The REAL issue is that virtually everyone is eating more than they think.

I have a lot of colleagues who know the truth – that virtually everyone eats more than they think they do – but have decided that the best way to deal with it is to tell people to eat 1200 calories, knowing they will ACTUALLY eat more like 2000.

Because almost everyone who’s ever had their actual calorie intake compared with their reported intake, by actual SCIENTISTS, has been shown to underestimate how much they’re eating – some people by as much as 300%. In this study, participants under-reported their intake by 47%. This Danish study of over 300 people showed virtually everyone, in every demographic, under-reporting calories. This one shows participants under-reporting by up to 300%! That means some people who think they are eating 1000 calories a day are actually eating more like 3000. Even Registered Dieticians under-report their intake!

Calorie under-reporting isn’t a moral failure, it is normal. Almost everyone does it. It doesn’t make a person weak or dumb or lazy. It just is the way it is.

As I said above, many of my colleagues, knowing this, think that telling people to eat less than they really need is the way to go. I disagree. I think teaching people to be HONEST and ACCURATE is far more important and empowering.

I never made any real or lasting progress until I was honest with myself. Until I wrote down everything I ate and all the exercise I did, and didn’t lie to myself about how much it was. Until I acknowledged that I was eating upwards of 4k calories a day on a typical day, and all that ‘activity’ I told myself I did was really mostly sitting in my chair at my computer. Being honest with myself was the hardest thing I ever did. And it was also the most empowering, because it allowed me to make REAL change to my behavior.

Until I could identify and change my actual behavior, I was stuck in the endless cycle of dieting and regain. Being unaware of what I was really doing to myself was THE problem. Awareness and honesty was the solution.

I believe that most people are capable of being honest with themselves. It’s fucking HARD, but it’s possible. And it’s important. And it’s empowering, because you no longer think of yourself as a victim of biology. You take back the power. You take responsibility for making your own decisions. And making a decision to STOP dieting is every bit as valid a decision as deciding to keep trying to lose weight. It is your body, it is your decision, and you have the power to change it. Or not. Being honest with yourself gives you that power.

I do not believe that coddling people’s unawareness is the way to go. I do not believe that giving people misinformation (your body only needs 1200 calories) because you think they can’t handle the real information (you’re probably eating more than you think) is fair or respectful. I think that compassionate honesty is the most important thing we can do for ourselves (and for those of us in the wellness industry, our clients).

‘You are normal. And you are capable. And I will help you. Lets do this thing.’

Read James Krieger’s post on this subject over at Weightology. And check out my friend Joshua Kern’s post over on Go Maleo. Marion Nestle wrote a good one too.

The reason people freak out about how much I eat is not because 3000 calories a day is so extraordinary for someone my height and weight and activity level. The reason people freak out is because almost everyone else under-reports their intake, so they think they are eating less than me but not achieving the same results. I am the one tracking accurately (see my last blog post for evidence that 3k cals a day is a perfectly appropriate intake for me). The reason people freak out is because I’m one of the very few people who actually tracks my intake accurately, so it looks like I’m the anomaly. I’m not.




20 thoughts on “The REAL issue is that virtually everyone is eating more than they think.

  1. Super post. This is so true!! I have the same for me. When my progress stalls it’s because I stopped tracking – or stopped being aware of what I ACTUALLY put in my mouth. Not 2 macademian nuts, but actually more like 7. '?

  2. When I start to falter, thankfully I read something from you that slaps me in the face. Again…thank you.

  3. Again, great post. For the weight I desire and should be, at my current activity level I should be eating about 1500 less calories per day than I believe I am eating. Though I am not tracking this, if I look at the calorie needs to maintain the weight I currently am, if I’m honest with myself, that’s likely very close to what I eat not everyday, but most days. Sadly, the days I do not eat that much, I eat far too little, even for someone of my goal weight. I think they have a name for this.

  4. Also, even more worrisome (as I believe restricting is a far more serious issue for most people than overeating, although overeating is certainly not good for anyone) are the people who will take the advice and eat the 1200 calories, and very quickly head for restrictive eating disorders. The last thing in the world I would wish on anyone is spending the rest of her or his life managing the compulsion to starve oneself, whether it be from poverty and lack of food, or this kind of stupid “advice.”

  5. Great post- and totally right it does not mean people are lazy and greedy, it means we have an illusion of control over what we eat which is much greater than the reality- in fact our bodies are very good at getting what they need without us having to think about it!

  6. Being honest with yourself is F@$king HARD!! I love your honesty. Thanks to your posts Im slowing coming out a serious diet rollercoaster for 2 yrs … I lost 60 lbs over 3 yrs – tracking what I was eating and moving more. Then I gained 10 lbs back as I started dated my now husband (so my focus was sidetracked

  7. Another great post Amber! I can feel every extra pound I gain when I run and I have to take that long hard look at myself and be accountable for my own actions. I have to tell myself, “hey, man… You need to dial yourself back in. You’ve been slipping lately and that’s the reason for the weight gain and lack in workout performance.” My wife and I did the crazy powders, shakes and pills (diet) and we started to feel the gut wrenching guilt if we wanted (craved) a certain type of food. We had a “trainer” tell us that we needed to do the 1200 calorie a day thing. After many $$ spent and all the weight gain after we stopped the program, we are so over it all and now are focusing on being healthy. Keep up the great work! ROCK SOLID STUFF!! We love it!

  8. I agree with you completely. I don’t often track or count, even so, I approximate that I eat 2200-2500 kcal day when I’m using moderate restraint (trying to lose weight – no ice cream, dessert, etc). I feel very disturbed by those claiming 1200-1500 – what, am I a freak? Am I using some DNP in the lab that I don’t notice that’s making my metabolism 2x what it should be?

    It’s comforting to think that it’s my brutal honesty (too honest, perhaps) and my realistic math skills.

  9. What an incredible post! I love reading your stuff cause it’s not fluff, it’s real! I struggle with the writing down because it reminds of of every diet I’ve been on my whole life. I want to be normal and to eat good foods in moderation, exercise and just put on my clothes every day. That is all.
    I have been heavy my whole life off and on. It because about my health and when I had to finally do something and do it right and for the right reasons, the whole “diet” thing began to change.
    But, (and that is a big but, no pun intended), when I stalled, I had to get real. Even though I was eating good for me foods with all the power packed inside, I was either eating too much or moving too less. Amazingly enough this week, I was careful to be eating just what my body asked for and moving more. Yep, you guessed it, down on the scale.
    It is the truth, it isn’t easy, it’s fucking hard, but it CAN be done.

  10. I’m loving those last posts! !! Thank you. What you think about mindful eating as strategy for weight loss? better for ED recovery or can be used for weight loss too?

    • I think mindful eating is awesome. I think it can work better for some people, especially those with restrictive eating disorder, than counting calories. Unless they fall back into undereating patterns and need to track to ensure they’re getting enough.

      Mindful eating doesn’t work for everyone, some of us need a little more structure, which is what tracking gave me. But my goal has always been to create new habits so I could rely less on tracking, and I’m there now. It took time, but I got here.

      But I think midnful eating is a great goal, and I envy people for whom it comes more naturally!

      • Thank you Amber. I ve been ETF about 8 months and now I feel stronger to approach a loss weight and work with mindful eating. I really enjoy it and when I focus on that I get good results. I ll let you know. Thank you for the awesome posts.

  11. I feel like your publicist lately because I’m always sharing your posts, but honestly, you just hit the nail smack on the head with these shares. They are amazing. Yes, people DO under report how much they eat…and over estimate how much they expend. I’m one of those people. Using an online tracker helped me spot areas where I was overeating, but it’s amazing how calories sneak in. Please keep up these great posts.

  12. Wow! This is my life. This is really great food for thought…pun intended. I think you described my life.

  13. TRUTH!! I have written about this for years – people underestimate how much they are eating & overestimate how much exercise & how many calories they are burning off… yet they don’t want to do the hard work to log & see what they are actually doing – ya have to know these things to make the changes ….

  14. This bothers me in the same way that people who lie to me about what time it is in the morning. So by lying to me I’m going to come out close to my goal? I set my clock as close to the right time as I can tell it is, and how many f-ing calories is a reasonable goal?

  15. It also really harms those who do accurately count calories… which is usually people with eating disorders and rigid, OCD-based self-discipline. I’m a former anorexic. I KNOW how many calories I am eating. And I seriously harmed myself trying, even after recovery, to stick to the moronic popular recommendations for intake.

    You’ve pinpointed exactly what makes me so furious about these blanket recommendations. I wasted YEARS of my life because I didn’t understand how I could be ‘sick’ when I was really eating 800 calories or even 1000 calories a day–those are practically normal among diets, right? NO. I almost died.

    Nowadays I maintain roughly 18% body fat and high-level athletic performance on between 2200 and 2800 calories a day (I eat by hunger so it’s not always the same, plus training differs week to week). It took me YEARS, literally YEARS, to accept that I needed to eat more than 2,000 calories a day. Ugh.

  16. I spent a lot of time being very, very confused because I KNEW I was eating more than 2000 calories a day, and I had this vague notion that as a woman I should be eating way less (I think I had the 1200-1800 calorie in mind from the diet promotions). But, my weight was pretty stable, and I’m not overweight. I decided to just ignore the whole thing because I really couldn’t make any sense of it. When I came across one of the calories calculators you linked to, I realized that many days I was burning 3000 calories (I do a lot of distance running), and probably eating around 3000 calories too. All of a sudden, everything made sense. How much I eat and how much I burn DOES matter, but the numbers I was working with were wrong. Now that it makes sense the numbers don’t intimidate me.

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