I Track Calories to Lose Weight, but Eat Too Much Dining Out


  • Tracking breakfast and lunch when you’re going out for dinner can seem pointless, and you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.
  • Try and eyeball your usual portion sizes though, and don’t over-restrict.
  • Dietitian Alix Turoff recommends thinking of your calorie goal as a weekly average not a daily target.
  • Read more Working It Out here.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Dear Rachel,

I’m tracking my calories for weight loss, but I’m allowing myself some flexibility and evenings off. The trouble is, when I know I’m going out for dinner and won’t hit my calories for the day, I find it really hard not to think ‘screw it’ the whole day leading up to it. I know it makes no sense, and I should try and have the same meals and snacks I would if I were cooking dinner for myself, but I always end up eating loads as if the whole day is a write-off. How can I change this mindset?

— Dieter with a Dilemma

Dear Dieter,

I know how you feel.

Eating out makes it near impossible to stick to a deficit thanks to all those sneaky oils restaurants use to make the food so delicious, not to mention larger portion sizes, starters, sides, bread baskets, dessert, and a glass of wine or three.

But what’s the point of going out for dinner if you’re going to ask for grilled chicken and steamed vegetables with tap water to drink?

It’s good to allow yourself some flexibility in your diet. Balance is what makes it sustainable long-term, but I know it’s hard not to write-off the whole day when you know you’ll go over your calorie target ultimately.

The trouble is, while the occasional higher calorie meal shouldn’t derail your progress, if it also means going off-track with your breakfast, lunch, and snacks that day, you might end up not in a calorie deficit overall.

Don’t deprive yourself to ‘bank calories’

I get it: What’s the point in calorie-counting if you know dinner will cause you to surpass your daily target?

On days like this, you might decide to give yourself a break from weighing, measuring, and logging foods in a calorie-tracking app, but try and eyeball portion sizes as if you were tracking.

I actually find this to be a good way to develop the skills that will ultimately help you move away from tracking to maintain your weight.

What’s not a good idea, however, is over-restricting to try and “bank calories” for your dinner, because this may result in you feeling ravenously hungry and out of control that evening — or even before.

I’ve made the mistake previously of trying to eat a tiny breakfast and lunch before going out to dinner, only to find by late afternoon I’m starving and need to eat all the snacks.

‘Calorie-cycling’ allows you to factor in higher calorie days

It might help to think of your calorie goal as a weekly average rather than a daily target, according to dietitian Alix Turoff.

Which means if your calorie goal is 1,800, you could have some days that are 1,600 calories and other days that are 2,000, but the average will still be 1,800.

“Some people call this ‘calorie-cycling’ but in reality, most people have days when they’re more hungry and other days when they’re less hungry and it makes sense that your intake would change from day to day even if your goal is

weight loss
,” Turoff told Insider.

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She said this approach can work well for people who want to have some higher calorie meals out but still hit their goals.

“By factoring in some wiggle room, you could have days that are higher without sacrificing your goals,” Turoff said.

However, I know that when I eat out, I’m going over my calorie target by a lot more than 200, and trying to calorie-cycle to balance it out would be too restrictive. So be reasonable, and remember that the occasional higher calorie meal won’t derail your progress.

Try to eat mindfully

Turoff advises working on mindful eating too, checking in with your hunger mid-way through a meal.

“If you’re nearing fullness but are tempted to keep going because you’ve already ‘gone off-track so why not?’ remind yourself that your intake can be fluid and maybe today is a higher calorie day but that doesn’t mean that you still can’t reach your goals that week,” she said.

It can also be reassuring to remember not every day has to be a deficit, you can have a maintenance day, Turoff said.

“It’s okay to prioritize a fun experience with food, even if that means you’re temporarily delaying your weight loss goals,” she said. “What you don’t want is to feel guilty or like you’ve done something bad.”

Don’t beat yourself up, healthy change takes time.

Wishing you well,


As a senior health reporter at Insider and a self-described fitness fanatic with an Association for Nutrition-certified nutrition course under her belt, Rachel Hosie is immersed in the wellness scene and here to answer all your burning questions. Whether you’re struggling to find the motivation to go for a run, confused about light versus heavy weights, or unsure whether you should be worried about how much sugar is in a mango, Rachel is here to give you the no-nonsense answers and advice you need, with strictly no fad diets in sight.

Rachel has a wealth of experience covering fitness, nutrition, and wellness, and she has the hottest experts at her fingertips. She regularly speaks to some of the world’s most knowledgeable and renowned personal trainers, dietitians, and coaches, ensuring she’s always up to date with the latest science-backed facts you need to know to live your happiest and healthiest life.

Have a question? Ask Rachel at workingitout@insider.com or fill out this anonymous form. All questions will be published anonymously.


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