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Myth: Calorie counts are necessary to lose weight

Posted May 21 2012 9:00am

TRUTH:  We already know that the fat burning program on cardio machines doesn’t burn more fat.  But, the calorie count is factual, right?  No!    It feels good to watch ‘calories burned’ increase during a workout, but by how much is highly variable.  It could be off by 10 calories or it could be off by 100 calories – and you’ll never know.  Machines may even overestimate as much as 30%!  So, if it says you burned 300 calories, you may have actually only burned 200.  Never go by what a machine tells you, it’s probably inaccurate for your body, weight, and fitness level.

Now, the heart of this myth:  exercise definitely burns more calories than if you sat on the couch.  However, you don’t need an accurate calorie count to know that.   If you’re trying to lose weight, you know that 3,500 calories equals 1 pound and that losing 1 pound per week means cutting or burning an extra 500 calories per day.   However, it’s not exactly 500 for everyone so if that’s your goal, just accept that it’s never going to be entirely accurate.

Most people burn about 100 calories per mile running or walking – so if your cardio machine is telling you that you’ve burned a lot more, you probably haven’t.  Similarly, if your machine is telling you that you’ve burned a lot less, you definitely need to work harder!

Lastly, as much as we hope calorie counts on food is accurate, very often they’re not.  If you’re measuring food at home on a scale, you’ll get a pretty accurate count.  However, if you’re reading the calorie count on a menu and ordering – there is a lot of variability.  Menus and some packaged goods may have up to a 20% margin of error – so a 500 calorie sandwich may actually be closer to 600 calories.

BOTTOM LINE: Caloric balance is not an exact science, nor is it the only factor in weight regulation.  Rather than focusing on measuring calories exactly, spend an extra few minutes working out to be sure you’ve reached your goal. Choose healthier foods or smaller portions rather than focusing on the exact numbers.  Calorie counting helps people lose weight – just don’t get obsessive over it.

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

  1. Mayo Clinic: Counting Calories: Get back to weight loss basics
  2. Livestrong: How accurate are calorie counters on exercise machines? 
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