The Biggest Mistakes People Make When Counting Calories

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A person is holding a donut in one hand and a smartphone displaying a daily calorie tracking app in the other hand. The plate in front of them is filled with various high-calorie foods such as croissants, chocolate bars, cornflakes, and cookies.

Counting your calories is an effective way to track what you are putting into your body.

By tracking the number of calories consumed and burned, you can achieve a calorie deficit or surplus to support your desired outcome.

However, the process of calorie counting is not without its challenges, and many people make common mistakes that hinder their weight loss efforts.

In this article, I’ll show you 7 common mistakes people make when counting calories for weight loss.

How Do You Lose Weight?

Before we get to the common calorie-counting mistakes, let me quickly explain how you lose weight for anyone unfamiliar with the process. If you already know this, feel free to skip to the next section.

Weight loss is all about balance. You need to eat fewer calories than your body needs to maintain its current weight.

For example, if you weigh 70 kg and your body needs 2000 kcal a day to maintain that weight, you need to eat less than 2000 kcal. This is known as being in a caloric deficit.

So, if you eat 1500 kcal instead of 2000 kcal, you create a 500 kcal deficit. Your body will then use stored energy, such as fat, to make up the difference.

Over time, this is how you lose weight.

As you can see in the image below, you have to be in a state where you are using food energy rather than storing energy in the form of fat. (being sedentary)

If you’re not losing weight, it means you’re not in a caloric deficit.

It’s not because of a slow metabolism or getting older. It’s all about creating that calorie deficit.

Now let’s move on to the mistakes.

Also Read: How Much Weight Loss Is Good For You?

The Biggest Mistakes People Make When Counting Calories

#1. Underestimating Portion Sizes

The most common mistake is underestimating portion sizes. This often happens because people rely on visual estimations, which can be misleading.

For example, a small pile of rice on your plate might seem like a single serving, but it could actually be two or three servings.

Foods that are calorie-dense, like nuts and cheese, are particularly easy to misjudge.

A serving of almonds is about 23 almonds (1 ounce), containing approximately 160 calories, but it’s easy to eat twice this amount without realizing it.

Solution: Use food scales and measuring cups to ensure accurate portion sizes. Familiarize yourself with standard serving sizes and practice visualizing them.

For instance, a serving of meat (3 ounces) is roughly the size of a deck of cards, and a serving of cooked rice (1/2 cup) is about the size of a tennis ball.

#2. Ignoring Liquid Calories

Many people forget to account for the calories in beverages, which can add a lot to your overall calorie intake.

Drinks often contain added sugars and other high-calorie ingredients.

A single can of soda can contain 125 – 180 calories, and a glass of juice or an alcoholic drink can be even higher.

These beverages often offer little to no nutritional value, providing empty calories that don’t contribute to satiety.

Solution: Read labels and track all beverages, not just food. Opt for water, herbal teas, or other low-calorie drinks to stay hydrated without adding unnecessary calories.

For alcoholic beverages, choose lighter options and limit mixers that add extra calories.

#3. Miscounting Restaurant and Packaged Foods

Estimating calories from restaurant meals and packaged foods can be challenging due to hidden ingredients and varying preparation methods.

Restaurant dishes often contain hidden fats, sugars, and larger portions than home-cooked meals.

For example, a healthy salad can become a caloric bomb with the addition of dressings, cheese, croutons, and nuts.

Similarly, packaged foods can be tricky because the serving sizes on the packaging might be smaller than what you typically consume in one sitting.

Solution: Use restaurant nutrition guides to make informed choices. Many chain restaurants provide this information online or in-store.

Opt for simpler dishes with fewer ingredients to better estimate calorie content.

For packaged foods, pay attention to the serving sizes listed on the label and adjust your intake accordingly.

#4. Overlooking Snacks and Small Bites

Small snacks and bites throughout the day can add up, often going unaccounted for in calorie tracking.

People frequently consume small amounts of food without thinking, such as grabbing a handful of chips while watching TV or a few candies from a coworker’s desk.

These small intakes are often forgotten when logging daily food intake, leading to underreporting of total calories consumed.

Solution: Keep a detailed food diary or use a calorie-tracking app to log every bite, no matter how small.

This habit helps maintain accountability and provides a more accurate picture of your overall intake.

Practice mindful eating by being aware of what and how much you’re consuming.

Set specific times for meals and snacks to avoid mindless eating.

#5. Not Accounting for Cooking Oils and Add-Ons

One often overlooked source of extra calories is cooking oils and other add-ons.

Cooking oils, butter, and other ingredients used in meal preparation can add significant calories without being noticed.

For example, a tablespoon of olive oil contains about 120 calories, and it’s easy to use more than that when cooking or dressing a salad.

Solution: Measure cooking oils and butter carefully. Use a teaspoon or a spray bottle to control portions.

Opt for cooking methods that require less oil, such as baking, steaming, or grilling. Consider using low-calorie alternatives like cooking spray or broth.

Additionally, be mindful of other add-ons such as sauces, dressings, and toppings. These can quickly add up and should be included in your calorie count.

#6. The All-or-Nothing Approach

Many people fall into the trap of the all-or-nothing approach, thinking that if they can’t be perfect, they might as well not try at all.

This mindset can lead to periods of strict dieting followed by binges, which can sabotage long-term progress.

For example, if someone eats a high-calorie meal, they might think they’ve “blown it” for the day and continue to overeat.

Solution: Adopt a more flexible approach to calorie counting. Recognize that one high-calorie meal doesn’t ruin your progress.

Focus on overall patterns rather than perfection. Allow yourself occasional treats and plan for them within your calorie goals.

This balanced approach can help you maintain a healthier relationship with food and improve long-term adherence to your calorie-counting plan.

#7. Not Tracking on Weekends

It’s common for people to diligently track their calories during the week but relax their efforts on weekends.

This inconsistency can undermine progress, as weekend indulgences can offset the calorie deficit created during the week.

Social events, dining out, and a lack of routine can all contribute to higher calorie intake on weekends.

Solution: Maintain consistency in tracking calories throughout the week, including weekends.

Plan your weekend meals and activities in advance to stay on track.

If you have social events, look up the menu beforehand to make informed choices.

Try to keep a similar eating pattern on weekends as you do during the week to avoid drastic changes in calorie intake.

Also Read: Does Meal Timing Matter For Weight Loss?

Tips to Keep in Mind While Counting Calories for Weight Loss

Counting calories is an effective strategy for weight loss, but it’s essential to do it correctly to get the best results. Here are some key tips to keep in mind:

Use Measuring Tools

Accurate portioning is crucial for effective calorie counting.

Eyeballing portions can lead to underestimating your intake, so invest in a digital food scale and measuring cups/spoons to ensure precision.

For example, weighing a serving of pasta (2 ounces dry) versus estimating it by eye can reveal a significant difference in calorie count.

Weigh and measure your food before cooking, as cooking can alter the weight and volume of certain foods.

Read Nutrition Labels Carefully

Nutrition labels provide essential information, but it’s easy to overlook critical details like serving size.

Simply looking at the calorie number without considering the serving size can lead to consuming more calories than intended.

For instance, a bag of chips might list 150 calories per serving, but if the bag contains three servings and you eat the whole bag, that’s 450 calories.

Pay close attention to the serving size listed on the package and calculate the total calories if you consume multiple servings.

Track Everything

Every calorie counts, and small items like condiments, cooking oils, beverages, and snacks can add up quickly.

Failing to log these can lead to a significant underestimation of your calorie intake.

For example, adding a tablespoon of olive oil (120 calories) to your salad without logging it can impact your daily calorie total.

Use a calorie-tracking app to log everything you consume, including small snacks and beverages.

Don’t forget to log items like salad dressings, butter, and cooking oils, as they can be calorie-dense.

Be Mindful of Restaurant Meals

Dining out poses a challenge because restaurant portions are often larger, and meals can include hidden calories from added fats, sugars, and sodium.

A restaurant Caesar salad might seem healthy, but with added dressing, cheese and sauces, it can exceed 600 calories.

Look up nutrition information online before dining out. Many chain restaurants provide detailed nutritional information on their websites.

If nutritional information isn’t available, make your best estimate based on similar dishes or ingredients you recognize.

Adjust for Exercise

Physical activity increases your calorie burn, so it’s important to account for this in your calorie counting to ensure you create the appropriate calorie deficit for weight loss.

For example, if your goal is to maintain a 500-calorie deficit and your base calorie needs are 2,000 calories per day, burning an additional 300 calories through exercise means you could consume 1,800 calories instead of 1,500 while still losing weight.

Use fitness trackers or apps that estimate your calorie burn from exercise.

Devices like Fitbit or Apple Watch can provide reasonably accurate estimates. Based on your activity level, adjust your daily calorie intake.

Plan Ahead

Planning your meals and snacks in advance can be a game-changer. Meal prepping helps you stick to your calorie goals and avoid impulsive, higher-calorie choices.

Having pre-portioned meals and healthy snacks ready can prevent you from grabbing fast food or processed snacks when you’re hungry.

Set aside time each week to plan your meals, create a grocery list, and prepare meals in advance.

Batch cooking and portioning out meals for the week can save time and help you stay on track.

Be Consistent

Calorie counting requires daily diligence. Consistency is key to achieving your weight loss goals.

It’s normal to have small slip-ups, but the important thing is to get back on track without getting discouraged.

Remember, one high-calorie meal won’t ruin your progress if you stay consistent overall.

Make calorie counting a daily habit. Use reminders or set specific times each day to log your food intake.

If you have a slip-up, don’t beat yourself up – just refocus and continue with your plan.

Recalculate as Needed

As you lose weight, your calorie needs will change. Your body requires fewer calories to maintain a lower weight, so it’s important to adjust your calorie targets periodically.

This ensures that you’re still in a calorie deficit and continuing to lose weight.

Periodically recalculate your calorie needs based on your new weight.

Many calorie-tracking apps can help you adjust your targets automatically as you log your weight loss progress.

Be Patient and Celebrate Non-Scale Victories

Weight loss can be a slow process, and it’s important to stay patient. Focusing on non-scale victories can help keep you motivated.

Look for improvements in areas like increased energy levels, better sleep quality, and overall health. These positive changes are just as important as the number on the scale.

Keep a journal of your non-scale victories. Note improvements in how you feel, your physical fitness, and your daily habits.

Celebrating these milestones can provide motivation and remind you of the benefits of your healthier lifestyle.

Also Read: Can You Target Belly Fat?


The biggest mistakes people make are not measuring food portions accurately, overlooking the nutritional quality of foods, and relying too much on potentially inaccurate calorie labels.

These errors can lead to an imprecise understanding of how much energy we’re consuming, which can affect our weight management goals.

It’s important to remember that while counting calories can be a useful tool, it should be done carefully and in conjunction with other healthy habits for the best results.


What is the greatest mistake in calculating your caloric intake is due to?

The greatest mistake in calculating caloric intake is often due to not weighing portions accurately, leading to a significant margin of error.

Is there anything wrong with counting calories?

Counting calories isn’t inherently wrong, but it can be misleading due to factors like the quality of food, individual metabolism, and the precision of calorie counts on food labels.

What is the surprising problem with calorie counting?

A surprising problem with calorie counting is that the calorie numbers on food packages can be imprecise, and the actual energy available from food can change once it’s cooked or digested.

What is the margin of error in calorie counting?

The margin of error in calorie counting can be up to 20% on food labels, and even higher when considering individual variations in metabolism and the impact of food preparation and digestion.

This post may contain affiliate links which means I may receive a commission for purchases made through links at no extra cost to you. See my disclosure policy for more information.

Rahul is a professional nutritionist certified by the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) and a personal trainer certified through the American Council of Exercise (ACE). He has a special interest in the science of nutrition and how it can impact the body.

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