Count Calories by Ingredients

This week I have been working on a article about calorie counting focusing on two of the essential practices that make calorie counting practical for long term success. Check out About Counting Calories to learn more.

In the process I have been made aware of a secondary but important fact that is often overlooked in discussions about calories, the value of thinking about ingredients rather than average results for dishes we prepare.

Why Ingredient Calories Count More

This may seem like a technical clarification that adds more confusion and makes calorie counting more difficult than ever. However, it is in fact useful information enabling you make adjustments in some cases that can make a real difference.

Popped Popcorn

For this discussion, as in the article, I will use popcorn as an example. Popped popcorn has 30 calories per cup. For corn popped with oil you will find a standard of 55 calories. However, and here is the rub, the latter number is an average, not a consistently precise number.

This means that in an individual case, the number of calories in popcorn popped in oil can be somewhat different. It depends on the kind and amount of oil used as well as the amount of popcorn popped in that oil.

Essentially, all the oil I put into my popper will be absorbed by the popcorn. So if I use 300 calories worth of oil to make 10 cups of popcorn, the oil will add 30 calories per cup to my popcorn. But if I make 20 cups of popcorn in that same amount of oil, each cup will have 15 additional calories.

In the first case, each cup of popcorn will end up with 60 calories and in the latter each cup will have 45 calories. So while the average cup of popcorn cooked with oil may be 55 calories, the precise number in any given case will vary somewhat depending on the oil that is used and how much popcorn is popped.

The Value of Average Calorie Counts

Even if the average is not totally accurate in each individual case, though, it is close enough to give us the help we need. Besides, if we eat three or four items, each an average, the variances will likely offset each other.

Do not trust averages

One may be a little low and one may be high but in the end it is probably irrelevant to our end goal, knowing how many total calories we eat in a given meal.

The primary value of average calorie counts is rather obvious. If you had to calculate every dish by first calculating each separate ingredient it would be a hopeless endeavor. We would all give up.

The truth is that our calorie counters are just guides and nothing to be written in stone. We do not want to trust them to be totally accurate.

This is especially true for take out foods. The size of our servings in restaurants as well as our choices to go easy on the dressing or add on tomato or pickle all make a small difference.

In the end our averages average out, so to speak. But by knowing all this we can make adjustments in our calculations when we see why a given situation differs from the norm.

Sometimes Average is OK

So what does all this mean? Primarily it suggests that it is best not to get too hyper about calorie counting. We do need to be careful knowing that sometimes being a little careless can cause pretty big errors in calorie counting (check out the article for a good example of this), but being close is close enough. It is best to relax and learn to enjoy eating even when we are on a diet.

Nevertheless, when we are cooking up a dish at home it is best to check out our dishes by adding up the calories in the ingredients we actually use rather than go by generic dish calorie counters. In the way we can reduce the amount of calories we eat to a level below the averages. And we can use this information about calorie counters to guide us in counting our calorie intake more accurately in other eating settings as well.