Is under reporting your calories affecting your diet & weight?

When it comes to weight loss, gain and maintenance the equation is as simple as energy in vs energy out. Marketing companies will try and make this as confusing as possible in order to sell pointless products, but it all boils down to energy balance. If a client is looking to lose weight the first thing I do is try and explain the energy balance equation. This is that in order to lose weight their energy intake must be lower than their energy expenditure, thus burning more calories than they are consuming. The first question of course then is how do I know how many calories I am consuming and expending?

The first thing we need to do is to MEASURE.  Most people these days wear Apple watches, Fitbits or use apps on their phones to measure the number of calories they are expending throughout a day (none of these methods are 100% accurate). There are also some equations you can use to estimate your total energy expenditure, but again these are only an estimate. Naturally, if you increase the amount of exercise you complete and move more in a day you will burn more calories. Generally, people tend to get very hung up on the number of calories they are burning, obsessing over exercise selection, duration and frequency without even giving a second thought to the number of calories they are taking in. I believe the growth of HIIT training is a great example of this where people are looking to burn lots of calories FAST for maximum effect. I will be doing a blog on exercise and weight loss in the future, but for today we are focussing on calorie consumption.

I have mentioned before the important thing is that we need to measure. One of the most common ways people measure their calorie intake is to use apps to track their food. In general the majority of people using this method will track their calories each day in the format of breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks and either scan the barcodes of their foods, input the food themselves as a customised entry or search the vast database to find the foods they are looking for. The levels of accuracy of this method depend on the individual input. Those who weigh all of their foods before inputting the data will have a much higher accuracy then those who gauge by eye or go by the quantities provided on the apps. This causes a lot of inaccuracy in the data and those completing their calories using these latter methods will tend to under report which is one of the biggest causes of diet failures.

The food industry is also not making it easy for us. Many of the foods we purchase have misleading and unclear nutritional information, especially in terms of what is considered a portion. The inspiration for this blog post came from when I was snacking on some cereal and noticed that on the front of the packaging the nutritional information is based on a 40g serving. Now, most people I am sure would assume this would be a bowl sized portion (aka the amount you could eat for breakfast as this is the main purpose of the product) and therefore would input a 40g portion into their tracking app of 156kcal. As I was about to input my little handful of cereal, I decided to have a look how much a 40g portion is and as you can see from the image at the bottom of this blog it isn’t a lot! Especially not a full breakfast sized amount! Therefore, in theory if someone was having this cereal for breakfast, they may be consuming up to 3-4 times as many calories as they think they are! And if you underreported like this across the full day you can only imagine the number of calories you may be failing to include in your energy balance equation.

Another common habit is to under report or even forget the hidden snacks we consume in a day. If you imagine a busy day you have had where you are eating on the go and rushing around all day, I guarantee if you were asked to record everything you consumed at the end of the day you would forget at least 10% of the foods you ate. Therefore, it is very important when dieting to ensure you have planned your meals and snacks and even input them in the day before in order to ensure you remain on target for your calories. Finally, there is also one other area in which people tend to drastically under report and that is in drinks and alcoholic beverages. One of the main culprits is our hot drinks. Take for example a medium cappuccino at Costa coffee totalling 168kcal (using whole milk) or a medium whole milk latte at 207kcal, add a couple of those in each day without reporting and you could be adding an additional 400kcal to your daily amount without even realising. Then there’s the weekend boozy beverages. With the average bottle of wine having between 600-700kcal and a pint of beer around 180kcal I will let you do the maths on how this could be adding up for you! And what you generally tend to see is people on a calorie counting diet will tend to do well Monday- Friday but then totally misreport their weekend calories forgetting to add in all of these drinks alongside the potential takeaway and meals out they have had as well. Now, I am all for balance and having a treat now and again but it’s important to remember that if you are looking to lose weight that energy balance of IN Vs OUT doesn’t change.

So, to conclude the chances are that if you are looking to lose weight and its just not happening, or you are putting on weight, your energy balance of calories in is either the same or greater than the amount you are burning. Under reporting may be playing a vital role within this. So, to finish some top tips from me:

  1.  Ensure you check thoroughly the nutritional information on products
  2. Try weighing your foods for a week to get a better eye for quantities
  3. Log your foods the day before or in the morning and plan your meals/snacks in advance to avoid mindless eating
  4. Remember to log your drinks as these calories also count
  5. Little treats here and there are ok as long as you are in an overall calorie deficit for weight loss

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