What’s worse than making the sacrifices needed to lose weight? Making those sacrifices and still not losing weight. Even more nefarious is trying repeatedly over years, for some most of their lives, and being led to believe that you are incapable of losing weight.
Fortunately, my friend, I’m here to tell you that this isn’t so. You are capable of losing weight. Sure, there are some individual factors that might make it easier or harder for some, such as certain medical conditions, but no one is immune to the laws of science.
In this article I’m going to share two common mistakes dieters make that lead them to (wrongly) believe they can’t lose weight: underreporting calories and consuming alcohol.
Before we dive in a little recap…
(If you’ve been here before, then this talk about calories will be a refresher. If you’re new then it’ll give you the needed background info to understand what follows. )
A Little Background
Calories are simply units of energy. One calorie, as you know them on nutrition labels, is the amount of energy needed to heat one kilogram of water by 1o celsius. This energy contributes the power that runs all the operations in your body; from walking down the street to remembering what plans you had this weekend, and all the way down to the unconscious stuff like keeping your heart beating all day, every day.
Humans gain body fat as a result of consuming more energy than we actually need. In fact, that’s all body fat is—stored energy that we can use later if we need it. Weight loss is the process of putting your body in a state to “need” this extra energy. We do this either by reducing our food intake (the amount of energy we take in) or increasing our activity levels (the amount of energy we use).
If we use more energy than we consume, then we tap into those body fat stores to make up the difference.
Here’s where it gets tricky. There are a number of factors that make that simple process really difficult. For one, our food environment is filled with pleasurable and easily accessible food. Since we get a hit of dopamine (feel good hormone) whenever we eat food, it’s no wonder the temptations is always there to have that next bite. Not only that, our body has adapted to storing fat as a way to combat weight loss in times of food scarcity. It goes against our biological nature to purposefully lose weight.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll be looking more closely at two factors, more so behaviors, that directly cause people to fail at losing weight. Why these two in particular? Because they aren’t easily recognizable and commonly lead people to falsely believe that weight loss is impossible. And that doesn’t sit right with me.
Those two knuckle-headed behaviors are: underreporting calories and not managing alcohol consumption.
Mistake #1: Underreporting Calories
The first thing many people do when attempting to lose weight is to track calorie intake. This is fantastic since we know we need to be eating less. However, research has shown that individuals frequently underestimate the number of calories they consume on a daily basis, sometimes by as much as a full day’s worth. [1,2] In fact, additional research has found that even dieticians fail to accurately report their calories.  If someone who is a “food professional” can’t get it right, how is the average person supposed to hit the mark?
Fortunately, there is still hope. One strategy shown to work is to increase protein intake. More protein leads to greater levels of satiety, naturally causing a lower food intake. More protein can help you eat less.
Additionally, as James Krieger shares, the discrepancy in reported calories generally occurs for three reasons: 1) failing to report all food eaten, accurate portion sizes, or incorrectly describing foods, 2) not being diligent with food logs, and 3) the nutrition labels themselves being incorrect. While that last point is the responsibility of the food companies themselves, much of the discrepancy in reported calories comes from misremembering or mislabeling one’s eating behaviors.
This evidence is not an argument against tracking food intake at all, quite the contrary. It is further support for the importance of developing good food tracking skills. Here are a few ways to keep better logs and more accurately keep tabs on calorie consumption:
- Adopt a habit of tracking your food intake in real-time. This can help capture snacks and other daily consumption that might fly under the radar of your awareness. I like to refer to this as “proactive eating.” It’s easy to misremember what or how much you ate, but logging it while the food is there in front of you can lower the risk of missing something. There are tons of free apps that allow you to easily track your eating right on your smartphone.
- Use a food scale when applicable. Many of us can suffer from something called “portion distortion.” This is the concept that our sense of a “reasonable” portion of food has been distorted by packaging size and our experience being served in restaurants. In fact, restaurant food portions in the United States have ballooned by as much as 500% what they were just four decades ago.
- Don’t let bites, nibbles, and tastes go unnoticed. It’s easy to fall prey to the idea that, “It’s just a bite and not worth the hassle of tracking. How many calories could it be anyway?” But just like compound interest can make you relatively wealthy with modest deposits, so to can modest nibbles balloon your actual calorie intake. In fact, I frequently share the story about how I personally learned I was consuming an extra 20 servings of peanut butter, per week, without realizing it. (That’s an extra 571 calories per day.)
Mistake #2: Not Managing Alcohol Consumption
The second big culprit preventing weight loss is alcohol consumption, especially on the weekends. A lot of folks might stay consistent Monday through Friday, but “girls night” on the weekend or a Sunday afternoon tee-time can lead to a drastic increase in calorie consumption.
Many people mistakenly believe that alcohol doesn’t contain calories. While alcohol does not fit into the usual categories of nutrients, being neither a protein, fat, or carbohydrate, and especially since alcoholic beverages are seldom marked with a nutrition label, you may find it easy to ignore the calorie content.
However, a 12oz beer can contain 200-plus calories. A glass of wine can have around 150 calories. Some drinks can be much higher. If you knock back two or three drinks in one sitting and accompany it with a burger and fries, you could easily overeat by as much as an entire day’s worth of calories. Even the now popular “hard seltzers” can amass a whopping calorie intake if not careful.
To resolve this challenge, you can do a little research to figure out exactly how many calories are in your drink. While not listed on the drink itself, you can usually find out how many calories are in your alcoholic beverage with a little online research.
For quick reference, here is the average calorie content of some standard drinks:
- Standard 1.5oz shot of hard spirits (whiskey, tequila, vodka, gin) = 95-100 calories.
- Standard 5oz glass of wine = 120-170 calories
- Standard 12oz (light) beer = ~100 calories
- Standard 12oz (non-light) = ~153 calories
- Standard 12oz (craft or specialty beer) = 170-350 calories
Additionally, making sure to deduct the calories consumed from alcohol from your daily calorie target will really help put things into perspective. (And make sure those drinks make it onto the new food log you’re keeping from above.) You might find it not worth sacrificing an entire meal for a few drinks. And in my experience, the most successful dieters generally reduce their alcohol intake substantially.
You Aren’t Incapable
While weight loss can sometimes feel impossible, your lack of progress is usually caused by an approach that fails to account for all the calories you’re consuming. At first glance, this may seem frustrating. Yet again more effort you have to put into your weight loss program. In reality, it’s a very good sign. It means you can resolve the issues holding you back. It means it’s possible for you to reach your goals. It means you aren’t broken, just misinformed about you real behaviors.
References: Lichtman, S. W., Pisarska, K., Berman, E. R., Pestone, M., Dowling, H., Offenbacher, E., Weisel, H., Heshka, S., Matthews, D. E., & Heymsfield, S. B. (1992). The discrepancy between self-reported and actual caloric intake and exercise in obese subjects. The New England journal of medicine, 327(27), 1893–1898. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJM199212313272701  Buhl, K. M., Gallagher, D., Hoy, K., Matthews, D. E., & Heymsfield, S. B. (1995). Unexplained disturbance in body weight regulation: diagnostic outcome assessed by doubly labeled water and body composition analyses in obese patients reporting low energy intakes. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 95(12), 1393–1402. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-8223(95)00367-3  Champagne, C. M., Bray, G. A., Kurtz, A. A., Monteiro, J. B., Tucker, E., Volaufova, J., & Delany, J. P. (2002). Energy intake and energy expenditure: a controlled study comparing dietitians and non-dietitians. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 102(10), 1428–1432. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0002-8223(02)90316-0
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