Why You Might Be Eating More Calories Than You Think

Oct 12 2016
Question@2x Hi Hungry Girl,

I've noticed a lot of products on shelves that seem too good to be true, like zero-calorie salad dressings and desserts with super-low calorie counts. Should I stock up or steer clear?

Pondering Products
Answer@2x Hi Pondering,

Thanks for emailing! I get this question all the time. And you're right to be skeptical. As a general rule, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. But here are some guidelines to help you get to the bottom of things...

Always check out the serving size and servings per container. This is easy to overlook, but it's really important. Those stats might not be so impressive if the serving size is very small. And it's common to see snacks that look like single portions but technically contain two to three servings. I've actually seen tortillas with two servings each... Who eats half of a tortilla?! To avoid being fooled, always flip over the package, and get the full info.

Consider the brand. Bigger and more established food brands tend to have more accurate nutritional information, mainly because they have the resources for it (and more to lose if their numbers are found to be inaccurate). I'm all about supporting small businesses, but use your best judgment. If the local bakery is selling enormous, decadent muffins and claiming they have only 100 calories, you might wanna skip 'em...

Understand the label guidelines. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration allows food labels to be off by as much as 20 percent. This means that the jumbo snack bar with a reported 250 calories could have closer to 300 calories. Another FDA guideline? If a product has less than 5 calories per serving, the calorie count can be rounded down to zero. In fact, companies are allowed to do a lot of rounding down. Which brings me to my next point...

No matter how impressive the stats, don't consume too many servings at once. Between the 20 percent cushion and the rounding-down rule, each serving may very well have more calories than it claims. Multiply those servings, and the additional calories get multiplied too. For example, that calorie-free salad dressing may have an official calorie count of 0 per tablespoon, but each tablespoon likely has at least 4 calories. If you're adding 4 tablespoons to your lunchtime salad, and then dunking veggies into another 4 tablespoons at night, that's 32 calories. Say you also consume 6 packets of "no-calorie" sweetener throughout the day, each of which really has about 4 calories. That's another 24 calories. Factor in that "250-calorie" snack bar, and you've taken in an extra 100 calories that day. It adds up.

One last tip: Grab a food scale. The nutritional info listed is almost always based on weight. Those 100-calorie muffins we talked about? The label might list each muffin as weighing in at 2 ounces. But if it really clocks in at 3.5 ounces, it has at least 175 calories. It's a good idea to weigh out any calorie-dense foods. For example, salmon is certainly healthy, but each ounce (cooked) has about 50 calories. If you add what you think is a 4-oz. portion to your plate -- but it actually weighs 6 oz. -- you'll be taking in an extra 100 calories.

Bottom line? Trust your instincts, read labels, and practice portion control. Happy chewing!

Chew on this:

Awww! Today, October 12th, is National Take Your Parents to Lunch Day. If you need some dining-out advice for the occasion, check out these restaurant hacks.

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