As I’m sure you’ll agree, there’s nothing quite as frustrating as when you do all the right things – work out, eat the right foods, live the healthy lifestyle, but somehow, for some reason, you still can’t lose weight.
Very few of us who have ever been on a weight loss journey haven’t experienced this at one time or another. And it sucks, right?
So why does this happen, anyway?
Well, there can actually be a number of reasons behind it. The problem is though that too many people are quick to think that whatever is holding them back is totally out of their hands. They blame it on things like genetics, a slow metabolism (as though that’s set in concrete, which it isn’t), thyroid problems, and so on.
The fact is, not being able to lose weight is almost always a result of some practice that can either be reversed, corrected, or at least improved upon in some way.
A Study of Calorie Levels
We recently wrote a blog post about the nine main reasons behind people not being able to lose fat. If you take a look through those nine points, you’ll see that three of them relate to underestimating one’s caloric intake.
But how common is it really that people are just eating and/or drinking more than they realize? Surely the reason behind many people failing to lose weight wouldn’t be so obvious, would it?
In the study, a group of ten obese people (nine women and one man) who were encountering difficulties in losing weight while dieting had their calorie intake and energy expenditure monitored over 14 days. These values were then compared to their estimated values, that is, the number of calories they thought they were consuming through their diet, and the number of calories they thought they were burning through exercise.
The result of the test was quite revealing. It was found that the group underestimated their calorie intake by an average of 47%, and overestimated their calorie expenditure by an average of 51%. In simple terms, they were eating almost twice as much as they thought, and exercising only about half as much as they thought.
The individuals in this group believed their obesity to be caused by genetics, used thyroid medication frequently, and considered their eating behavior to be fairly normal.
Although this study did involve quite a small sample size of participants, it does nevertheless illustrate just how wrong it’s possible to be about how much we are actually eating and exercising.
Calculating calorie expenditure during exercise is notoriously difficult to do. Even the electronic calorie counters on many gym machines can’t be relied upon to give you any significant level of accuracy. This is due to variances in a number of important factors, including:
- Fitness level
- Body composition
- Metabolic adaptation
- Metabolic rate
- Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC)
That being said, there’s really no great need to track calorie expenditure through exercise whilst on a weight loss program. By simply tracking the number of hours per week spent working out and perhaps even some measure of relative intensity, you’ll have a good indication as to whether you’re working enough or too little, and whether or not you’re maintaining a constant level of exercise.
Your calorie intake is another matter. This is more important measurement to keep track of, for two reasons.
Firstly, your calorie intake gives a very good indication as to whether you’re eating too much or too little in an absolute sense. For example, we know that a calorie intake of say 1,200 kcal per day is getting dangerously low, whereas a calorie intake of say 3,000 kcal per day is most likely too high if weight loss is your goal.
And secondly, unlike the case for exercise, it’s not so easy to gauge where in the acceptable “ballpark” your calorie intake actually is just by visually guestimating it from your food intake.
There are people who claim that calorie counting is either unnecessary or meaningless. More often than not however, these people have a vested interest in holding this opinion, either because of a product or diet they’re promoting, or simply for self-promotion.
At the end of the day, weight loss is driven by your calorie balance, and that calorie balance is affected directly by your calorie intake. Since estimating this value can be very tricky, as the above study has shown, knowing where in the acceptable range your calorie intake is, is actually very important.
Because athletes need to adhere to a tightly-controlled nutrition program, for them counting calories is par for the course. But what about non-athletes, whose primary goal is simply to lose weight? Is it really necessary for them to go to the trouble of weighing their foods and monitoring calories?
Well, yes and no.
Today with the convenience of smart phone apps, counting calories has never been easier. With some regular practice you’ll quickly familiarize yourself with the calorie content of most of the foods you eat regularly. And when you combine with that regular practice at estimating portion sizes with the help of some common electronic kitchen scales, there’s no reason why you couldn’t develop the ability to estimate your calorie intake within a 10% accuracy almost entirely off the top of your head.
In my opinion, even if you decide not to weigh everything you consume daily, developing the skill to accurately estimate portion sizes of foods and their calorie content in this way is one of the best things you can learn.
It’s a skill that will benefit you greatly for the rest of your life and really help you to manage your diet successfully, particularly if you’re one of those unfortunate individuals who has an ongoing battle to maintain a healthy weight.
Steven W. Lichtman, Ed.D., et al. “Discrepancy between Self-Reported and Actual Caloric Intake and Exercise in Obese Subjects.” The New England Journal of Medicine, 1992.