If you’re willing to fully commit to it, calorie counting is a highly effective fat loss tool.
It’s arguably the most reliable way to consistently eat in a calorie deficit (burn more calories than you take in).
…Assuming you do it well. I’ve outlined an entire guide on how to do that here.
Unfortunately, in plenty of cases, even when you are committed to it, some common mistakes may be holding you back–mistakes you don’t even know you’re making.
That sucks. After all, if the whole point of calorie counting is to eat in a deficit–and you’re not actually in a deficit–it’s a lot of work for nothing.
Let’s go over nine of the most common calorie counting mistakes, and how to fix them for (much) faster progress:
Mistake #1: Not measuring everything
It seems obvious, but it’s the single most detrimental mistake you can make. Unless you’re a veteran bodybuilder, you’re terrible at eyeballing portion sizes.
It’s human nature to downplay estimated calorie intake, so we “get to” eat more food. To the point where we’re so off, we’re eating well above a calorie deficit.
Measuring everything (preferably on a food scale) keeps you honest. The second you start eyeballing, the reliability of counting calories goes out the window.
Mistake #2: Not counting every day
It’s discouraging to have an off day of eating. If you go out to eat, drink a
lot little, and miss your protein goal, you’re not going to want to log that.
But if you don’t, you’re more likely to overeat. It becomes sort of a “free” day of eating. Calorie counting is an underrated accountability measure.
Think about how you drive when you’re alone on the highway, compared to when there’s a cop the next lane over. The accountability keeps you under control. Daily logging offers that accountability.
Also, even 1-2 off days of eating can undo a week’s worth of progress. See this chart (with hypothetical maintenance calories of 2,300):
Mistake #3: Not counting liquid calories
One of my online clients had been hitting his daily calorie goal, but wasn’t making any progress. This was confusing, as his calories were low enough to see fat loss.
We discussed different theories, and found the problem: he (unintentionally) wasn’t counting his liquid calories. His daily coffee order had at least 300-400 calories. Over the course of a week, that’s more than enough to prevent progress.
Every calorie you put in your mouth needs to be counted.
(General fat loss tip: Eat as many of your daily calories as possible. Liquid calories aren’t as filling.)
Mistake #4: Forgetting about “kitchen grabs”
I’m the worst at this.
While I’m cooking breakfast, I’ll grab a “small handful” of cashews (~200 calories). After my protein shake, I’ll grab a few crackers “for the salt” (~100 calories). I’ll ignore the handful of cereal I grabbed before actually pouring my bowl (~50 calories). And the extra olive oil on the pan “won’t make a big difference” (~200 calories).
All those “whatever” moments easily add 550+ unlogged calories to my daily intake. In other words, enough to prevent progress–shocker. Don’t be like me. Make sure you log the little things…
- Quick handfuls
- Small snacks
- Bites off other plates
- Taste tests
- Bigger than usual portions
They add up, big-time.
Mistake #5: Eyeballing after minimal tracking experience
You can’t effectively eyeball portions because you weighed everything for 11 days.
You have to “earn the right” to eyeball portions–after MONTHS of tracking. Not weeks, not days.
The sooner you get complacent, the sooner your progress becomes less reliable.
Mistake #6: Not tracking meals out
Similar to #2 (not counting every day) and #3 (not counting liquid calories), not tracking meals out can blow your progress.
(For tips on not blowing your progress while out to eat, click here.)
Especially because they’re so high calorie.
Let’s assume, however, that you DO track meals out. The issue might not be your lack of tracking; it might be your lack of extra effort.
Logging an arbitrary “chicken parm” reading you Googled isn’t enough. There are some extra steps you need to take, if you want to log well:
- Know what you’re ordering beforehand
- If possible, log ALL ingredients of that dish before you arrive
- When the meal is served, log the specific portions (unfortunately, going to have to eyeball here)
- Most importantly, round up your estimated portion
Your results will reflect your extra effort.
Mistake #7: Not adjusting logged portions
This is most common in people who are new to calorie counting. They might eat a salad, and do a decent job of logging all the ingredients:
- Lettuce (5 calories)
- Shredded cheese (110 calories)
- Chicken (185 calories)
- Ranch dressing (145 calories)
- Olives (40 calories)
For a total of 430 calories. Not too bad. BUT… what if the specific portions were logged?
- 2 cups of lettuce (~10 calories)
- 3/8 cup of shredded cheese (~165 calories)
- 6oz of chicken breast (~280 calories)
- 40g of ranch dressing (~190 calories)
- 10 large olives (~50 calories)
With the actual portions logged, the salad actually came in at 695 calories.
Accurate portions matter.
Mistake #8: Making mental adjustments and justifications
Again, this is me. I screw this up all the time. I’ll give you an example:
I recently had a solid day of eating. My last scheduled meal was scrambled eggs (about 400 calories worth of eggs and egg whites). But, the opportunity came up for me to go out to eat.
I did, and ordered a chicken and broccoli calzone. Instead of logging the obviously much higher calorie meal, I told myself it was fine because A) it had less calories than the steak and cheese version and B) I had done an extra workout that day.
No, Sam. Just no.
While justifications like that won’t totally blow your progress, they can certainly put a big dent in them.
Mistake #9: Dropping calories too quickly
This is also common in beginners. The scale doesn’t drop for 48 hours, and they slash their calories in half. If you’re not progressing, it’s likely because…
- You’re making one of the above mistakes
- Your stress is high and your sleep sucks
- Your body isn’t a perfect math equation and even “perfect” calorie counting won’t give weekly progress
Don’t mess with your calories often, and when you do, don’t mess with them a lot.
If you feel like your counting has been on point, your sleep and stress are dialed in, and you’re still not progressing–for at least a few WEEKS–then, and only then, can/should you drop your daily calorie goal 5%-15%.
Your next steps
Unlike most articles, it’s hard to give you a specific action step here. This is because I’m not sure which mistake(s) you’re personally making. What I can tell you to do is this:
- Make sure you’re logging every single day
- Make sure you’re logging every single thing you put into your mouth
- Make sure you’re measuring every one of those things
If you do that, and follow the steps in my calorie counting guide, you’ll be on the fast track to fat loss.
P.S. If you need help with MyFitnessPal, I got you.
P.S. Want a FREE three-day workout program (that you'll actually stick with)?