- Nutrition labels can be inaccurate by up to 20% when it comes to listing calories, according to the FDA.
- This can be frustrating, but experts say it probably won’t ruin an otherwise healthy diet.
- Sticking to whole and unprocessed foods can be a useful strategy to avoid surprising calories in processed foods.
- Visit the Insider homepage for more stories.
If you’re like most people who watch your weight, you probably keep an eye on it how many calories do you eat on average, perhaps by scanning food packages or using an app to count them.
But nutrition labels can be up to 20% inaccurate, according to u FDA guidelines. This means, for example, that a serving of Greek yogurt labeled to contain 100 calories could weigh from 80 to 120 calories.
Calories are not the only factor in weight loss, but it is generally accepted that the only way to
it is creating a calorie deficit, in which it burns more energy than what it consumes in the form of food.
As a result, 20 more calories here and there could add up over time. If you want to prevent wrong labels from derailing your diet, experts advise using a calorie budget, focusing on the overall picture, and eating whole and unprocessed foods more often.
Calorie budgeting can also be helpful for your goals
It can be frustrating to feel that you can’t accurately track what you eat, especially if you’re struggling to meet health or fitness goals.
Previous search found that packaged foods tend to have about 8% more calories on average than those listed on the label – even those specifically advertised for weight loss, such as Lean Cuisine or Weight Watchers. For example, a meal labeled as 250 calories might in fact have 270.
Common snacks, including Pop Tarts, crackers, chips, and snack cakes also tend to have slightly more calories than advertised, about 4% more than the label, according to one Study 2013.
But monitoring your calorie intake can still be helpful, he said Layne Norton, a nutrition and fitness trainer, bodybuilder and power lifter with a doctorate in nutrition.
“Calorie tracking is useful the way a budget is to save money,” Norton told Insider. “Many people save money without a budget, but it can be a useful tool because it lets you know what you’re spending your money on.”
Being more aware of where calories come from can also help you change behaviors that are not useful for your purposes, such as reducing foods that could cause you to eat too much.
Aim for consistency, not perfection
Whether or not you follow or calorie intake, a good nutritional plan can prevent inaccurate labels from setting your health goals. Experts say that one of the biggest factors in a healthy diet is patterns over time, more than just a meal, food, or even a day of eating.
A popular principle in nutrition is the Rule 80/20, which calls for eating healthy about 80% of the time and allows 20% flexibility in your diet to not become stressful or restrictive.
Also, inaccurate labels can be 20% more or 20% less than the actual calories in food. Greg Nuckols, an exercise science researcher and writer for Stronger than Science, crunched the numbers and found that over time, these small variations will probably be in balance for most people.
So, in the context of your overall diet, an occasional 20 calories beyond what the label says is a small fraction of your total energy intake.
Get complete labels entirely by reducing processed foods
If you’re still worried about mixing calories, one strategy might be to avoid labeled foods altogether.
Many packaged foods are ultra-processed, meaning they include added fat, sugar, salt and preservatives. There is a wealth of evidence that processed foods are bad for our health, which leads to an increased risk of chronic diseases. Processed foods also cause us to eat more than you might otherwise, up to 500 extra calories a day, according to some research.
In contrast, eating more healthy foods such as produce, legumes, lean meat, eggs, whole grains, nuts, seeds can promote a healthy weight and a lower risk of disease. While these foods are always labeled, fewer ingredients also mean that there is less uncertainty about what you are eating. Whole foods such as products are also less caloric, so 20% of what the label said will also be a smaller amount of the difference in processed foods.
Dietitians advise make fresh fruits and vegetables about half of your plate for most meals, since they are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber, which are all important for overall health.