Why You’re Burning Fewer Calories Than You Think

by Kristina LaRue, RD, CSSD, LDN
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Why You’re Burning Fewer Calories Than You Think

Weight management comes down to simple math: calories in minus calories out. But if you’re keeping track of your diet and exercise and still missing your goals, you might be getting some parts of the equation wrong.

We tend to overestimate how many calories we’ve burned and underestimate how much we’ve consumed, making it difficult to hit those weight-loss goals. And even when you’re carefully tracking your meals and activity, you may be expending less energy than you think.

Check out these six reasons your calorie burn might be smaller than you’ve estimated:

1. YOU’RE OVERESTIMATING YOUR WEEKLY BURN

It’s important not to approach every day thinking you can indulge with your food because you’ve put in a big, calorie-torching workout — or assume every gym day will yield a big calorie deficit. An hour of strength training could end up burning around 200–300 calories, compared with about 500 calories burned during a long run. It could be helpful to think of your daily calorie burn as a weekly average. Going into the week, it’s a good idea to know what workouts you’ll do and factor those calorie burns into your eating plan.  

2. YOUR EXERCISE EQUIPMENT MIGHT BE LYING

You hop on that treadmill, elliptical or cycling machine and watch the “calories” number tick up. Before you celebrate with a cheeseburger, remember these machines are often inaccurate, especially if you don’t input your weight before you start the workout. Everyone burns calories at a different rate depending on weight, heart rate and form, which means your favorite exercise machine may tell you you’re burning way more calories than you really are.


READ MORE > 3 KEYS FOR WEIGHT LOSS YOU NEED TO KNOW NOW


3. YOU’RE AN ACTIVE COUCH POTATO

Sure, you had a great hourlong workout this morning, but your intense cardio session can’t offset the effects of sitting all day at work. Find ways to incorporate standing or walking into other parts of your daily routine beyond your workout. Send emails from a standing desk, watch your TV shows while cleaning instead of from the couch, or make your next meeting a walking one.

4. YOU’RE DOUBLE DIPPING

If you log your workouts or sync your activity tracker with MyFitnessPal, it will add your calorie burn from exercise to your total daily calorie allotment. But if you also have your activity level set to “active” to account for your weekly workouts, the app is already factoring in those daily sweat sessions. To better assess your calorie burn in the gym, adjust your MyFitnessPal settings to “sedentary” and factor in the calories burned during exercise to that baseline. (Check out some of the discussion on this topic in the MyFitnessPal community forums.)

5. YOU’RE GETTING BETTER AT WORKING OUT

As you get in better shape and adapt to your training, your body will burn fewer calories in the gym. That’s a credit to you because it takes less effort to do the same workout when your body becomes more efficient. Keep track of the workout routines you’re doing, and increase intensity or distance every few weeks to continue progressing.

6. YOU’VE LOST WEIGHT

This is similar to the previous point. When you drop pounds, your smaller body takes less energy to move around. Everything from doing dishes to running a marathon burns fewer calories. This is a great sign of progress, but it also means you may need to increase your estimated calories burned per day or adjust your calorie intake to continue losing weight.

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  • Pamom

    Sorry. It’s not calories in calories out with some women their hormones can be off. It’s not as simple as just calories in and calories out and resent research has proven that. Disappointed in this article!!

    • Adam Jensen

      It’s still calories in vs calories out. It’s not some ground breaking research that hormones affect metabolism. Ever heard of a thyroid? That’s one of many hormone secreting organs we habe! Even if hormones are actively reducing your metabolic state, doesn’t change the fact that you can still lose weight if you consume less calories than you burn. Yes it does suck, but that’s life son

      • Carla

        You are such as Wise A** , Not to mention Disrespectful and Annoying..I pray that you do not have Children young or Adults with your Mentality. This is the pathetic world that we now live in and wonder why so many horrible things are happening by people EXACTLY like you.

        • Adam Jensen

          You’re the one resorting to ad hominem. Usually when someone does that it means they have no clue what to say and its a defensive mechanism to protect their ego. You pray that someone with A high IQ doesn’t have children? First of all, the fact that you pray just shows your IQ is below 100. Secondly, you should pray that people like me do have kids to prevent people like you from mucking up the gene pool with absolute ignorance and stupidity.

          Now that I’ve replied to your idiotic tangent. Feel free to respond with something intellectual regarding my original post about the relevant topic. Otherwise stop spamming about your hurt feelings, take that baggage to your therapist

      • Eddie Bass

        Any of you guys ever heard of brown fat? – it and other homeostatic devices, many probably still undiscovered, help regulate body weight vs caloric intake and expenditure to keep our bodies at a set point using regulatory pathways, again, most probably yet to be discovered, much in the way that process control equipment regulates production in chemical plants and the like. This concept would be inherently intuitive to any chemical engineer. Specifically, brown fat uncouples oxidative phosphorylation from the electron transport chain so that glucose is converted entirely to CO2 and H2O + heat, without production of ATP and NADPH+ – it “wastes” calories which is a good thing to do if you want to burn fat while watching TV

        • Adam Jensen

          Electron transport chain has nothing to do with triacylglycerride catabolism.

          • Frank Beal

            If you want to maximize your health, performance and satisfaction while achieving your preferred weight and maintaining it, read “Ketogenic Lifestyle Guide”, available on Amazon.

      • Randi Lynn

        Calories in and out are important, but do not encompass all of weight loss. That mode of thinking is archaic when it comes to obesity. There are numerous studies with numerous hormones, neurotransmitters, proteins, etc that affect appetite, satiety, satiation, cravings, basal metabolic rate and all of these affect calories in and out.

    • robinbishop34

      “It’s not calories in calories out …”

      On the contrary. Everyone that is alive, regardless of any conditions –imaginary or otherwise– has a TDEE number. Eat below that number to lose; eat above that number to gain; eat exactly that number to maintain.

    • Calorie Carl

      Ummm, it is calories in, calories out. Don’t be dumb.

    • Nicola

      What you are trying to say is your “calories out” is less than the norm but at the end of the day, it is still calories in, calories out. You just happen to have a lower “out” than others.

  • SuzyB52

    I’m also disappointed in this article; however, I find many of the articles on this and other online publications superficial in their treatment of whatever the subject matter is. Articles such as this one paint with a broad brush, and in this case, contain no “disclaimer” or qualifying statements to the effect that each person’s situation is different. For example, people with certain medical/health conditions have challenges to weight management that a healthier person may not. And the older we get, the more difficult it is to lose weight, or even to maintain our healthy weight of our younger years even when no diet or activity level changes have occurred. Age, hormones, thyroid levels, diabetes, various autoimmune diseases, and so many other factors affect one’s ability to lose or maintain healthy weight, even when the calories consumed each day do not exceed the calories expended.
    I’d like to see some well-researched, erudite articles for people over 60 who are dealing with aging bodies and the onslaught of age-related illnesses, regarding how those factors (and others) affect our weight loss efforts. (FYI, for almost two months I’ve been tracking every morsel that I consume to follow a 1200-1300 calorie/day diet; I weigh and measure everything I eat or drink; I am careful to stay away from added sugar and select foods that have low-glycemic levels; I choose only whole grains and other complex carbohydrates; I eat fish/seafood and poultry more than red meat and don’t touch fatty pork; I eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables–primarily spinach/kale/cabbage/broccoli; I exercise regularly, combining both cardio and strength exercises; I’m on my feet most of the time that I’m awake–yet I haven’t lost a pound. It’s discouraging, to say the least.)

    • Jennie

      So, some people can defy the laws of physics and expend more energy than they take in. Maybe they photosynthesize.

    • Adam Jensen

      Reduce your calories then, genius

      • Beth DiPaolo

        Actually, if she reduces further it may be counter productive. Id’ be a bit more mindful in your communication.

        • Adam Jensen

          I’d be more mindful with your awful bioscience advice

        • skyler917

          Reducing calories may affect the healthiness of your diet in terms of your well being, but reducing calories WILL lose you more weight, implying that starvation mode is real is disingenuous and manipulative.

    • Beth DiPaolo

      Hi Suzy, I admire you for all you’re doing. Don’t give up. I’m not sure of your age, as I’m 52 and find losing weight to be more challenging as I’ve aged. I thought I’d share something that has helped me, the low carb approach. I was disgusted with the weight I put on, ignoring my health. I travel a lot for work so was eating way more than normal and not exercising. Since I cut out all sugar, no bread, pasta, rice, potato I’ve lost 22 pounds. I recommend you try just protein and vegies for awhile and see if that helps. It has helped me not be hungry and mindful. I will start incorporating berries and some other fruits low in glycemic index soon. Keep the faith!

      • Shirley

        How long did it take to lose those 22 pounds?

        • Ashley

          I started doing the same as beth 11 weeks ago and dropped 30lbs

    • Mrs Room

      SuzyB52 It sounds like you are eating Healthy and your body will thank you for it. Measure your success in other ways, less colds, more energy, just plain old feeling good! I have read that breaking old habits and establishing new ones takes at least three months, don’t stop, don’t give up! You are doing great! It’s true these articles are very general. I have a friend in her sixties who must take steroids, she has dietitians, nutritionists and doctors monitoring her entire Life! But she gets shorter,(bone loss) and rounder every year. You sound like a really smart person, you know each of us is unique and wonderful, you know you are treating your body right, and that should never be discouraging. Keep up the good work.

    • Heather Branch Adams

      Don’t be discouraged. You need to find what will work for you. Everyone is different and every body is different. Even though I’ve always eaten very healthy – no white flour, rice, dairy, lots of green veggies and fruit- but I found that I had hit a wall at age 45 as well. Now that I’ve found Plexus and have a clean gut I am back on track and losing weight and healthy again. Gut health is the culprit of so many evils!! As an RN I feel like I should’ve known this but I did not. It turns out that most people do not know this. I’ve become educated on gut health and i can honestly say that I feel better now than I ever have in my entire life.

      • Annelique Dröge

        Heather, what do you mean by “Plexus”?

        • Heather Branch Adams

          Plexus is a company that focuses on gut health. Most inflammatory processes begin in your intestines and this company provides supplements to clean out the “bad” bacteria and repopulate your gut with healthy flora. I continue to feel better each week.

          • Annelique Dröge

            Thanks for your reply. Did it help you to lose weight?I have the same problem as SuzyB52. I’ve never ever had any Weight problems, untill I hit 55 and had a historectomy. No matter what I try, I cant get under the 70 kilo’s (I used to be around 63)…..Plexus??

          • Heather Branch Adams

            Yes I lost 15 pounds but more importantly, I feel better than I did when I was in my 20s. I’m healthier in every aspect of my life. I sleep better, I have energy all day and that’s without drinking coffee and I am in a better mood in general. My friend als family have complimented me numerous times o we the last two months becias the changes are so obvious. I would be happy to send d you more information. 🙂

          • Annelique Dröge

            That sounds good! Worth a try I reckon. More info is welcome, like if you can buy the supplementshoek in europe etc? Or is it some sort of diet?

          • Heather Branch Adams

            I can send you info if you want to send me your email. Are u on Facebook?

          • Annelique Dröge

            Yes you can find me on facebook!

          • Heather Branch Adams

            Great, I’ll go look for you now 🙂

    • robinbishop34

      You are not losing because you are not in a calorie deficit.

    • jim

      Suzy,
      You say you haven’t lost a pound. What you don’t mention is how long you have been consistently watching what you are eating and engaging in daily exercise. Are you realistically patient? Consistency and real expectations. You also do not say if your are building muscle from your workouts. Remember muscle is heavy, but it makes you look good. I admit that I am lucky–at 68 still my high school weight of 140. But I have made changes in both diet and workout at various times in my life. Currently ramped down my running and increased my strength. And I still allow a beer for lunch occasionally. But I have remained consistent in balancing intake to output.

      • Izzy

        That’s exactly what I do, Jim, consistency is the key. I’m 65 years old, 5.1 inches and weigh 116 lbs thanks to my daily Zumba, and walking. I am on synthroid for low thyroid, but that only means that I have to work a little harder, that’s all.

    • Ashley

      I had the same problem, I believe I developed ‘metabolic syndrome’ from yo yo dieting all my life.
      I started doing a keto diet 11 weeks ago (no grains, no sugar) and hgave dropped 30lbs

      I recommend this to you.

    • Framz Ferdomamd

      Most of these articles are merely widgets that are turned out in high quantity with very little concern for quality. Thats what the Net has brought us.

    • Dragunbayne

      Why does everyone have to find a reason to be offended or disappointed. Because of some outlying reason this doesn’t apply directly to you, so they are wrong? They shouldn’t need some “disclaimer” that this stuff is different for everyone, that’s a given or there wouldn’t be so many strategies and methods. The article would be a book if they covered every possible contingency. It seems like every article on this site is full of comments of people criticizing because it doesn’t apply directly to them. Take what you can from it and leave the rest! Most of this stuff applies to most people. Don’t get me wrong, I know it can be hard. I used to be huge. If all you do is browse the internet and whine some article doesn’t apply to or work for you, you will never make progress. Do you resistance train? If no, that’s probably your biggest issue. At the ages your speaking of muscle mass declines quickly. If you don’t resistance train, your metabolism will tank. Without muscle you aren’t burning crap for calories, not to mention all of the other benefits of resistance training to aging folks.

  • fh

    The woman on the erg needs some help with her technique

    • Andrew K Duffy

      Amen! Why are her hands at chest level while her legs are bent at that angle?

  • Jwkinge

    If you think weight loss is as simple as Calories in vs. Calories out it tells me that you have never lost or had to lose weight. Our bodies react and store calories differently if we are in taking sugar vs. protein. If your profession is dealing in weight loss I suggest you try to lose 15 pounds. Then tell me if you still believe in the “Calories in vs. Calories out” theory.

    • 240phil

      Thank you.
      Trust me, those of us with more than a couple of pounds to loose can attest to just how flawed the “calories in vs calories out” thinking really is.

    • I lost 125 pounds doing nothing more than tracking in and out.

  • Randi Lynn

    I agree with the spirit of this article, but calories in vs calories out is an archaic way of thinking. If that were true, the endocrinology association would not have made obesity a disease. There are many hormonal, protein, microbiome, and additional considerations to take in to account. That being said calories in and out are important but not the only part of the process. I have gone to several medical conferences (hosted by Harvard and the American Board of Obesity Medicine) and and it’s a constant battle (even among physicians) to change thinking. We need to not perpetuate this myth. I would love to see MyFitnessPal do a simplified (down from “medical language”) article on the pathophysiology of obesity to educate the people. This also can provide more support when patients get discouraged because focusing on calories in and out does not yield results.

    • Shirley

      I am 71. I am upset by not being able to diet. My exercise is limited at this time. I have had 4 back surgeries, 2 neck, 2 knee replacements, one that became so infected there was a chance of losing leg from knee down, removing ovaries, 2 lumbar spinal fusions. Still healing from the last one. They were done within 5 months of each other. Had to take it all out and start over. I have been depressed. What can I do ?! I’d like to loose some weight quickly to feel better. Thank you for your help.

      • prof6457

        Hi Shirley,

        I’m sorry that you’ve had some tough health issues that is affecting your ability to exercise. I’ve been in some car accidents-so while I don’t have your exact issues, it does hurt for me to exercise right now. The really good news is that you CAN lose weight without exercising. Use My Fitness Pal to log your calories and stay in a deficit-and you WILL lose weight! Is it ideal to diet without some strength training and/or cardio? (Yes, I know that those far more knowledgeable than me recommend strength training) Strength training would be best for not losing muscle-but I would say that if your dr gives you the go-ahead to lose weight, just diet until such a time that you can strength train. It will help you mentally. Best wishes!

    • prof6457

      Obesity is a disease like alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling and buying too many pair of Jimmy Choo heels.

      My friend is obese because she sits on her butt, eats because she hates her life and moves very little. Her mother died of alcoholism because she made really bad choices in life-and sought to escape her responsibilities. Her daughter died of drug-addiction because she tried to escape how messed up her family was. The dad gambles because that is his escape. I (used to) buy too many shoes until I started using YNAB to budget my money. Addictions can be broken with hard work and effort. Or, you can say I suffer from this debilitating disease of which I have no control over. Accepting responsibility for the role you play in your life is big. And the only way out.

      I went out to eat with that friend the other night. I sat there searching for a tasty menu item that fit in my macros. My friend ordered the buy one/get one free meal. You can’t help people unless they want to be helped.

  • Adrian Pollard

    I think it’s a good article but I don’t approve of not giving the info of how strength training leads to more continuous calorie burn after so while it’s 200-300 it causes you to burn more after with all activities. Where as cardio is 500 and absolutely over after you stop. People need to know that. Long term weightloss is done by strength training. Cardio is supplemental for burning extra fat at lower bpm and cardiovascular at higher bpm.

  • Stewart Jasmer

    It is also important for everyone to know that sometimes it is crucial to not only exercise more (lifting heavier weights or training at higher intensities), but to eat more as well in order to lose body fat. It’s not as easy as exercising more and cutting caloric intake. People who struggle to lose weight even though they’re “doing everything right” by dropping their calorie intake to 1200-1300 calories later in life and walking with some strength training, are probably A) Not working out with the intention of building muscle mass, which is the most important deciding factor for the body’s metabolism, and B) Not eating enough food to allow the body to build said muscle mass so that the metabolism can successfully melt away at the fat storage of the body.

    That being said, I think this article is a great article because it expands upon VERY real issues when it comes to the subject of measuring calories. Are exercise machines accurate counters? No. Does a single bout of weight training burn a lot of calories? No. Is it easy to make mistakes with calorie trackers? YES. And my personal favorite, Is it easy to address EVERYONE’S problems in a single article? NO. This article doesn’t assume medical issues, because there are too many to list and talk about in one article. If you wish to learn more about your medical issue, look for an article that covers it specifically.

  • Milan Vydareny

    This is an interesting discussion. However, I have found that it really is a matter of calories in and calories out. Since July 1, 2016 I have maintained a calorie deficit and so far have lost 90.7 pounds. My most difficult times where when I failed to lower my BMR based on weight loss or when I wasn’t logging all of my caloric intake. Both of those things accounted for failing to establish a calorie deficit. When I lowered my intake to once again establish the deficit, weight loss started again. By the way, I just had my 74th birthday, so it is possible even for older folks. I stay as active as possible and bike about a mile and a quarter to and from the gym three times a week where I spend about a half hour on an elliptical, another forty-five minutes with strength training, and a final fifteen minutes swimming a few laps at a moderate pace. I agree with the other comments: Don’t give up. Consistency is important. Also understand that fat loss is not an even line or curve. Some days you gain a little. What you’re after is a long-term downward trend and a fundamental change in your eating habits and lifestyle. Just because you shred a little fat doesn’t mean you can go back to your gluttony! Good luck!

    • prof6457

      Can I double-like what you wrote? 🙂

      As an older person, I can attest to the fact that overestimating calories burned from activity and underestimating calories eaten is HUGE.

      Move your tush (faster, if need be), eat less and you will lose weight. People want to argue with scientific facts-well, you WILL lose weight when in a calorie deficit. It is science.

      For myself, I have such a low BMR, that I have to work hard and choose my (low) calories carefully, because I don’t have a lot of wiggle room if I want to shed pounds.

    • Izzy

      I agree with you, Milan.

  • skyler917

    “Why you’re burning less calories than you think” The answer is because your app overestimates calories burned significantly and adds it to free members daily calorie intake, which seems to me like a way to trick people into eating more than they should and then buy your premium because their attempts at a diet failed, and they want to succeed. Sadly their 50 dollars a year goes straight to the company that sabotaged them in the first place. Scummy business tactics.

  • prof6457

    The moderator is not allowing an article url. Please google “Is Obesity a Disease,” and read where experts agree and disagree in this debate, at Prevention.

  • blamb61

    It is an energy balance issue but the equation is more complicated that CICO. Calories in the mouth are not the same as calories put into fat cells and calorie out of fat cells are not the same as calorie demands on the body. You can only gain as much as a surplus but you don’t have to gain all of a surplus (you may excrete and not use all calories taken in). The upper limit is set though by the surplus amount (you can’t gain more or you are creating energy out of nothing). Also you must lose at least as much as a deficit (energy had to come from somewhere), but you can lose more (excretion and inefficient use of stored fat). Depending on what you eat, it takes more energy to digest certain foods, when you eat will drive how much gluconeogensis your body has to do which is also inefficient compared to eating the same calories in a spread-out manner. CICO is a good model cause it sets bounds on the max you can gain and the min you will lose although you may gain less and lose more than the model predicts based on what and when you eat as well as how much you eat. Hunger plays a big factor also and when and what you eat and other medical conditions can have a big impact on that. Hunger is real and can’t be ignored in the equation. When and what we eat can effect our metabolism also and can’t be ignored.

  • Dru Damien

    To me, it seems like Myfitnesspal is way too generous with the calories given for exercise. Say I rode a stationary bike for 45 minutes. The bike will say that I burned 100 calories. Myfitnesspal will say I burned 497 calories. These are not exact numbers, they are for illustrative purposes. My solution is to input about half the time I actually exercised.