Calorie Counting Best Practices

In the era of internet apps and smartphones, calorie counting has gone from being long and tedious task that was difficult to maintain long term to a relatively simple and painless process. Many, many more people than ever before are doing it nowadays; fabulous results abound. However what is a lacking is a really good how to, best practices manual for beginners and non-beginners alike. Unfortunately this is where your average nutritionist or trainer just isn’t much help, and some advice is dubious at best. Calorie counting is, in a nutshell, estimating, a skill associated with engineering, not the realm of health and fitness professionals.

Construction cost estimating for example is very similar to calorie counting. Instead of using dollars, estimated from equipment, labor and material, you use the currency of calories, estimated from food and exercise. Calorie counting is simply an estimate of your daily intake and burn, over time this ends up becoming a single huge running estimate. No matter what you are estimating, the basics of estimating are pretty much the same as any other type of estimating.

Here are a few basic rules of estimating that will make counting easier, more accurate, and increase your confidence in what you are doing, giving you get the results you expect, and enabling you to reach your physique goals and beyond. Without it being the hassle that calorie counting is often made out to be. Always remember that a calorie counting and calorie counting apps are simply tools to help you achieve your goals.

Rule #1 – Count Everything

At least count everything that contains calories. The easiest way to totally blow your estimate is to miss large sources of calories. Completeness is more important than accuracy. What this means is if you have a limited amount of time for estimating (always the case when doing large estimates), spend your time making sure you include everything instead of making sure that you have the exact perfect value for the things you include.

You can always go back and edit. It is much, much, much easier to edit a poor value for a component you quickly entered than it is to recall things you missed from memory. Invest your time wisely and don’t rely too much on memory as it leads to missed items. An estimate with missed items is always wrong, and always low. We want our error evenly distributed; the easiest way to do this is to make sure we include everything.

Rule #2 – Do Not Add Bias

Adding bias is the number one bad practice that I would wager most people who calorie count do, and that is encouraged by others. When estimating at all times we have one goal in mind.

Do the best of your ability to try to be right.

We are not trying to be safe, trying to be safe is adding bias. Everyone intuitively knows that putting a little less food than you know you had, and a little more exercise than you know you did, into your daily estimate in order to make the numbers look good is wrong and will lead to poor results. The opposite is also true. Putting more food than we think we ate and less exercise than we think we did is just as wrong and will lead to just as poor of results.

If we want safety to be sure things work, that is done by adjusting goals.

This may seem counterintuitive for many people, but introducing any purposeful inaccuracy is always a bad practice, especially since you have no way of knowing where and how much inaccuracy was added when looking back in the future. The problem with bias is that it can stack a lot of little error up, in the end becoming a huge amount of error.

For example, say we ate some potato salad and ran a mile, in reality 250 calories of food and 90 calories of exercise (net of 160 calories). Instead of trying to be as right as possible, we approach this as safe as possible. Looking through the list of potato salad entries, we play it safe and pick the worst case entry, 400 calories per cup. Was that a half cup, cup, or cup and a half? Let’s be safe and pick a cup and a half. How fast was I running? I’m slow; I’ll be safe and pick 4.5 mph, a burn of 60 calories a mile. Was it really a mile? Let’s be safe and say ¾ mile instead. Exercise calories are always overestimated, so let’s be safe and only count half our exercise calories. This leaves us with 600 calories of potato salad eaten, 23 calories of exercise from running, 577 net calories eaten from the meal in our estimate, when in reality it was only 160 net calories.

Continuing on this example, why it’s bad, we also may have some safety in our goals, we want to lose as fast as possible and at least make sure we’re losing, so our goals are far lower than they should be. At every point we’re introducing error in the name of being safe and ending up with an actual calorie deficit substantially larger than we believe it is. And excessively large calorie deficits, especially maintained long term chronically, leads to compliance issues, hormone and performance issues, and dropping metabolism. Bad things we don’t want to happen.

Worse yet, the bias introduced makes it absolutely impossible to troubleshoot the problem. The person introducing the bias often doesn’t realize their error and believes they were giving a good faith estimate, which will in the end leave them frustrated and confused.

Don’t let that happen to you. Always, always, always try to be as right as possible. Though impossible to achieve, you want your estimate to be exactly perfect, to the calorie, of your day’s intake and burn. If you aren’t losing as fast as you’d like, or you are losing a little faster than you expect, then the problem is corrected by adjusting our goals. When you always strive to estimate as right as possible, problems are always easier to troubleshoot and solve.

An estimate full of bias is a colossal waste of time.

Rule #3 – Be As Accurate As You Reasonably Can

You have to define what is reasonable for you.

If you’ve gotten this far, and count everything and try to be right, individual item accuracy actually makes a lot less difference than you would intuitively think. With a normal distribution of error, the error from inaccuracy will be evenly spread both positive and negative. Since the error is largely random (the big reason why we do not introduce bias and count everything), the high misses cancel the low misses, and the overall error is quite low.

The larger the dataset, meals to days to weeks to months to years, the more and more accurate it becomes. Our body really doesn’t really react to anything smaller than a few days’ worth of calories anyway. At that point, even with fairly inaccurate individual entries, the overall estimate is a reasonably accurate representation of reality.

But this doesn’t mean we don’t care about accuracy. It is important. But it is also important to be reasonable. I consider the advice to measure everything terrible advice. You will put forth undue effort for what amounts to very minimal overall accuracy gains (especially since the calorie counts for specific foods are themselves just estimates). Now there are times when measuring is appropriate. When you are first starting out, maybe measure out a meal here and there, even whole days at times, to really start training yourself at what sizes and portions are. Spot checking yourself occasionally to keep your eyes sharp is a always a very good idea. Some foods are hard to estimate without measuring (portions from large cuts of meat for example are extremely difficult to estimate accurately without measuring).

Many items are pretty easy though. Smaller cuts and serving of meats are weighed. Most food has labels which greatly aid in making your best guess on the quantity of food you ate. If you ate half a package of 6 servings, you ate 3 servings. Most items each day should be quite easy to estimate with a reasonable degree of accuracy. There isn’t much point in going out of our way, putting forth undue effort, to get a small % of our calories more correct.

The reason to only be as accurate as reasonable is that accuracy of individual items can be a huge time sink. An enormous amount of time and effort can be spent improving the bottom line a tiny amount. If you are going to stick with this for the long haul, making it as quick and painless a process is important. Always be sure the effort you are putting forth toward accuracy is reasonable for you.

Rule #4 – Reevaluate and Improve

Quality control is always important. When we get results, it’s important to use those results as a tool for evaluating our estimating. Look back and evaluate your actual progress and expected progress.

Are you losing weight faster than you expect? You might be using a number that is a little too low for an exercise you regularly do.

Perhaps you lost 2.8 lbs in the last 4 weeks, and you expected to lose 4.0 lbs. Reducing your daily goal by 150 calories should get you closer to the 4.0 lbs you expect to lose next month. If you follow rules 1, 2, and 3, you should have a reasonably accurate estimate; results should match up well with expectations, especially if you have reevaluated your estimating and goals a few times.

Rule #5 – Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

You only need to start from scratch once. Use your past efforts as much as you can to save time. If your tools (app/software/etc…) allow for it, save meals and recipes, copy similar meals from previous days and copy workouts. Most tools nowadays make doing this a very easy and painless process, learn to use your tools and take advantage of these time saving features. The less time your spend calorie counting, the easier it becomes to integrate into your life, and the easier it becomes to stick to long term, to meet your goals and beyond. Consistency is the key to success; the easier calorie counting is for you, the longer and more consistently you are likely to stick with it, and the more likely you are to meet and exceed your goals.

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