You’ve been eating healthier, tracking your food, and working out hard but the scale isn’t budging. At this point many people think they genetically can’t lose weight because their hormones are messed up or they have slow metabolisms.
All those are possible but less common than this: You are eating more than you think!
- Eating more calories than you burn = gaining weight
- Burning more calories than you eat = losing weight
The tricky part of the equation above is that it’s not always easy to be sure how many calories you are absorbing/consuming or burning.
“Calories In, Calories Out”
For the calories ‘in’ (what you eat):
- Calories on food labels and in databases are averages. The FDA allows food companies to use several different methods to estimate calories, which means there may be up to a 50% margin of error for food labels. This means you could be eating significantly more than you think.
- Calorie counts can change based on how you prepare food and in what state you measure it. For example, protein loses weight (water) when cooked but carbs gain weight (water) when cooked. This means when you track your food, you’ll have to be careful that your measurement, whether cooked or uncooked, matches the food’s state in the database you log with.
- People are bad at eyeballing food portions. Even with the use of a scale and tablespoons, there is bound to be some human error in our measurements. However, specific tools like scales and tablespoons do increase the accuracy more than guessing or using hand portions.
For calories ‘out’ (what we burn):
- We think we burn more calories than we actually do. You may not like to hear it, but your Apple Watch and Fitbit isn’t 100% correct when estimating calories burned during activity. They tend to overestimate activity. For example, sometimes I’ve reached my standing goal two hours after waking up while being seated in front of my computer all morning.
- Your job, type of exercise, the makeup of your diet, genetics, current weight, sleep, dieting history, age, gender, etc. can all affect the number of calories burned each day.
- Just like people are bad at eyeballing portion sizes, we are bad at estimating our activity level. Without specific tracking, it’s very easy to think we workout harder and move more than we actually do.
Just because we don’t live in a lab under scientific observation using high-tech equipment to measure calorie input and output doesn’t mean counting calories will not work.
Maybe you are estimated to need 2,000 calories to lose weight, and that’s you’ve been eating according to MyFitnessPal, but because of the reasons above you may be eating 2,400 calories in reality. Since we have a measurement through tracking calories, we can instead suggest to eat 1,600 calories, so in reality you will be eating around 2,000 calories.
The factors above don’t disprove or debunk CICO, they just change one side of the equation. You still need to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight.
During a diet, you’ll have to make small adjustments and troubleshoot based on the data you collect (weight, measurements, etc.) to keep making progress. I recommend tracking data points like weight or caloric intake more closely to see if the adjustments you make lead to better results.