Psst! You're Probably Counting Calories All Wrong

Most of us have no idea how many calories are in the foods we eat, a new study indicates. Does it matter?

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Photo by: Marta Urbańska/Getty

Marta Urbańska/Getty

Pop quiz! How many calories are in that order of fast-food fries you just scarfed down? How about that milkshake or cheeseburger? Or the chicken salad you ordered the other day because you were trying to eat healthier? And what about the slice of cheesecake you had to cap it all off?

Most of us have no idea how many calories are in the foods we eat – and many of us don’t even want to know, a new study has found.

About 60 percent of us underestimate the calorie count in an order of fast-food fries (550 calories), 53 percent underestimate it in chicken salad (430 calories), 47 percent of us underestimate it in a milkshake (580 calories) and 41 percent underestimate in a cheeseburger (530 calories), according to a survey of 977 adults conducted by the review site Treadmill Reviews. A whopping 87 percent of respondents underestimated the calories in a slice of cheesecake from a fast-casual restaurant.

Many of those surveyed also overestimated the calorie counts in — not to mention the healthfulness of — those and other foods.

In fact, the survey found, the percentage of people accurately estimating the caloric value of all those foods was … zero.

Zero!

What’s more, 71 percent of respondents to the survey said they would actually prefer to not know the calorie information of the foods they eat – even though 87 percent said it was a good idea to display calorie counts on menus.

Study takeaway: On the whole, we Americans are clearly confused and conflicted about calorie counts.

But don't worry too much. “Calories are only a small piece of the [healthy eating] puzzle,” says Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition and weight loss expert with a virtual coaching practice based in New York City. “Some people find counting calories useful while others find it maddening. I don't think counting calories is as important as a few other principles.”

Those principles include eating a lot of vegetables and fewer foods with added sugars and refined grains, sticking to whole or minimally processed foods, and dramatically reducing consumption of heavily processed foods, she says.

While tracking calories can be helpful for some people, for others it can be stressful, making them overly focused on their eating habits, depriving them of the enjoyment of eating, Cassetty notes. What’s more, we not only tend to underestimate the calories we take in from the foods we eat, but also to overestimate the calories we burn when we work out, she observes, prompting us to eat more than we should (or would), if we were just listening to hunger cues from our bodies.

In general, Cassetty advocates using calorie awareness “as a framework rather than a mandate” and paying more attention to the quality of the calories you consume.

“If you're looking at calories alone, it's like buying a car online. You might know it's red but you don't know how it performs,” she says. “Your body performs best when you eat mostly whole or minimally processed foods and when you get the vitamins, minerals and protective substances supplied in veggies and fruits and other wholesome eats.”

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