That will get you. 

Psychologically I find it very beneficial as well because I feel satisfied that I'm getting a decent portion even if the bowl isn't full and, as someone who will finish what's on my plate 99% of the time, this also helps me control my calorie intake. I don't feel deprived, I know I can go back for more if I want to, and I'm not in a situation where I'm eating up to 2 or 3 times the amount of calories that I'm logging because I made a bad call eyeballing portion sizes.

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This ones a bit of a sad one. I see people posting about how devastated they are about ruining weeks or months of progress because of one bad day, or one bad weekend. How they should give up now. That they're a failure when the truth is that if you fall of the wagon, you're not a failure. You're a human and one bad day doesn't cancel out weeks or months of good ones. 

Yes if you binge you might see an increase on the scale the next morning but the chances are you will not have gained fat. Extra carbs and extra salt will cause you to retain extra water. Alcohol can make you retain extra water. Once you go back to your usual routine and drink plenty of water, you're body will stop retaining as much and you'll see that your progress isn't ruined.

We'll talk more about weight fluctuations and water retention a little later on. 

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I am very very rarely hungry and I've been pretty consistent with my calorie deficit. Hunger doesn't work for me because I will become susceptible to binging and, best case scenario, I maintain. But I've seen a lot of people say that they must be in a calorie deficit because they're hungry all the time when really, your hunger levels don't always align with the amount of calories you actually need to maintain your weight.

Why? Because of the issue of satiety. I could easily eat 6 slices of white bread. That is 3 sandwiches. Without any filling, that is 522 calories for the brand I like most. A baked potatoe of the brand I like is 155 calories. I would not be able to eat 2 of them (310 calories), let alone 3 of them (465 calories). And if I did eat 3 of them, that would still be less calories than 6 slices of white bread.

What does this tell us? Potatoes are the Carb King? Possibly. But more accurately, the number of calories consumed don't necessarily impact how hungry or full that you feel, and that is why it's important to track your calories. And I mean every calorie. Maybe for a while you can get away with forgetting to add oil, or guessing how much mayo or butter you're using but it really does add up. 

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I cannot cope with being hungry all the time. I will not be pleasant to be around. I will not sleep. I will be extra unpleasant to be around because not only am I hungry, I also will not have slept. I will binge. I'll feel better, declare weight loss impossible and start the cycle again.

What works for me though is eating at a set time before I get hungry. I have breakfast and lunch at the same time almost every day. Dinner and snacks tend to change based on what exercise I have planned for that day or if it's a rest day, but what matters to me is I have a routine and I'm eating enough to be happy and fuel my workouts, but not enough to maintain my current weight or gain any additional weight.

Again, what you eat plays an important role here and research demonstrating the impact that highly processed food has on our satiety cues is fascinating. Grech et al's research paper, "Macronutrient (im)balance drives energy intake in an obesogenic food environment: An ecological analysis" showed a potential link between obesity and protein dilution within a diet, particularly in instances where the diet is high in processed food as this can potentially drive increased hunger for - and consumption of - carbs and fat. Moving away from those types of foods can be extremely difficult, especially if you're struggling with a food addiction so please do seek help if that is something you need.

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Just don't do it. I genuinely don't believe weightloss should be nearly as difficult or as painful as some people make it seem. Yes, you will want to make better choices, and definitely want to cut out super processed food, but going from nought to 100 overnight is difficult. 

I don't feel like my diet has changed that much in the nearly six months I've been on this journey but looking through my food logs I can see the gradual changes have really added up. As I started prioritising my body and my health I started listening to what my body needs. I eat more protein, more vegetables - not many more, but I'm better than I was. My macros are significantly more balanced than they've ever been before. I understand what food make me feel full and which ones make me feel crap and I plan accordingly.

Start small. Even just logging everything you eat, and slowly bringing the calories down. Find out what makes you feel good and full and happy. I personally have wasted enough time feeling fat and miserable so now that I've began making healthier choices, I've no intention on continuing being miserable. For me this is a journey of self love and I want to enjoy it. 

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Unless you're planning on doing it forever, don't do it to lose weight. Each macronutrient is important and unless you have been specifically told otherwise by a Medical Professional, then cutting out carbs, fats or protein is most likely a terrible idea. Our body needs a balance of all three. 

The right type of fats help us absorb vitamins A, D, and K as well as providing us with essential fatty acids that we can't produce otherwise. Vitamin A is essential for our immune system and ability to fight infections, Vitamin D is important for bone density, and a Vitamin K deficiency can contribute to significant bleeding.

Carbohydrates, especially those that are a good source of fiber, help us feel fuller longer and help control blood glucose and insulin metabolism as well as being a source of energy. Yes, yes our body can burn fat for energy but once we're in a calorie deficit we're going to be burning fat either way.

As the earlier cited research suggests, it's balancing our carbs, fats, and proteins that's important as well as ensuring we're eating the right carbs and fats. 

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My weightloss journey and my fitness journey complement each other, and they are both part of my overall health journey, but they're separate. And they're separate for a reason.

Working out is great! I wholeheartedly recommend it - for me personally I love intense exercise. I want to feel like my heart is going to explode, I want to be covered in sweat, and I want to find a skincare routine that can stop the sweat induced acne break outs. Do you need to do this to lose weight? Absolutely not. 

The reason to not eat back your exercise calories is 2 fold:

  1. If you've calculated your TDEE, then your calorie intake may already be accounting for your exercise
  2. Predicting calories burnt through a wearable fitness tracker is a very difficult thing, especially as they're going by heart rate and steps taken. Research is conflicted on the accuracy of calories burnt but as someone whos Fitbit registered a panic attack as intense exercise, I don't feel fully confident in eating back as much calories as it says I've burnt.

There are exceptions. Shorter people - as they're approaching a healthy weight - are going to have much less room for error than someone who is taller or heavier. Even still, how much to eat and when to eat is trial and error. Some people are much hungrier after cardio, I'm not. Others are hungrier after weightlifting. For me personally, I will be hungrier the day after weight lifting but I think that's because I usually workout in the evening. Everyone is different but if your fitness tracker is telling you you're consistently burning 2500 calories and you're eating 2000 but it's been 6 weeks and you haven't lost weight then your tracker is probably overestimating your calorie burn.

Your body also needs to adjust to a new exercise. If your calorie tracking is on point but you're not losing it could be because your body is adjusting to the new exercise or the new intensity and, between water retention and inflammation, that's going to cause a temporary increase or pause on the scale. 

Which brings me to my final mistake...

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Remember the naivety of believing the scale would go down predictably when you first thought about weightloss? Remember how young and innocent you were? Then you realised that you could gain 5 pounds overnight because you ate something salty, or got your period, or didn't drink enough water. 

Obessessing over the scale will hurt you more than it will help you, and it's what I see leading a lot of people to damaging behaviours or weightcycling. It's why I'm particularly sceptical of group weighin clubs. 1 datapoint a week is nothing. It's the trends that matter.

What I love about my scale is that it's digital, it has an app, and it shows me my weight loss by day and by month. If I look at a weekly view, my weight just goes up and down. If I look at a monthly view of my daily weight logs, my weight goes up and down but gradually it goes up less high and goes down lower, and that's me losing weight. If I look at the weight recorded the last day of every month, I seem very impressive but that is the only time it looks linear.

If you're doing everything right, the weight will come off. And if it doesn't, please speak to your doctor and not some randomer on the internet pretending to know what's best for you and your body 💛