Looking Good (for a mom)

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Do you REALLY know how much you're eating?

If you're trying to lose weight or get fit, I'm sure you've heard that sage advice to keep a food journal. And believe me, having to write down what you ate will help you when you're considering whether to finish that half a cookie someone left in the kitchenette at work. But is it really enough? Not always.

While journaling will help most people avoid poor food choices, it doesn't really tell you how much you're eating from a calorie perspective. And the one time-proven way to lose weight, whether you cut carbs, cut fat, or follow some other type of eating plan, is to eat at a calorie deficit. For most people, that means eating about 500 calories less than what is required to maintain their current body weight. Adult women shouldn't eat fewer than 1200 calories, and adult men shouldn't eat fewer than 1800 calories. Teens, particularly teenage boys, actually need even more than that. So if you haven't taken your food journal and calculated your calorie intake, I challenge you to do so for at least three days, although a full week is preferable.

Now you might be sitting there confidently, saying, "oh, I already count calories." Maybe you're logging your food at sites like Fitday, SparkPeople, or DailyBurn. Well, you still might not know how much you're eating, depending on how you measure your food. Maybe you "eyeball" your portions. As shown in the picture above, our standards today have set our expectations far above where they should be. Even if you measure them with a measuring cup or spoons, you might be underestimating your food.

Let's take one of my typical breakfast meals:
  • Half a mango, sliced (about one cup)
  • 6 blackberries (about 1/4 cup)
  • 3/4 C lowfat no salt added cottage cheese (1.5 servings)
  • 7 walnuts (half of a one-ounce serving of 14 nuts)
  • cinnamon
Using USDA values for the whole foods, and the package information for the cottage cheese, this meal should be 349 calories, with 24g of protein, 11g of fat, and 42g of carbs.

As it turns out, though, this meal was actually 449 calories. I found this out by weighing all my ingredients and adjusting the portion size accordingly, as detailed below:
  • Half a mango, sliced - I thought this was one serving of 165g, but it was actually a whopping 250g! I suppose a typical mango is much smaller than the ones I bought at the store.
  • 6 blackberries - These fit in a 1/4 cup, but by weight were 1/3 of a (one cup) serving
  • 3/4 C lowfat no salt added cottage cheese - 3/4 Cup should equal about 170g. However, depending on how I pack the measuring cup, I found I could put up to 200g in the measuring cup. That's another 25% of a serving.
  • 7 walnuts - My walnuts must be larger than normal, because it turns out I had half an ounce at only 6 walnuts
So, by using USDA reference statistics (such as 14 walnuts to a serving) and measuring cups, I ended up with a breakfast that was 100 calories (nearly 30%) higher than I thought - and that was with doing careful measuring and tracking of what I was eating! Once I weighed my food, I realized that the portion sizes I thought were accurate were actually far from it. Why did I try weighing my food to begin with? I did so after watching this video:

Can you imagine what would happen if you underestimated your calories by 30% at EVERY meal? Let's say you needed 2000 calories a day to maintain your current weight, and you thought you were eating 1500 calories per day - a deficit of 500 calories per day. However, if you underestimated your calories by 30%, you'd actually be eating 1950 calories per day. You could do this for weeks and you wouldn't lose any weight at all, getting more and more frustrated as each day went on.

I'm not suggesting you weigh every single item you eat. Most of us don't have the time or inclination to do that. But I do recommend you take some time to learn what about proper portion sizes. One way to do so is to to read up on some of the online resources available. One I've found is checkyourhealth.org, which has some great visual references you can use to determine proper portion sizes on the fly.

Even so, as the video above shows, it may behoove you to purchase a kitchen scale and keep it handy. As time goes on, occasionally measure and weight the items you eat most frequently, so you start to recognize what the correct portion size actually looks like on your plate. You may have to retrain your mind, and it will take time, but you'll have the benefit of having better control over your calorie intake, which should lead to weight loss success!


  1. Great post! I think measuring for a week can really put things into perspective.

  2. It certainly has for me! It has also helped with "portion creep." Just a slightly larger portion each day, and it starts to look normal to eat so much. After a month, my portion might be 15% larger and I wouldn't even know it without periodically measuring!

  3. OK I am trying to comment one last time--the previous 2 times my comment got eaten by blogspot! My reaction to this was to feel a little flipped out. I have just begun tracing my intake with Sparkpeople, and I am trying really hard to get it right and not underestimate. I am already having a pretty hard time with it as the Sparkpeople database is pretty lame on real food, and leans heavily on processed and restaurant food.

  4. Sparkpeople can be a challenge until you get it set up with a lot of the basic foods and recipes you use. I tried it for a while and then went back to gyminee (now dailyburn.com). They have a lot of basic ingredients loaded based on their USDA statistics. There are plusses and minuses compared to Spark, but it's worth a look at least.

    Sorry to freak you out! I do think that weighing can actually be pretty easy. Put your bowl on the scale, hit "tare." Add ingredient 1 to the correct weight. Hit "tare." Repeate with each ingredient until done!

    Good luck and thanks for reading!