Grocery Savvy: Calories Count

For dieters, the number of calories per serving is the all-important number.

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on June 26, 2009
5 min read

When Kim Clarkson enrolled in Live Healthy Iowa last December, a program designed to encourage residents of the state to be more active, her goal was to lose 24 pounds. But she knew at the outset that it would take more than a brisk walk during her lunch hour. “I realized I was going to have to cut back on calories. So I began to look more closely at labels,” says Clarkson, who works as a financial advisor. “And I was amazed.”

The package of chips she occasionally bought -- and consumed in one sitting -- contained only 80 calories per serving. Not bad, she thought -- until she read the serving size and realized that the package contained three servings, not one. “Polishing off a package meant 240 calories. And I was trying to limit myself to 1,650 calories a day!”

Her box of granola also harbored an unhappy surprise. Since it contained whole oats, she figured it was a healthy choice. She’d gotten into the habit of pouring a generous bowl. “One serving contains 206 calories. But when I measured what I was pouring, it was almost two servings, or about 400 calories.” The cup of reduced-fat milk she poured on the granola added an additional 140 calories. “That simple breakfast was about one-third of my daily calories,” says Clarkson.

Cutting calories, she realized, wasn’t going to be as easy as she’d thought.

“Reading food labels is absolutely essential if you’re trying to diet to lose weight,” says Katherine Tallmadge, MS, RD. “It’s really important for people to be as informed as possible.” Counting calories may seem straightforward. But labels can also be misleading unless you know what to look for and how to interpret the information.

For dieters, the number of calories per serving is the all-important number. The only surefire way to lose weight, all the experts agree, is to cut back on calories. In theory, it should be easy. The nutrition facts panel on packaged foods prominently displays calories per serving.

“But to make sense of that, you have to look at the serving size. And then you have to compare that serving size with the amount you typically eat,” says Tallmadge. “Many people’s standard portion is more than what the package shows as a serving size. People grab one of the smaller size packages of pretzels or chips and think it’s a single serving, when in fact it’s two or three servings.” The result: they’re consuming two or three times what they thought.

The problem is compounded by portion creep. The typical serving sizes of snacks, sweets, restaurant entrees and even home-cooked meals have ballooned over the years. Researchers have documented serving size inflation even in the classic American cookbook, The Joy of Cooking. As the book as undergone periodic revisions over the decades, the estimated serving sizes of items like brownies have almost doubled. The upshot: many of us have grown used to portions that are far larger than standard serving sizes.

“For that reason, it’s essential to interpret the calories per serving in light of how much you typically eat,” says Suzanne Farrell, MS, RD, a dietitian in private practice who is also a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. In some cases, you’ll need to scale back portions to conform to the serving size -- and keep calorie counts in check.

Food manufacturers know that more and more consumers read labels. Many try to use that fact to their advantage. “All kinds of claims are being made on packages -- that they’re fat-free, carb-free, sugar-free or low in calories,” says Talmadge. “Studies have shown that consumers, especially women, really respond to these messages. If they see a muffin advertised as fat-free, they buy it without another thought.”

The trouble is, that fat-free muffin may be loaded with sugar. So in addition to looking at the calories and serving size, Katherine advises dieters to look at the ingredient list. People who are counting calories need to pay especially close attention, since restricting calories makes it that much more difficult to get all the nutrients you need.

“Dieters really need to focus on getting a lot of bang for their buck in food. That means choosing foods that are nutrient dense,” says Farrell. If a food contains grain products, for example, make sure they’re whole grains by looking at the ingredient list. Check fiber content. Foods high in fiber tend to be rich in nutrients. Generally, the more whole foods a product contains -- nuts, raisins, or whole grains, for instance -- the more nutritious it is.

In contrast, foods that have sugars or corn sweeteners high in the list of ingredients are going to be low in nutrients and usually high in calories, says Farrell. What’s more, foods with highly refined carbohydrates, including sugar and white flour, are digested quickly, sending blood sugars spiking and then falling -- and leaving you hungry soon after a meal or snack. Avoid them as much as possible. That’s especially true for sweetened beverages, Farrell adds. Liquid calories are thought to “sneak” past appetite sensors, adding calories without satisfying your hunger.

Foods like granola bars and granola cereals may look healthy -- and in many ways they are. But they can also be loaded with calories. Like Kim Clarkson, many dieters get lulled into thinking they can eat as much as they want. “So don’t simply assume that a food that’s healthy is low in calories,” says Tallmadge. “Always check the label.”

To be sure, there are foods so nutritious and so low in calories that you can pretty much eat as much as you want without bothering to count calories. But most of them don’t come with nutrition labels -- foods like fresh celery stalks, salad greens, carrots, jicama, roasted sweet peppers, and most fruits and vegetables.

That’s the irony of food labeling, nutritionists say. While the nutrition facts panels on foods are helpful in choosing prepared and packaged items, the essential key to a healthy diet and to losing weight is favoring foods without labels -- everything on display in the produce aisle.