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Learn to Estimate Calories

Develop Your Calorie Counting Instincts

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Updated June 13, 2014

Woman reading nutrition facts on food packaging
Tetra Images - Jamie Grill/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images
Calories counting can be a big pain, but learning to estimate how many calories in various foods can really help in losing or maintaining your weight. Many people have had success in losing weight by learning how many calories are in the foods they are eating. Personally, I don’t do this. Instead, I developed an instinct for estimating how many calories are in foods. Here’s how you can develop your calorie counting instincts:

How Many Calories Do I Need Anyway?

Good question. Before we begin, we need to set a goal for how many calories you need to take in each day to maintain or lose weight. This turns out to be a bit complicated. You need to consider your weight, your height, your age and your daily activity level. Luckily, there is a calculate to help you do it (see the Calories Per Day Calculator). This is an estimate of the number of calories your body burns every day. To lose weight, you need to eat less.

Learn Labeling Tricks

Many foods will bring the total calories per serving down by making the serving size incredibly small. Check your energy drinks and soda. On a quick glance, the calorie count doesn’t seem too high, until you realize that there are 2.5 calories in a can of some energy drinks and sodas. Before looking at a label, ask yourself how much of the food do you eat in one sitting. Then figure out (based on the grams or the number of servings in the container) how the company figured its calories. You’ll have to do a little math (multiple the calories per serviing times the number of servings you usually eat). You’ll get good at estimating this quickly after a few tries. Here’s an article on reading labels if you would like some more help: How To Read Nutritional Labels.

Spend 2 to 3 Hours Surfing Calorie Counters

When I first starting looking at the calorie counts in various foods, I was shocked. Many foods had at least twice the number of calories I had guessed while other foods had a lot less (one chocolate truffle (my favorite food) has around 100 calories, not bad considering that one really good truffle completely satisfies my dessert cravings). So I recommend that you spend some time just surfing on one of the many calorie counter websites. Just enter foods you commonly eat or restaurants you go to. Before clicking on an item, make a guess in your head as to how many calories it has. Keep surfing until you start getting them right. Have fun. I like Calorie Count, by About.com, but there are others (just search “calorie counter” on google).

Cheese Sauce, Creams and Dressings

My rule of thumb is that whenever I have something with cheese, creams or dressings, I add around 150 calories to my estimate (per serving). That “per serving” is very important. If you have a giant salad at a restaurant (often about 3 servings worth of salad) and you put dressing on it, you have to take that 150 calorie estimate and multiple by 3. So the dressing on a big salad could be as much as 450 extra calories. This works for almost any of the sauce, creams and dressings. It will give you a good sense of the extra calorie “cost” of these things.

Portions, Portions, Portions

Portions are out of control. Most people’s ability to estimate portion size is not very good. We are so used to seeing huge portions, that we think this is normal. There are all sorts of rules to help estimate portion size (a portion of meat is the same size as a deck of cards, for example). But what I like to do is think about kids’ plates. Basically, a meal should fit on a kids’ plate (you know those small 9” plates). Your meat, potatoes, vegetables all should fit on that plate (without creating any skyscraper piles). If you stick to that guideline, you’ll be eating one portion of each thing. Then you can simple use the following to estimate calories:
  • potatoes (one baked): 300 calories
  • meat (one portion):200 calories
  • creams, dressings and cheese sauce (one portion): 150 calories
  • fruit (one portion): 100 calories
  • bread (one slice, one tortilla): 100 calories
  • vegetables (one portion): 50 calories
  • butter (one pat): 50 calories
  • cheese (one slice): 50 calories
You can see that it doesn’t take too much brain power to memorize these estimates. Of course, everything depends on knowing what a serving is and estimating how many servings you have eaten. That list should get you pretty far in counting your calories. All that is left is junk food, drinks and desserts.

Beware Liquid Calories

Liquid calories can make up to 20% of some people’s total daily calories. These calories really add up fast. Sodas, juice, lattes and more can contain hundreds of calories. You should assume that any drink other than unsweetened tea, coffee or water contains at least 100 calories (many contain more). Here’s a brief (and shocking) list of the calorie counts of selected drinks:
  • beer (one bottle):150 calories
  • wine (one glass):150 calories
  • soda (one can): 150 calories
  • energy drink (one can): 150 calories
  • latte (medium):300 calories
  • smoothie (medium):300 calories (and up)
You can see these are pretty easy to remember –- either 150 calories or 300 calories. So now you can estimate your liquid calories in a flash. If you drink lots of the above, just switch to coffee, tea (iced tea works too) and water and you’ll have your weight loss program right there.

Junk Foods and Desserts

The last thing we get to is junk foods and desserts. Here’s the deal: they have a lot of calories. Lots and lots and lots. You can look on the bag if you don’t believe me. Assume any dessert or snacks are at least 200 calories for a small portion (and I mean small portion). Spend some time searching your favorite desserts and junk foods on a calorie counter (remember to pay attention to serving sizes (by honest about how much you eat at once). Desserts and junk food are calories bombs that you handle at your own risk. One misstep can erase a great day of exercise and dieting. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Now Test Your Skills

Now, test you skill against some real food. Try to estimate the calories in your dinner. How did you do? Keep practicing until you are within a couple hundred calories for your day. Later, you can refine your skills by memorize more types of foods and logging more meals.

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