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Evidence-based articles & blogs to help with making training more effective, nutrition more flexible & life more enjoyable.
So you’ve just learnt that you can get the physique you want without giving up the food you love, using some calculations and tracking. Welcome to the wonderful world of flexible dieting. As with any new skill - there’s some common pitfalls you’ll want to avoid. PS you know those people who say “calorie tracking didn’t work for me”... Chances are they were making at least one of these mistakes.
Mistake #1: Not Tracking Food In Advance
…Or better yet the day before.
If you’re tracking just to track (which is cool) this one doesn’t apply to you.
But if you’re tracking with a view to changing your body composition… Make sure you’re tracking in advance.
Take it from me - there’s better ways to spend your evening than realising you’ve used up all of your fats and carbs for the day and are looking at two more meals consisting of microwaved egg whites with water.
In the same way that the best way to hit your savings goal is to make a budget plan and stick to it by allocating your spending to certain areas…
The best way to hit your body composition goal is to make a meal plan each day and stick to it by allocating your macros to certain foods/meals.
You cannot ‘uneat’ a food. Tracking beforehand gives you the benefit of hindsight, without having to learn any mistakes the hard way (like I did).
Mistake #2: All Or Nothing Mindset
Don’t worry we’ll get to the practical pitfalls shortly.
The biggest mistake people make with tracking, though, is not tracking.
I’ve looked through countless athletes’ food logs to see:
Whilst being meticulous is admirable, and it’s undoubtedly the more accurate approach -
If you find yourself in the same boat, you’re better off having a slightly more relaxed approach but tracking more consistently (every day).
The more relaxed approach might look like:
Consistency is key
Mistake #3: Not Tracking Cooking Oils
Here’s what I had for dinner last night:
200g of chicken breast - 330 calories (kcals)
200g of vegetables - 150 calories
400g of potato - 300 calories
90g of avocado - 150 calories
So I’m looking at ~930 calories, right?
Oops, I forgot to mention that I drowned my chicken breast in cooking oil, deep-fried my potatoes into french fries and dashed a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar with olive oil over my vegetables.
Now I could be looking at anywhere between 1200 and 2000 calories, easily!
Don’t forget to track your cooking oils.
Mistake #4: Using Volume Not Weight
One cup of onions ≠ one cup of onions. Let me explain…
You could place a whole onion in a cup, which might weigh 50g. You try to place one more on there but it falls off. So one cup of onion is equal to 50g, right?
What if you cut the onions up? You may be able to fit three or four onions into the one cup. So one cup of onion is equal to 150-200g, right?
This might seem unnecessarily nitpicky (and for onions which are bugger all calories it might be) but when we apply the same concept to cooking oil or nut butters the calorie difference is meaningful.
Guess how much one teaspoon of peanut butter is meant to weigh? 5 measly grams.
Don’t take this as a challenge, but I’d be willing to bet you could get 50 grams or more peanut butter onto a teaspoon if needed.
Now we’re talking about the difference between 30 or 300 calories, which could represent your entire deficit!
Mistake #5: Not Distinguishing Between Cooked & Raw Weight
The nutritional information of an item is relevant to the state it comes in when purchased. For example, if you scan your packet of (raw) skinless boneless chicken breast, then cook it, then weigh out your portions from there, you’re using raw measurements but cooked weights.
This doesn’t mean you have to weigh out each serving individually (so you can get the more accurate raw weight).
You can use these simple conversions:
Meat loses 30% of its weight during the cooking process. If you have the raw macros but a cooked weight, take the cooked weight x 1.4 (to add back 30%) for a rough estimate.
Pasta & Rice:
Pasta typically doubles in weight and rice triples during the cooking process (due to the amount of water added). If you have raw nutritional information, but cooked portions, you can take your cooked weight and divide it by 2 (for pasta) or 3 (for rice) for a rough estimate.
Test the theory yourself - cook up 200g of rice/pasta/meat and see what the final weight ends up being, then remember that as your own personal conversion chart.
Mistake #6: Eye Balling > Weighing
As you track your macros you’ll undoubtedly get better at guessing the weight of certain food items.
For example, I’ve had protein oats for breakfast every day for the past 5 years. I’m pretty sure I could pour 100g of oats with a blindfold on, and be within 5g every time.
However, humans are terrible at tracking. Even Registered Dietitians have a tendency to under-report.
Weighing will always be more accurate than eye-balling, no matter how good we think we are.
Mistake #7: Weighing Things Out Of A Jar The Hard Way
If you’ve been scooping peanut butter out of the jar then pushing it off with your finger, only to find it extremely difficult to get the measurement you want (and then not knowing what to do with what’s left on the spoon, or your finger)... There is a better way.
To weigh things out of a jar (like peanut butter) place the jar on the scales then 'zero' them out. Take some of the contents out of the jar. The scales will show a negative reading. This is the amount you have taken out. E.g. -20g means 20g is on your spoon right now.
Mistake #8: Not Checking The Serving Size
You do not need to eat the serving size of an item. When you do, though, make sure the serving size on your tracking app matches the serving size on the label.
For example the serving size of my oats (according to the nutritional label on the packet) is 60g but my tracking app (MyFitnessPal) classifies one serving as 40g.
I may have been consuming 60g thinking I was accurately tracking one serve, but only accounting for ⅔ of the calories and macros due to this discrepancy.
All you need to do is manually change the amount from 1 serve to 60 grams.
Mistake #9: Not Building & Saving Meals
Chances are you’ve had the same thing 1-3 meals for breakfast most days this week.
Protein oats, anyone?
Taking the small amount of time to save your regular meals now saves you time in the long run. You can ‘save’ meals even on the free version of most tracking apps (like MyFitnessPal).
Mistake #10: Not Over-Estimating Restaurant Meals
A juicy, medium-rare 250g sirloin steak you cook yourself might have roughly 450 calories, and plenty of protein and micronutrients to go with it.
The same steak, served in a restaurant, could easily have 800+ calories because it is cooked in butter and lathered in oil, to make it as tasty as humanly possible.
Thankfully in 2023 many restaurants provide nutritional information, which makes tracking easier. For those that don’t, however, you’re better off over-estimating the calories because chances are, you’ll be right.
Mistake #11: Eating Back Exercise Calories
It’s true that tracking is just a tool to manage your energy balance aka calories in vs. calories out. So why can’t we exercise 500 calories then eat back 500 calories?
Physiologically, we can.
Practically, we cannot. This is because wearable calorie-tracking technology is not particularly accurate, even less so for lean/muscular individuals.
The better strategy is to use your time in the gym for building strength & muscle, not burning calories. Your workouts will have been factored into your Typical Daily Energy Expenditure equation (when you calculated your fat loss macros to start the diet). Eating calories back would be double-handling.
You can use step-count as a proxy for expenditure (i.e. you can increase your average daily step-count and expect that to contribute towards keeping you in a calorie deficit) but don’t try to figure out exactly how many calories you burn through exercise, unless you’ve got access to a metabolic chamber ward every day.
Author: Coach Vaughan Burrell