As a Holistic Health Coach, you probably would guess that I like to cook food. I also like knowing what exactly is going into my body. These two things go hand-in-hand as I don’t see weighing my food to be any hassle. Because of this, I live a well-balanced lifestyle and I can eat things like cheesecake, hamburgers, pizzas, etc. and in all of these products, I have a good estimate of how many calories I am eating. So, I’m here today to help you understand calories so that you, too, can see the results that I’ve seen. Understand, though, that if the other areas of your life are out of whack, then what we put into our body doesn’t really matter as we aren’t taking care of our primary food first. I talk more about primary food in my blog post about holistic health.
Now, first off, why is it important to understand calories?
Well, a study done at Cornell University showed that “Normal weight people underestimate calorie intake by about 20 percent, and overweight people underestimate by about 40 percent. Other sources say it’s more like 50 percent.” (Carter) Over the course of days and weeks, this results in those unwanted pounds that you’ve been trying to lose. So, first, let’s understand what a calorie actually is.
The Ins-and-Outs of Calories
A calorie is just a measure of energy. The actual dictionary definition of this is: “the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water through 1 °C (now usually defined as 4.1868 joules).” Calories are broken down into three main macros: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. And alcohol has its own caloric breakdown too.
- Carbohydrates: 4 calories/gram
- Protein: 4 calories/gram
- Fat: 9 calories/gram
- Alcohol: 7 calories/gram
Note: Sometimes you’ll see what is referred to as KJoules on the nutrition labels. Why anyone counts in KJoules is beyond me, but if you want a simple life-hack in how to convert this to calories, divide the number of KJoules by 4.2.
How to Count Calories
Weighing food. That’s the simple answer. Yes, this is time-consuming, but only in the beginning. Apps like MyFitnessPal or EasyFit Kcal Tracker have a bunch of options already logged in with the ability to log your own as well.
Personally, I use the latter of these two apps because there is only a onetime fee for a premium version, which isn’t really necessary to get. MyFitnessPal requires monthly subscription in its pro version ($10/month). However, MyFitnessPal also comes with a barcode scanner to make tracking calories and nutritional information much easier.
Anyway, first things first, we have to get our food item. For the sake of this demonstration, I’m getting a bag of Doritos. Below is the nutritional label.
Notice there is the 30 above the label, that is the serving size. If we flip it over to the front, we can see how many grams are total in the bag, 68. Also, Doritos helps us out by telling us how many calories are in each serving size (157, or 658 kjoules divided by 4.2). You will also see this 8% NRV.
Some food items will have this, some will not, but essentially it is telling you, based upon the standard 2000 calorie diet, what percentage of the calories is being taken by this serving size. Notice what I said there… “serving size.” However, how many servings are in this bag of Doritos?
Well, if the serving size is 30 grams, and there are 68 grams total in the bag, then this bag of Doritos has 2.25 servings. To get the calories for the bag, take this number and multiply it by 157. You’ll quickly see that this bag of Doritos is 355 calories, or 18% of our daily caloric intake.
You can do this for any food that you have in order to get a good estimate of the calorie count. Things like vegetables or cut meats may or may not have nutritional information on them, like this package of bananas, for instance. In this case, you’d have to Google (or any other search engine) the caloric information. Most likely you’ll find that every banana is around 100 calories.
Why do we Miscount Calories?
- Lack of knowledge. This isn’t calling anyone stupid or illiterate, but many times we just have no idea what the heck is going into our bodies. Using the Doritos example above, many of us pick up a bag of Doritos and just eat all of it. How many of us are actually sectioning off only one portion? Probably no one. And so we might grab this bag of Doritos, see the 157 calories on the front, ignore the 30 (that is much smaller on top of it) and just think to ourselves that this is only 157 calories, if we even bother checking at all. This adds up. Another easy example of this is when we go out to drink. We do a shot of tequila with friends. Each shot of 80proof (40%) liquor is around 100 calories (97 to be exact). One shot, two shots, three shots, four. Next thing you know, you’ve just ingested 400 or more calories and you had no idea that you did so. And when you think about how many shots you have within a night, uhmmm, yeah, well, that’s one of the reasons why results aren’t coming.
- Nutrition Labels lie. If you just gasped at this fact, don’t worry, I was shocked too. But FDA laws and regulations say that companies can lie on their products up to 20%. This means that the bag of Doritos that I just mentioned earlier could be anywhere from 350 – 427 calories. That, my friends, is a big difference. And so, while I count calories in my foods and provide macro breakdowns in my recipes, I understand that these numbers could be skewed due to this little secret from the FDA. While this is certainly a sizeable difference, tracking calories with a 20% margin of error is better than not tracking at all. This is one of the main reasons why we underestimate calories daily. You can find the full information of the FDA labeling process by going here.
- Going out to eat. When we order food at a restaurant, we have no idea how it is being prepared behind the scenes. We have no idea the type of meat they are using, cheeses being used, whether that vegetable dish we got is coated in oil to make it taste better. All of these factors make it so hard to track calories when we eat out. Sometimes people order a “salad” in an attempt to be healthier, not knowing that this salad is doused in dressing. An Oriental Salad from Applebees, for example, is 1310 calories! Did you know that? Crazy, right? A trick to combat this with salads is always asking for dressings on the side. But, moreover, this is why I highly recommend to my clients as a health coach to take their autonomy back at home and start cooking in the kitchen at least one meal per day. Making this one little shift alone has resulted in nearly ten pounds of weight loss in a span of a month for my sister.
- Portion sizes. Sometimes food labels are tricky, and they tell us portion sizes that aren’t just 100 grams. Syrups are notorious for this, showing us serving sizes that are 30 ml. How many of us are just putting 30 ml on our pancakes? No one. Moreover, this goes back to number one: not understanding how calories work. You are hungry, in a hurry, and grab a handful of nuts, not realizing that this handful of nuts will set you back anywhere from 150 to 200 calories depending what type of nut you are eating. One cup of cooked rice, for example, is around 200 calories. And then you add the curry on top of that rice? And the side appetizers you ordered to go along with your meal. It is easy to see how one meal of eating out with friends can add up to a bunch of calories you had no idea you were ingesting. A good friend of mine sent me an amazing image to me recently that helps you understand what a healthy portion size is for your food, which I’m going to put below.
- Not counting everything. By “everything” I mean the BLTs. The “bites, licks, and tastes” that we generally have throughout the course of the day. Yes, these little nibbles do have calories in them. And, yes, they do add up. Very easily those little nibbles could add up to 300 calories or more, depending on what exactly you are nibbling on.
- Calories don’t count on weekends. Many people do so well during the week of eating clean and meal prepping. They are uniform. Regulated. But then Friday night hits and shots are a flowing and he or she is eating out with friends. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but weight loss isn’t just a Monday-Friday kind of thing. It’s a year-long process and the average of all of your days of hard work combined. I’m not saying that you can never have a cheat meal in your life, I’m just saying be aware that that cheat meal might set you back from all the progress you earned over the past week of eating clean. One day won’t kill you. Two days won’t either. Or three. But soon you are going to be having as many cheat days as tequila shots and there is going to be a problem with that scale.
The Big Picture
I’m here to tell you to not be afraid of calories. That isn’t the aim of this article. The aim of this article is merely to inform and educate you because knowledge is power. And I want to give you the power to make healthier choices and live a healthier lifestyle because that is what we do in Life’s Kitchen: We don’t live diets, we live a lifestyle.
By tracking calories, it has allowed me to have a very flexible dieting approach because at the end of the day, calories in versus calories out is the only thing that matters in weight loss for a majority of people. If restricting yourself to eating in an eight-hour window will help you cut calories, great. If going keto and taking carbs out of the equation will help you cut calories, great. Sometimes these methods of restriction can be great for keeping it easy. But know that there is nothing special about these methods versus flexible dieting when calories are equated. And, at the end of the day, if you cannot stick to your approach, your diet will eventually fail.
This is also why I love the way I eat currently. I don’t restrict myself at all, I just make healthier choices. Because of this, I never feel like I’m dieting. And that, to me, makes this method sustainable. All I do is weigh everything, add up the calories, and at the end of the day, make sure I’m around anywhere from 2000 – 3000 depending on if I am cutting, bulking, or maintaining. Some people find this tedious; I find it liberating because I can eat whatever I want.
I’ve been doing this for so long now, I know that my double cheeseburger with bacon (a copycat recipe from Wendy’s Baconator) is around 580 calories with everything being the best quality and lowest calorie I can find. This means that the original Baconator from Wendy’s is higher (920 calories to be exact). It also means that the same cheeseburger I eat at Blue Frog or other restaurants is going to be significantly more. A Cheeseburger at Applebee’s for example is 870 calories, according to a search on www.fastfoodnutrition.org This helps me inform my decision of what I am ingesting while eating out, which in turn, lets me do so with a clearer frame of mind. Do you see how this framework builds on one another?
So, let’s put this into perspective. Let’s say you are like a normal individual and you think you are eating around 2000 calories per day. Let’s say that you are also under reporting your calories, like many people do, by about 20%. This means that your 2000 calorie day just went to about a 2400 calorie day. 1 pound of fat is 3500 calories. Assuming this 400-calorie difference, this means that you’d be gaining a pound of fat every 8.75 days. Over the course of a year, you would be gaining around 40 pounds of fat just by underestimating calories. Yikes.
Where to Go From Here
If you are serious about weight loss, I highly recommend you start tracking your calories. And this doesn’t have to be a permanent thing, but I recommend you do it for at least two weeks to a month. This is simply just so that you can be fully aware of what is actually going into your body. Track it because you will be shocked when you see the results. Weight loss doesn’t have to be hard, but it does require a bit of effort on your part. Tracking calories is a skill. It’s kind of like learning a new language. The language of macros. And learning something new requires a little effort on your part. Sorry. Telling you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.
There isn’t any magic pill that will shed the weight, but if you are diligent in tracking how much flour you’re using or oils you’re using by weighing everything on a food scale, you will start to see the weight come off. I guarantee that. Cook at home with recipes you find online, or use some of the recipes I share here in this channel, and you’re already one step closer to seeing results. And as long as you are in a caloric deficit, you will see those results. But it all starts with you and your motivation to get into the kitchen, take back your autonomy and cook for yourselves. Don’t live a diet, live a lifestyle, and live here in Life’s Kitchen.