You are here

How Many Calories Are You Really Eating?


Calories: A Numbers Lesson

You try to eat right, but the number on the scale keeps creeping up. Sound familiar? According to a new survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation, we eat a lot more than we should. Of 1,000 Americans polled — about half of them women — 43 percent couldn't even guess how many calories they should consume in a day.

"So many women are eating on the run," says Barbara J. Rolls, PhD, a professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University and author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan. We're not paying attention to supersized portions in restaurants, and we have no idea of the calories when we don't make the food ourselves.

The happy news is that your diet doesn't require a complete overhaul. Our advice: Instead of counting foods out, just start counting — first by calculating how many calories you need, then by indulging in the dishes mentioned in this story. And remember, the more you exercise, the more you can eat! Read on for more indispensable stay-slim solutions.

100 calories

  • 18 roasted peanuts
  • 4 Hershey's Kisses
  • A salad with 2 cups greens, 1 cup cherry tomatoes, 1/2 cup sliced carrots and 2 tablespoons fat-free Italian dressing
  • 6-ounce glass orange juice
  • 10 Lay's classic potato chips
  • 18 Rold Gold Fat-Free Tiny Twists pretzels
  • 10 large shrimp with 2 tablespoons cocktail sauce
  • 3 cups air-popped popcorn
  • 1 ounce Kraft string cheese
  • 2 slices bacon

250 calories

  • 6-ounce baked potato with 3 tablespoons sour cream and 1 tablespoon chopped chives
  • 1 McDonald's small french fries
  • 3 ounces broiled salmon and 3 ounces mashed sweet potato
  • 1 McDonald's hamburger
  • 1 regular-size Nestle Crunch bar
  • 1 cup Cheerios and 1 cup sliced strawberries in 8 ounces fat-free milk
  • 1/2 cup hummus and 12 baby carrots
  • 1 slice Pizza Hut medium hand-tossed style pepperoni pizza
  • 1 cup Haagen-Dazs Orchard Peach fat-free sorbet

400 calories

  • 1 Taco Bell Beef Chalupa Supreme
  • 1 serving (9 ounces) Amy's macaroni and cheese
  • 1 McDonald's Quarter Pounder (no cheese)
  • 1 Wendy's Caesar Chicken Salad with croutons and Caesar dressing
  • 1 Subway 6-inch turkey breast sandwich on a wheat roll with turkey, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and 1 tablespoon light mayonnaise
  • 3 pancakes with 2 tablespoons maple syrup and 1/2 cup fresh blueberries
  • 1 Starbucks Grande Mocha Frappuccino (no whipped cream)
  • 1 cup spaghetti with 1/2 cup marinara sauce
  • 14 onion rings
  • 4-ounce piece cheesecake with 3 tablespoons whipped cream
  • 1 cup meat-and-bean chili with 1/4 cup shredded low-fat cheddar cheese

That Has How Many Calories?

When we put them to the ultimate test — guessing how many calories were in last night's dinner — these women had no idea. Are you a better judge of what's on your plate?

Nancy Jones, age 38, Fort Hood, Texas

Her dinner: Turkey burger with sliced Muenster cheese and barbecue sauce on a whole wheat bun, 1/2 cup cucumber salad with 2 tablespoons Italian vinaigrette, 1 individual-sized pecan pie, and a glass of water.

How many calories she thinks she ate: 450

How many calories she really ate: 1,085

Michelle Henry, age 40, Danville, California

Her dinner: Grilled chicken breast (about 4 ounces) with 3 tablespoons reduced-calorie barbecue sauce, 3 slices grilled zucchini, 1/2 cup sliced grilled Yukon Gold potatoes with 1 tablespoon butter, one 4-ounce glass white wine, and four Trader Joe's Joe-Joe's cookies.

How many calories she thinks she ate: 800

How many calories she really ate: 767

Jessica Monroy, age 36, Walnut Creek, California

Her dinner: Ten almonds, 4 crackers with sliced Manchego cheese and one 6-ounce glass white wine, followed by one slice of a baguette, 4 ounces broiled salmon, 1/2 cup rice pilaf, 8 stalks asparagus, 12 green beans, and 1 scoop coconut ice cream with 3 slices mango and 8 raspberries.

How many calories she thinks she ate: 400

How many calories she really ate: 1,115

How Many Calories Do You Need?

1. Calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR), the amount of energy your body burns doing such basic functions as breathing and circulating blood.

  • If you're under age 30: (0.0621 x your weight/2.2 + 2.0357) x 240 = BMR
  • If you're over age 30: (0.0342 x your weight/2.2 + 3.5377) x 240 = BMR

2. Figure out your activity level.

  • You rarely exercise: 1.3
  • You get some exercise every day, but it's generally light, such as walking or playing golf: 1.5
  • You do high-intensity workouts such as spinning, playing tennis, and skiing almost every day: 1.7

3. Multiply your activity level by your BMR. The total is your daily calorie requirement. To maintain your weight, stick as closely as you can to that number.

Too much math?

Check out our quick and easy "calories needed" calculator

Indulge: 10 Treats Under 150 Calories

Whether you love cocktails, sweets, or both, here are some perfect picks under 150 calories:

  • 6-ounce glass of white wine
  • Rum and Diet Coke (2 ounces 80-proof rum and Diet Coke to taste)
  • 3.5 ounces sake
  • 12-ounce beer
  • 6-ounce Bloody Mary
  • 1/2 cup banana pudding
  • 16-ounce Jamba Juice Passion Berry Breeze smoothie
  • Chocolate-dipped strawberries (made with 2 tablespoons microwaved semisweet chocolate chips and 1 cup strawberries)
  • 3 Dunkin' Donuts Jelly-Filled Munchkins
  • 1 Starbucks Chocolate Hazelnut Biscotto

The 10 Best Calorie-Burning Exercises

Exercise Calories Burned in 30 Minutes Number of Oreos Burned
Spinning 425 8
Jumping rope 405 8
Running (6 mph) 405


Rowing (vigorously) 344 7
Mountain biking 344 7
Swimming 324


Jogging 324


Elliptical trainer 292 6
Cross-country skiing 284 5
Weight lifting 243 5

Note: Calorie counts are for a 135-pound woman.


The Only 3 Diet Rules You Need to Know

1. Eat More...

  • Fruits and vegetables: Produce is naturally low in calories and high in water and fiber, so it fills you up.
  • Low-fat dairy: Research shows that the calcium in skim milk, cheese, and yogurt may help your body burn fat.
  • Whole grains: They're rich in fiber and more filling than refined grains. Try oatmeal or whole-grain bread with at least two grams fiber per slice.
  • Lean protein: It's slowly digested, so it stays in your stomach longer. Good choices: Pork tenderloin, broiled Pacific halibut, skinless chicken, and deli turkey breast.
  • Salads and broth-based soups: Start your meals with a high-volume, low-calorie food like vegetable soup and you'll eat less overall.
  • Beans and legumes: Toss some black beans or chickpeas into your salad at lunch. They boast a unique combination of fiber to fill you up and protein to keep you satisfied.

2. Eat less...

  • Sweetened cereals and yogurt: The typical 6-ounce container of yogurt with fruit on the bottom packs more than two tablespoons of sugar — more than 100 calories.
  • White carbs such as bread, pasta, and rice: They contain empty calories and little fiber.
  • "Fake foods" like rice cakes: They're so lacking in taste that you end up overeating them because you never feel satisfied.
  • Salty or fried snacks: Not only are they loaded with heart-clogging saturated fat, these foods also invite mindless munching.

3. Eat a Lot Less Often...

  • Sweetened drinks such as soda and iced tea: Drinking just one can of soda a day equals about 150 calories — and 15 extra pounds a year.
  • Bagels, muffins, cakes, and cookies: The average deli bagel is so enormous that it counts as four servings of bread.
  • Butter, mayonnaise, and full-fat salad dressing: Butter and mayo contain more than 100 calories per tablespoon, and salad dressing can have 75 calories or more. Switch to light mayo and dressing and use them sparingly.

The Best Foods to Eat...

...when you're starving

These fiber-rich foods satisfy and fill you up:

  • Whole-grain cereal such as Shredded Wheat 'n Bran (8g fiber, 200 calories per 1 1/4 cup)
  • Tabouli (5g fiber, 160 calories per 1/2 cup)
  • Broccoli (5.1g fiber, 55 calories per 1 cup, cooked)
  • Raspberries (8g fiber, 64 calories per cup)
  • Artichokes (6.5g fiber, 60 calories per artichoke) zap carb, fat, and sweet cravings

  • Angel food cake (0.15g fat, 128 calories per slice) with fresh sliced mango
  • Couscous (0.25g fat, 176 calories per cup, cooked)
  • Veggie burgers (3.5g fat, 90 to 100 calories per Boca or Gardenburger)
  • Medium baked sweet potato (0.15g fat, 103 calories)
  • Part-skim mozzarella cheese (4.5g fat, 72 calories per ounce)

...before dinner

Start with these, and you'll eat a smaller meal — but feel just as full:

  • Strawberries (46 calories per cup)
  • Light yogurt (60 calories per 6-ounce container)
  • Gazpacho (46 calories per cup)
  • Baby spinach salad with 2 cups baby spinach and 2 tablespoons light dressing (36 calories)
  • 5-10 baby carrots with 2 tablespoons light ranch dip (109 calories)

Sources: Keith-Thomas Ayoob, RD, assistant professor of nutrition at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and author of The Uncle Sam Diet; Joanne L. Slavin, PhD, a professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis; Barbara J. Rolls, PhD; Lisa R. Young, PhD, RD, author of The Portion Teller

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, November 2006.