Net Calories vs. Total Calories

Posted by Jen | Weight Loss | Wednesday 14 May 2008 11:40 am

Okay, since I started using an online site to track my calories, I was introduced to the concept of Net Calories.

Total Calories consumed – Exercise Calories Burned = NET calories.

I have dieted a lot in my life. A lot. I have only tracked calories with two of those diets. (Once a long time ago with Weight Watchers…which, yes, is a calorie counting program disguised by a Points System) and once again last year. Neither plan included Net Calories.

This January, I started at The Daily Plate and noticed the Net Calories feature.
Basically, when you track your exercise you eat those calories back. It took me a few weeks to understand the logic behind it. It is highly prone to accuracy errors and I think that is the main reason why it doesn’t work for every one. Also, I think people may be using it incorrectly.

Below is my basic understanding of it. I am fairly certain I have the general idea of how it works.

1: What to do and how it works.

When you calculate your daily Calorie Goal, you need to select your activity level and how much weight you want to (safely!) lose per week. Seriously…unless you are obese – don’t try to lose 5 pounds in one week!
Okay, the important thing here is if you want to ‘eat back’ and track your exercise…pick the correct activity level!

For instance, I get my daughter ready for school, I work at home on the computer, I drive, I do light housekeeping (very light – wash dishes, make a bed, wipe counters, etc.) I do college work, I watch TV, I read, etc. That is my typical day. Boring…yes!
But, on average, my day pretty much falls under the “lightly active” category.

First, the calorie calculator starts with the number of calories burned in a ‘lightly active’ lifestyle on a typical day…let’s say 1800 calories and subtracts a deficit from that. In my case, I want to lose 1 pound a week, so it subtracts 500 from 1800 and gives me 1300 as my Calorie Goal. (I am going to assume everyone understands how consuming fewer calories than your body burns will bring about weight loss.) So, I now know that I can consume 1300 calories and lose 1 pound a week because of that 500 calorie deficit.
Now, there are 3 ways to maintain that deficit:

1: Food Restriction. (Eat 500 calories fewer than 1800/day. i.e. Eat 1300 calories/day.)
2: Exercise. (Eat 1800 calories a day…and exercise off 500 calories)
3: Both. (Ex: Eat 1500 – which is only a 300 deficit – and burn off the extra 200 to make the deficit 500)

So, I start my day and eat 1300. I have my 500 calorie deficit.
Then, I decide to exercise and burn an extra 200 calories.
My NET calories are now 1100.
1300 (total calories consumed) – 200 (exercise calories burned) = 1100 NET.

Another way to look at it is that my deficit is now 700.
500 from the food restriction deficit we made when we ate 1300 calories…and 200 from the exercise we just did.
500+200 = 700 deficit.

One final way to look at it is I no longer just burned 1800 today. I busted out of my Lightly Active lifestyle and I burned 2000 calories.
If I still want a 500 calorie deficit, I now have to eat 1500 calories (2000 – 500 = 1500) instead of 1300 to get my 500 calorie deficit.

So, yep…to do that I have to eat back my 200 exercise calories.
This makes my deficit 500 again.
My NET is now 1300 and the total I consumed for the day is 1500.

1300 (food eaten) – 200(exercise) = 1100 NET + 200 (eat back) = 1300 NET.
1300 TOTAL (food eaten) + 200 (eat back) = 1500 calories TOTAL.

I still have my 500 calorie deficit. I just changed how I got it. Instead of just food restriction, I used a combination of food restriction and exercise to get to a 500 calorie deficit.
This is why people ‘eat back’. If you track it right and use the right activity level, it does

2: What not to do.

Here’s what I think I did wrong in the beginning.
I told the calorie calculator that I was ‘Moderately Active’ and I ate back.
The calorie goal given to me for ‘Moderately Active’ already included my exercise calories.

The calculator started with the number of calories I burn due to an moderately activity level that included my exercise sessions….it was about 2100 calories and then subtracted my deficit (500) to give me a Calorie Goal of 1600 TOTAL. I wasn’t supposed to track exercise and ‘eat back’ because my calorie intake number already included my exercise. The 2100 calories (and thereby the 1600 Calorie Goal) already had those burned exercise calories in there…to track them again would be redundant!

3: Finale

So, the two choices are…choose an activity level for just your day-to-day activities and track exercise separately/’eat back’. Or just choose a higher activity level to account for your exercise and just eat and know that your Calorie Goal will give you a deficit that already includes your exercise calories.

Remember it’s not all exact. The calorie calculator estimates – it doesn’t really know exactly how many calories you are burning. (How helpful it would be if it really did!)
Keep all this in mind as you track your calories.

Which one do I personally do?

I do both. I switch every 3 weeks and do one or the other. When I use the higher activity level, I actually calorie cycle (change the amounts I eat each day, but still end up with the same total by the end of the week.) Also known as ‘calorie shifting’, ‘zig-zag dieting’ or ‘The Wendie Plan’ (for those of you on Weight Watchers.)

When I “eat back”, I track my exercise with my Heart Rate Monitor and eat back most of those calories. I have personal rules about how many exercise calories I actually eat back. I do this mostly to allow room for inaccuracies with counting calories.

I like doing both. It gives me a fresh start every three weeks. I have been successful (so far) with both, so I’ll keep doing it for now.

Hitting the Calculator Again

Posted by Jen | Exercise,Journal | Wednesday 14 May 2008 10:42 am

I’m back up to 134.5 today.
So, water weight? Maybe. I have been drinking a lot (which is supposed to help) so that I can avoid water weight fluctuations and get a good picture of whether my new techniques are breaking me out of my 18 day stall. If it isn’t water weight, then it means I might be missing something.

Time to look at the numbers.

Let’s start with March and go all the way to May.
My weight is the weight at the END of that week. That makes more sense because it reflects how my Total and Net calories affected that weight for that week.

3/2/08: 142lbs. Total: 9808 (1400/day) Net Cals: 1269/day.
3/9/08: 141lbs. Total: 9702 (1375/day) Net Cals: 1278/day.
3/16/08: 140lbs. Total: 9464 (1350/day) Net Cals: 1276/day.
Average Exercise for three weeks: 736 calories per week.

3/23/08: 139 lbs. Total: 10500 (1500/day) Net Cals: 1390/day.
3/30/08: 140 lbs. Total: 10567 (1509/day) Net Cals: 1396/day.
4/6/08: 138 lbs. Total: 10971 (1567/day) Net Cals: 1380/day.
Average Exercise for three weeks: 957calories per week.

4/13/08: 136 lbs. Total: 10115 (1445/day) Net Cals: 1250/day.
4/20/08: 134.5 lbs Total: 10210 (1458/day) Net Cals: 1250/day.
4/27/08: 134 lbs. Total: 10078 (1440/day) Net Cals: 1220/day.
Average Exercise for three weeks: 1450 calories per week.

5/4/08: 133 lbs. Total: 10746 (1535/day) Net Cals: 1369/day.

That May 4th weight of 133 was only seen once – on that day only (so I don’t know what happened to it. I’m blaming my cheap scale on that one.)
Today is May 14th and I am back at 134.5.
I have been seeing 134 and 134.5 since April 20th. Almost 4 weeks at the same weight. That’s about as plateaued as I can get. I think.

Granted, I have changed how I track my exercise, so my Eat Back weeks may be a problem now. The accuracy of calories burned may be under/over estimated and pushing my body closer to my maintenance or closer to “starvation mode” (if I want to subscribe to that particular viewpoint. The jury is still out on that one.)

How has my exercise tracking changed? Well, I don’t count all my exercise calories and I don’t count all exercise the same way.

Old Way # 1

All exercise counts – cardio, yoga, weights, etc.
I tracked only 90% of any of those calories burned.

Old Way #2

All exercise counts.
If my average BPM (beats per minute) at the end of any exercise was:

  1. above 140, I ate back 90%
  2. between 112 and 139, I ate back 85%
  3. anything below 112 was not counted.

Current Way

Exercise has to last longer than 20 minutes.
Any cardio over 129BPM: I subtract 1 calorie per 1 minute of exercise to account for my RMR.
All cardio between 120 and 129BPM: I count only 50% of those calories.
Any cardio under 120: not counted.
All non-cardio (such as weight training) over 125 BPM: I count 70%.
Any non-cardio under 125: not counted.

Am I underestimating?
Should I be counting any and all activity? Is my NET actually lower because I am really burning off significantly more than I am tracking?


I seriously like my ‘eat back’ weeks. I start each day with the calorie intake for someone who is lightly active (which describes my life apart from exercise.) I then track all my exercise and eat back those calories. This has worked for me for quite a while, so I have no idea what is going wrong now.
Okay, before I panic. I am still in the middle of my Plateau Busting Plan. So, I will give myself to Sunday until I begin to really worry.

In any case – I had a really good workout today. Almost 5 miles. I was exhausted! Rain is coming on Friday, so I’m going to try to head out tomorrow and give myself Friday off.

Week Two

Posted by Jen | Journal | Sunday 10 February 2008 5:48 pm

So, how have I been doing?

Well, the scale finally moved and showed 146 instead of 147.  It’s been like that for the past few days, so I feel pretty good about trusting it.  This is a really good thing.  It means something is happening.  The body is releasing something.  Is it water?  Fat?  I don’t know, but something’s going and I’m going to make darned sure it’s fat.

Speaking of scales….
I’ve been making sure to weigh myself every single day at the same time: in the morning, after bathroom routine, before I get dressed and definitely before I eat.  Personally, there is no reason to weigh more than once a day…I mean, once I start eating, all the consumed food just adds to the scale numbers.  I would never consider weighing in just once a week either.  Why?  Well, weight has been known to fluctuate – a lot.  What if, on my “weigh-in” day, my weight suddenly decided to fluctuate in an upward direction of a few pounds.  If I were to hang my entire week’s progress on that one day…I would be rather bummed.  However, if I know I weighed 147 daily for the past 3 or 4 days and then one day, I am suddenly 149, I wouldn’t sweat it too much.  There is no way I would have gained 2 pounds of fat in overnight.  I simply track the number and wait until the next day and the day after.  Most likely, if I am gaining, I’ll see 147.5 then 148 then 147.5 then 148.5.  If the numbers start sticking around like that, then I’ll know that things are trending upward instead of downward.

Just a quick note:  I truly believe the only people who shouldn’t weigh themselves everyday are the ones who find that the numbers on the scale have a profound effect on their mood and a negative effect on their eating habits.  That can definitely destroy someone’s motivation. I never let the scale numbers bug me so I really don’t worry about weighing myself once a day.

If anyone is interested in a weight tracking site, you might want to take a look at : The Hacker’s Diet .  It allows you to put in your daily weight and weight loss goal and it will actually let you know when the numbers are starting to show a downward/upward trend.  One day or two days of a scale number aren’t enough to really make that determination.

Here’s an example of one of my charts from that site:Hacker's Diet

The “Weight” box is where I post my daily weigh-ins.  The “Trend” is calculated for me.  I kind of look at the “Trend” number it as my true weight.  As you can see, I saw my first weight loss on Monday, February 4th.  Just because I was suddenly seeing 146.5 on the scale, though, doesn’t mean that I am permanently at that weight.   The Trend acknowledged that I was heading downward, but it wasn’t until 6 days later…on Sunday the 10th when my “Trend” box finally showed 146.5.  It’s almost as thought it’s telling me that the weight loss definitely seems to be sticking around and I can finally count it as true weight loss and not just a strange fluctuation.

So, what is in store for me this week?

Well, I want to get a heart rate monitor.  I am really liking the science part of all this…counting the calories, matching the calories in to the calories out.  Not everyone likes that, but I really really do.  It makes sense to me and it gives me something to work with. As time goes on, I plan on slowly shifting away from the exact science of calorie counting to something a little more natural, but I won’t start that until I get closer to my goal.  I really believe in this process and I can already see it working.