7 ways calorie trackers lie to you

The internet is filled with conflicting information about weight loss. One big source of contention is about calorie tracking. There are as many studies saying it works as there are concluding that it doesn’t. In a way they are all correct. In a perfect world, calorie tracking provides information that can help you make smart decisions. However, in our imperfect world, calorie trackers may actually be feeding you lies that take you farther away from your goal.

Calorie trackers make you think:

1. It's easy to stick with it

To make real changes in your life, you need to stick with it until it can become a new long-term habit. A few days isn’t going to cut it and that’s about how far people get with most calorie tracking apps or websites. Entering every topping, condiment, side dish, and ingredient from a snack or meal takes a long time. It can take longer to enter the meal than it did to eat it, so most people give up on this arduous task pretty quickly.

2. It's easy to see how much you’re eating

Unless you carry a food scale with you everywhere, it’s virtually impossible to know the right portion size to enter. The most accurate calorie counts are based on the exact weight of the food. A bagel can be store bought, restaurant prepared, home baked, covered in cheese, made with various amounts of oil or topped with everything from sugar to spice. A bagel - in a typical food tracker - ranges from 78 calories to 500 calories. And you'll end up reading through 5 pages of options before you even make your selection on which bagel most represents the one you actually ate.  Author and Registered Dietitian Melanie Douglass says most people guess and underestimate their calorie intake when using trackers - and combining those two things adds up to huge discrepancies. “When I compare my clients photo food journals to their estimated calorie counts they are typically off by about 500 calories - minimum. That’s a pound a week that people can gain or not lose, simply because calorie trackers are misleading."

3. You have free calories to eat when you really don’t

Lie number 2 quickly leads to lie number 3. Calorie trackers calculate your Basal Metabolic Rate and then subtract the calories you eat throughout the day from this total. After underestimating your intake all day long, you see you have hundreds of free calories at the end of the night and decide a little snack won’t hurt. You may not even be hungry, but that free snack is just too tempting to resist. Studies have shown that it takes as little as 100 extra calories a day to gain 10 pounds by the end of the year. Lie number 3 is the one that does the most damage to your success.

4. Calorie labels are accurate

Some calorie trackers have bar code scanners to help you quickly enter packaged foods. As it turns out, even the labels might not be that accurate. A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that the calorie content on frozen food labels was on average 8% higher than the label claimed — and on restaurant menus an average of 18% higher. The studies author, Susan B. Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, says “the ratio between the amount obtained by laboratory analysis and the amount declared on the product label in the Nutrition Facts panel must be 120% or less (to remain FDA compliant).” In addition, the FDA regulates that packages must contain at least 99% of the weight declared on the box to be compliant. “For food manufacturers to stay within the law they almost have to put more food in a package than they state on the label,” says Roberts.

5. A calorie is a calorie

A calorie of broccoli is very different than a calorie of ice cream. While this is obvious to everyone, calorie trackers don’t really get this point across. While the calories per serving of ice cream are shown as much higher than that of broccoli in the tracker, the fact that no one enters the correct portions leads to problems (see lie number 3). Ice cream also causes metabolic and hormonal effects inside your body that are very different than those from broccoli. Not only will ice cream cause you to store more fat, but your blood sugar will spike and crash making you hungry again much sooner. Broccoli contains slow to digest fiber which will fill you up longer and leave you satisfied. A calorie may be a calorie, but what your body does with each can be far different.

6. You'll eat healthier

Focusing on the calorie numbers does not lead to healthier eating, it leads to deprivation. Healthy foods rich in high fiber and lean protein are more satisfying and don’t wreak havoc with the bodies regulatory systems like processed sugars. We all know when we’re eating healthy and when we’re not, but simply counting calories often puts the focus on the wrong goal. The goal is to eat healthy, not to get the lowest score. Trying to get your calorie count low with tiny portions of unhealthy foods just leads to starvation, frustration, and no real changes. You can only deprive yourself so long before you give up. 

7. You'll understand and fix your weaknesses

Do I snack too much during the day? Do I eat too unhealthy at night? Do I skip breakfast too much and binge later? Seeing your calorie total each day doesn’t really answer these questions, and it’s hard to make changes if you don’t even know what the problems are. Ultimately, we are creatures of habit, and your habits are what you need to understand in order to make real changes. 

Track your habits, not your calories

To make real changes to your behaviors, you need to be able to look back over days, weeks and months and see what you're really doing. We made our new app, GO so you can throw out tedious calorie counts that don't work and focus on what really has the power to change your health.  GO makes it ultra easy to:

1. Enter meals and activities with one touch

2. Visualize your habits and daily behaviors


When it comes right down to it, you already know when you’re eating healthy and when you’re not. No need to waste your time counting every calorie when all you’re really looking to do is keep track of your behaviors over time. Following the simple rules below, you can categorize any meal in seconds and easily keep track of your eating habits. 

GO lets you zoom out and look at the big picture. All you need to know when you look back is the size of the meal and how healthy it was (the quality of the meal). This is why GO is the perfect meal tracker. Instead of wasting time entering elaborate calorie breakdowns, GO lets you quickly enter your details and then visualizes the results. 

Look at this example week. I’ll describe what the circles mean and then you’ll see what a powerful tool this can be for figuring out what your habits are and making simple choices to correct them.

The quality of the meal is represented by the color and the size of the circle represents the size of the meal. Green is a healthy meal, yellow is moderately healthy, red is unhealthy, and orange is a red meal with at least one redeeming quality (put some veggies on the side of that plate).

The blue circles represent activity broken down by time and intensity. 

With just a glance at this week you can see some habits that need to be adjusted:

1. Not enough activity during the week. 

2. Too many unhealthy dinners. 

3. Dinner is often too late. 

4. Too much snacking at night.  

A weeks worth of habits suddenly become clear. Armed with this knowledge, it becomes easier to make real changes. When you see where you’ve been, it becomes easier to see where you need to go. GO will help you literally see and change your behavior. There's another perk too: instead of mindlessly following old habits, you'll start taking a second to reflect on your food choices before you make them… now that's a powerful weight-loss tool.  

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