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The most common mistakes in counting meals and calories in apps

Calorie counting is an important step in achieving your weight gain or weight loss goals. Although this process may seem simple, there are many common mistakes that people make in calculating energy intake from food. These mistakes can hinder or even baffle your progress. What mistakes should be avoided?

What are calories

First of all, it is important to explain what calories are. It is a unit of energy that we receive from food and beverages. Every living being in the world needs this energy to stay healthy and alive. We use the calories, that we get from food, for basic functions such as breathing and thinking, but also for everyday activities such as walking, talking and eating. So food becomes our fuel. Although we are talking about the “calories” we receive, in fact we receive another unit of energy from food, “kilocalories”, the so-called kcal. It’s actually 1000 times more calories, but in the world of fitness, we are simply used to call them calories. [1]

It is important to realize that calories are not like calories. After all, if you eat excessive amounts of calories, they will start to be stored in your body as fat. So basically it makes more sense to choose healthy foods that give you calories, vitamins, minerals and other beneficial substances that your body needs. On the contrary, you should avoid eating “empty calories”, which may be found in unhealthy foods, such as alcohol. We call them “empty” because they provide calories but have no other nutritional value. [1] [2]

What are calories

Why is calories counting so important?

The phenomenon of counting calories spread at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. At the time, scientist Wilbur Atwater noticed that as he put food in a special machine and burned it, he could measure ash and heat to find out how much “energy” was released from the food. So he simply determined how much energy (calories) the food contained. In many ways, Atwater is the first person that deal with the amount of calories in food. In the early 20th century, Atwater and his team at Wesleyan conducted a comprehensive study of the caloric content of more than 500 foods with purpose to create a scientific and healthy way to maintain body weight. It is true that the first person who came up with the term “calories” was the renowned scientist Edward Atkins, but it was Atwater who first started counting calories. [3]

Calorie counting was later also covered by other renowned studies. The importance of counting calories has been repeatedly demonstrated in studies called “overfeeding studies”, where participants deliberately overeat and did not perform any activity. Subsequently, the effect of excessive calories on their health and weight was measured. All these studies found that overeating caused a rapid weight gain, and therefore led participants to count their calories on a daily basis. This has been shown to be successful in subsequent weight reduction. [1] [2] [11] [12]

Why is calories counting so important?

Therefore, studies have shown that counting calories is an important step in achieving our goals. Fortunately, nowadays we no longer have to burn food to find out its caloric weight. As calorie counting has become popular in the world of fitness, you can find calculators or apps on the Internet that easily calculate your calories. However, if you do not have these conveniences, try looking at the back of the food label, where a table of nutritional values is. By law, it must be present on every food and the energy intake in kilocalories or kilojoules should also be stated. [2]

How to count calories

If you are not sure about how many calories you should take per day and how to calculate them, it is best to find out how much energy you burn per day. This is called the total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). Once you know this number, the second step is to set your daily energy intake and expenditure according to whether you want to lose weight or gain weight. [5]

Your daily energy expenditure consists of 4 important parts: [5] [6]

  • Thermogenesis activities without exercise – the calories you burn through normal activities during the day, such as walking, cooking or brushing your teeth
  • Thermal effect from exercise – calories burned by exercise, whether it’s swimming, running or strengthening
  • BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) – represents how many calories you burn in complete peace, so while breathing or pumping blood
  • Thermal effect of food – calories burned by digestion and food processing. It can represent more than 10% in the case of a protein-rich diet.

Determining these points can be really challenging. Fitness calculators, which include also BMR, can make it easier for you, but it is best to reach for a calorie calculator. Based on the data you enter, it will easily determine how many calories you need to take per day to maintain your weight and cover your daily energy expenditure. [6]

When writing meals in calorie tables, the correct app should also consider some basic factors such as: [4]

  • sex
  • age
  • weight
  • height
  • physical activity
  • current state of health and possible pregnancy
How to count calories

So how do you set your daily energy expenditure if you want to lose weight or gain weight? We will show it with simple examples.

  • Weight loss: Your daily food intake is 2000 kcal. Therefore, your daily energy expenditure should be more than 2000 kcal. For example, your TDEE will be 2500 kcal. This means that you will be at a loss of 500 kcal per day. We call this condition a caloric deficit. If you keep the caloric deficit every day, you will be in the calorie deficit of 3500 kcal during the week, which means approximately -0.45 kg. With optimal and regular adherence to the caloric deficit, you will be able to lose weight quickly, but at the same time in a healthy way. [7]
  • Weight gain: Weight gain is the opposite problem. In this case, you definitely must not get into a caloric deficit and on the contrary, you must achieve a caloric surplus. This means that if you take 2000 kcal a day, your TDEE must not go into the minus. Therefore, try taking more than 2000 kcal, for example 2500 kcal. Your daily caloric excess should be 500 kcal, which is 3500 kcal per week and therefore +0.45 kg. Of course, you can also gain weight in an unhealthy way, where you will consume much higher amounts of calories, mostly from unhealthy sources. However, we do not really recommend that. [8]

So once you know how many calories you need to take per day,  you can simply count the number of calories in each meal you eat and fill that number. To obtain it, you can use the nutritional values on the food label or apps for counting calories.

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The most common mistakes in writing meals to calorie apps

If you have decided to count your caloric intake in the app, don’t think it will do everything for you. Its purpose is to count the calories you enter. Some apps even search for food and recalculate the amount of carbohydrate, protein and fat intake. They control whether you maintain the optimal consumption of these macronutrients. The most used apps and websites for measuring caloric intake: [9] [10] 

  • MyFitnessPal
  • Control My Weight
  • MyNetDiary
  • Noom
  • Lose it!
  • Calorie Tables

In order to achieve your goal when writing calories in these tables, you should be honest not only when filling in the table, but also to yourself. For best results, you should therefore avoid these most common mistakes when writing meals to calorie tables.

The most common mistakes in writing meals to calorie apps

You do not count your food immediately

In this case, you definitely can’t rely on your memory. There are so many other things going on during the day that when you sit down in the evening and start writing down your meals, you certainly won’t remember them all. You can also forget about portion size, side dishes or drinks. You will probably not get the exact amount of energy received, and it will return you to the beginning of your journey. However, if you download the app with a calorie table to your mobile phone, you will have it available wherever you are. Before, during or immediately after a meal, you will be able to write down the exact number of calories.[4]

You do not specify the exact portion size

Be sure not to use your guesses to determine portion sizes. People tend to underestimate portions of food and specify their size just by looking. At home, specifying the portion size is easier, as you can weigh the food on a home food scale. However, if you are in a restaurant, you can hardly control the portion size on the menu. It is usually showed in the raw state, without the side dish. But if you dare, ask the waiter if he could weight a portion.[4]

Cereals, for example, are a perfect example of not specifying the correct portion size. Put them into a bowl and pour 300 ml of milk. A typical mistake in this case is to enter in the table a total portion of cereals of only 300 ml. However, this ration is only pure milk, not cereals. Therefore, you should write down a separate portion of milk and a separate portion of cereals that you weigh at home food scale. But you should not forget the fact that there will be many situations where you will have some milk left and you will add more, maybe a hand of cereals into it. If you are serious about counting calories, you should also count the amount added. [14]

You do not specify the exact portion size

You forget to count snacks

One of the most common mistakes in counting calories is ignoring snacks. Yes, even those contain calories, some even really high amounts. Therefore, if you eat dessert of your partner in the restaurant, you should know that these calories also count. [4] [14] Take a look at an overview of the most common snacks and their calories: [16] 

Snack
Portion size
Calories
Apple
100 g
52 kcal
MoiMüv Protein Bar
60 g
205 kcal
Banana
100 g
89 kcal
Fries
100 g
312 kcal
Pringles
50 g
279 kcal
Avocado
100 g
160 kcal
Nutella
100 g
541 kcal
Just Whey protein with water
30 g
113,2 kcal

You do not think about nutrients

Another common mistake is that you limit yourself to tracking calories.  [4] It is also important to monitor the nutritional profile of your diet. Complex calorie tables will not only count your calories, but also record the intake of macronutrients. You can monitor the levels of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, or even fiber, calcium, sodium and other minerals that are essential for our body. This monitoring can be especially important if you are guarding your nutrient intake. People, who are gaining muscle mass, should also meet their daily need for protein and carbohydrates. If, on the other hand, you are trying to gain weight, it is important to monitor your fat content as well. On the contrary, when losing weight, you should achieve a healthy carbohydrate and fat deficiency. Moreover, keep in mind that these nutrients also contain calories:  [13]

  • Protein – 1 g = 4 kcal
  • Carbohydrate – 1 g = 4 kcal
  • Fat – 1 g = 9 kcal
You do not think about nutrients

You limit your diet to the same foods

Calorie counting can sometimes lead to dietary restrictions. Because not all foods contain calorie information, you reject them. However, your diet should be varied, so you should not focus on the same foods all the time. If you do not know the nutritional value of a food, try searching for it on the Internet. If you are in a restaurant, ask the waiter for this information. Although such counting may be more difficult, it will have a positive effect for you in the form of a varied range of your diet. [14] [15]

Not all the calories are the same

You should also consider the actual quality of the food when counting calories. If your daily intake is 2000 kcal, but you will eat only chocolate, french fries and junk food without nutritional added value, you are simply doing a bear service. In addition, such meals are high in calories, so you can fill your daily energy intake with eve three meals only. Junk food also contains no beneficial vitamins and minerals, and in many cases it lacks enough fiber or some macronutrients, mostly protein. Choose healthier alternatives instead. You will achieve optimal calorie intake, increase the number of servings and get beneficial substances in the body that will maintain your health. [13] [14]

Remember that counting calories is really important in achieving your fitness goals. If you want to lose weight, gain weight or maintain weight, it is good to know what you eat and what portions you should eat. However, counting calories is most important when you are starting with exercise and a controlled diet. Over some time, you will be able to specify for yourself which food has how many calories and which weight is best for you. Do you count calories? Have you already made any of the mistakes mentioned above? Let us know in the comments below. If you like the article, do not forget to support it by sharing.

Sources:

[1] Jennifer R. Scott - Calorie Definition and Why We Count Them – https://www.verywellfit.com/what-is-a-calorie-and-why-should-i-care-3496238

[2] Helen West, RD - Counting Calories 101: How to Count Calories to Lose Weight – https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/counting-calories-101

[3] Connor Heffernan - The History of Calorie Counting – https://physicalculturestudy.com/2016/05/05/the-history-of-calorie-counting/

[4] Malia Frey - How to Count Calories Correctly – https://www.verywellfit.com/calorie-counting-dos-and-donts-3495627

[5] Jennifer R. Scott - How to Boost Your Energy Expenditure – https://www.verywellfit.com/what-is-energy-expenditure-3496103

[6] Kamal Patel - Is my “slow metabolism” stalling my weight loss? – https://examine.com/nutrition/is-my-slow-metabolism-stalling-my-weight-loss/

[7] Gavin Van De Walle, MS, RD - What Is a Calorie Deficit, and How Much of One Is Healthy? – https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/calorie-deficit

[8] Alex Leaf - The Effects of Overfeeding on Body Composition: The Role of Macronutrient Composition – A Narrative Review – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5786199/

[9] Alice Head - Best Calorie Counting Apps: 6 to Count Macros, Scan Snacks and Track Progress – https://www.womenshealthmag.com/uk/gym-wear/tech/a705360/best-calorie-counting-app-apps/

[10] Adda Bjarnadottir, MS, RDN - The 5 Best Calorie Counter Websites and Apps – https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/5-best-calorie-counters

[11] Luc Tappy - Metabolic Consequences of Overfeeding in Humans – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15534429/

[12] Annemiek M C P Joosen, Klaas R Westerterp - Energy Expenditure During Overfeeding – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16836744/

[13] Jenny Stamos Kovacs - The Dos and Don'ts of Counting Calories – https://examine.com/supplements/psyllium/

[14] Kelly Plowe, MS, RDN - 7 Calorie-Counting Mistakes That Can Sabotage Your Weight-Loss Goals – https://www.livestrong.com/article/13721629-calorie-counting-mistakes/

[15] Calorie Counting: Five Cl – https://www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/fitness/weight-loss/calorie-counting-5-common-mistakes-how-to-avoid-them.html

[16] Food and Nutrition – https://www.usda.gov/topics/food-and-nutrition