Counting Calories Is Harder Than You Thought

by Kevin Burton

   Dieting is tough enough. But did you know that calorie counts on food labels can be wildly inaccurate? 

   It is permissible for those counts to be up to 20 percent off under Food and Drug Administration guidelines, according to

   “That means for example, that a serving of Greek yogurt labeled to contain 100 calories could actually weigh in at 80 to 120 calories,” Insider reports.

   And who’s with me on this one: I am guessing the counts, when they are off, are off on the low side, so that most of what we consume contains more calories than advertised.

   “Calories aren’t the only factor in weight loss, but it’s generally accepted that the only way to lose weight is by creating a calorie deficit, in which you burn more energy than you consume in the form of food.”

   “As a result, an extra 20 calories here and there could potentially add up over time. If you want to prevent erroneous labels from derailing your diet, experts recommend using a calorie budget, focusing on the big picture, and eating whole, unprocessed foods more often,” Insider wrote. 

   “Research has found that prepackaged meals tend to have about 8 percent more calories on average than listed on the label — even ones specifically advertised for weight loss, such as Lean Cuisine or Weight Watchers. Common snack foods, including Pop Tarts, crackers, chips, and snack cakes also tend to have slightly more calories than advertised, about 4 percent more than labeled, according to one 2013 study.”

   But monitoring your calorie intake can still be helpful, said Layne Norton, a nutrition and fitness coach, bodybuilder, and power lifter with a PhD in nutrition. 

   “Tracking calories is useful the way a budget is useful for saving money,” Norton said.

   There is another factor to consider, according to an article on

   “The concept of calories as a simple measure of the energy in our food has been a cornerstone of conventional weight-control advice for decades. However, a new understanding of nutrition and how our bodies use calories from food reveals that it is much more complicated than we might have thought.”

     “For example, an orange is mainly carbohydrate or sugar, but when we drink orange juice, our body will absorb the sugar quickly because there is no digestion required. However, when we eat orange segments, it takes energy for the digestive system to work on the fiber and extract the sugar. Therefore, our body does completely different things with it, despite the same calorie hit.”

   “Orange juice causes a more rapid spike in blood sugar levels than the orange segments, and regular surges in blood sugar can lead to weight gain and other health problems. Therefore, balancing diet and exercise is much more complicated than simply counting calories,”

    Let’s be honest though. Some of us aren’t even reading calorie counts. We just need to eat more green beans and corn with inaccurate labels and fewer Pop Tarts and Chili Cheese Fritos. 

   But if the labels are still getting you down, there is another way to do the math when it comes to dieting.

    “One popular principle in nutrition is the 80/20 rule, which calls for eating healthily about 80 percent of the time and allowing 20 percent flexibility in your diet so it doesn’t become stressful or restrictive.,” Insider wrote.

  “If you’re still concerned about miscalculating calories, one strategy might be to avoid foods with labels altogether.   Many packaged foods are ultra-processed, meaning they include added fat, sugar, salt, and preservatives,” Insider wrote.

   “There’s a wealth of evidence that processed foods are bad for our health, leading to increased risk of chronic illness. Processed foods even cause you to eat more than you might otherwise, up to 500 extra calories a day, according to some research.”

   In contrast, eating more whole foods like produce, legumes, lean meat, eggs, whole grains, nuts, seeds can promote a healthy weight and lower risk of disease. While these foods are still labeled, fewer ingredients also means there’s less uncertainty about what you’re putting in your mouth. Whole foods like produce are also less calorie dense, so 20 percent of what the label said will also be a smaller amount than the difference in processed foods,” Insider wrote.

   “Dietitians recommend making fresh fruits and veggies about half your plate for most meals, since they’re packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber, all of which are important for overall health.”

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