Calorie Spotting: use a scale

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAre you eating an “average” bagel?  An “average” apple.  Or an “average” pork chop?  When it comes to calorie counting, the standard definition of “average” may not apply anymore.  Food has gotten bigger, and the food calorie data hasn’t always been adjusted to to account for that.

Most calorie trackers include data from the USDA food database, which was set up years ago.  It has plenty of information about simple plain foods and ingredients, like fresh fruit or flour or eggs.  But many of the old standard portion sizes are much smaller than we’re used to now.

Take the plum.  The USDA says a 2-1/8 inch plum weighs 66 grams and has 30 calories.  Sounds like a great snack choice.   But in reality, the “average” plum is 138 grams, twice as big, with twice the calories.   Do the math: this plum has about 63 calories.  Still not at all bad for a snack choice, but if you are counting calories and you used the USDA average, your total is now off by more than 30 calories.

Over the course of a day, these little mistakes can add up.  If you’ve been tracking your calories and not losing weight, you may have a data problem.  30 calories more for a plum might not sound like much, but what about 100 more for a bagel or 150 more for a pork chop?

You’re most likely to run into calorie data problems like this for items like fruit, vegetables, breads, bagels and meats.  Calories are best calculated by weight, not by eye-balling the size of the food and making a guess.  For foods you eat frequently, like an apple or orange or potato, weighing can be very helpful.  Commercial foods that are pre-portioned into standard sizes, like crackers or a fast food hamburger, have reliable calorie information on package labels or the company website.  Calories for foods that you portion yourself, like milk or a bowl of cereal or a plate of spaghetti, can be calculated accurately as long as you use the correct serving size.  For cereal, rice, pasta or similar items, weighing will give you better information, if you aren’t entirely confident about estimating serving sizes.

For certain cuts of meat like chops or steak, weighing will give you the best information, especially if you weigh after cooking.  This isn’t always practical.  Weighing a stew or soup or spaghetti sauce, with mixed ingredients, might not be that helpful.  Weighing an entire roast beef or turkey isn’t terribly helpful, or even feasible.  Weighing your portion of meat would be a better solution, if you want that much accuracy.

So, weighing will give you much more accuracy with certain types of foods.  In many cases, you only need to weigh the food once.  If all the plums in the store are roughly the same size, you don’t need to weigh every single one.

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