Calorie Underreporting

This is going to be another post essentially on a graph from a research study.  The study in question leads me to a recurrent finding of mine from research on obesity: the answer is healing your relationship with food.  That step is almost a required first step because as I’ve seen in my own life- until that happens it’s very difficult to get a handle on what’s going on with you.

I’ve covered the theme of calorie underreporting in a previous blog post. The current post however revolves around an older study which was new to me.

The study involves over 300 Danish adults. “Main outcome measure: Bias in dietary reporting of energy and protein intake in relation to percentage body fat, assessed by comparison of data from an interview on dietary intake with data estimated from 24 hour nitrogen output, validated by administering p-aminobenzoic acid, and estimated 24 hour energy expenditure.”

So they used a 24 hour collection to measure total calorie intake and protein intake and compare that to the subjects’ reported protein and energy intake.  The findings suggest that as people got heavier they actually over reporting protein intake and underreported total energy intake. I found the graph to be fairly telling:


The first thing to notice is almost everyone in this study underreported their calorie intake.  The only people that were able (in this study) to really accurately measure their calories were women under 22.5% body fat. The researchers really don’t report their data in the way that more modern studies would report it- so I can’t say how many subjects this is or what the weight of these women are, but this is the first point I’d like to make:

To maintain what many would consider a low body fat % as a woman likely requires significant effort. Keep in mind that body fat up to 30% in women is considered normal.  It’s not that maintaining a normal body fat % doesn’t require some degree of diligence for a lot of people but you can see that the women between 22.5% body fat and 30% on average under report calories by roughly 15%.  This number is consistent with numbers seen in study after study.

This current study shows that it gets worse and worse (in general) to the point that the women with >42% body underestimated calories by roughly 45%.  Data similar in the men, though not as steep for those included in this study.

The study itself goes on to discuss that the estimated protein intake was less inaccurate than total intake and may imply that sugary/carb-fat predominant snacks may be more under counted.

To me however, it’s kind of a boring place to end. To me I’m always more interested in the WHY of the under-reporting.  Is it really that those people can’t measure as well? Is their ability to estimate calories worse?  Heck this study, like others, shows that almost everyone sucks at estimating calories…so what’s the point?

To me the point is that if your relationship with food and body is a good one, then it doesn’t matter in some ways if you are miscounting, in-fact I’m leaning more and more toward counting only as a gauge of approximate daily intake and having people move toward a more intuitive style. You can’t, however, do that if you are underestimating by 40%.  People who still have that kind of relationship with food likely essentially can’t self monitor.  Underestimating your intake by that degree by definition means a lot of “mindless” eating or binging. Hard to eat intuitively if you are eating mindlessly.  It may actually also include disassociative eating- eating that the body does simply to protect it against your efforts to restrict it.  That’s a theoryof mine I first presented when talking about women who underreported their calories by as much as 2000 in a day!

To me the answer seems to be to to give yourself permission to eat a cookie (or bowl of ice cream or a half bag of chips or whatever your “thing is”) which might just allow you to realize you are eating those things anyway.  I know that when I fully realized that i had eaten 7 large cookies (after a normal lunch) and a 1/4 of a sheet cake in a single day….that I was probably doing that regularly.  So before even discovering the concept of ETF I said to myself “why don’t I just plan on eating dessert 3-4 times per week and enjoying it…but not ever eat 7 cookies again unless I’m hungry and need them for calories.  I haven’t had a binge like that since (almost 1.5 years).


2 thoughts on “Calorie Underreporting

  1. Pingback: The REAL issue is that virtually everyone is eating more than they think. | Go Kaleo

  2. Pingback: How Calories “Work” | yogamattes: devra mattes yoga

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