Measuring Cups

Volume vs. Weight Measurement

It’s ridiculously easy to underestimate how much you’re eating — even if you track calories and gauge portion sizes using measuring cups and spoons. It is for this reason that I recommend weighing food on a kitchen scale instead of relying on volume measurements such as cups or tablespoons.

Inconsistent measurement is a problem that has plagued bakers for ages. Growing up, most of us probably learned how to measure dry ingredients for cakes and cookies using measuring cups with the scoop-and-level method. As it turns out, however, this method is highly inconsistent and the resulting errors in measurement can lead to dry cakes and hard cookies.

The first problem with utilizing volume tools for baking is that measuring cups and spoons all vary slightly in their capacity from manufacturer to manufacturer. In other words, a half-cup from Oxo will be slightly larger or smaller than a half-cup from Farberware.

The next problem with volume tools is that different people will fill measuring cups and spoons differently. Some people may scoop the ingredients into the cup without leveling the top, while others may scoop and level, while others may pack the cup and level, etc. Each of these methods provide significantly different ingredient weights.

A much more precise way to measure ingredients is by using a kitchen scale. If you Google, “volume to weight [food name]” you can find conversion charts for pretty much anything, including but not limited to: flour, sugar, oats, peanut butter, pasta, yogurt, cottage cheese, butter, etc. Traditional Oven is one site that makes easy work of these conversions.

How This Applies to Dieting

Much like using volume measurements can lead to inconsistent results when cooking and baking, it can also lead to inconsistent results for those of us who track calories and macronutrients. When looking at the nutrition label for a particular food, notice that there is almost always a weight that accompanies the volume measurement for one serving.

For example, one serving of oatmeal is described on the label as being 1/2 cup, which is equivalent to 40 grams. But here’s the rub — while 40 grams will give you the stated calories and macronutrients on the label, filling your 1/2 measuring cup to the brim may or may not provide you with 40 grams. In other words, you may not get the exact nutrition information that’s stated on the label unless you measure the food by weight.

An Example of Incorrect Measurement

Take the example in the photo above. Let’s say you ate a tablespoon of peanut butter, which is equivalent to 16 grams per the label. But let’s say that instead of weighing out 16 grams on a scale, you filled up a measuring spoon. But since you packed so much peanut butter into the spoon, you actually ate 23 grams.

What this would mean is that while you logged your peanut butter as one tablespoon at 100 calories (which would have been the correct nutrition information for 16 grams), you really consumed 23 grams of peanut butter which provided 144 calories. In other words, you consumed 44 more calories than you had intended.

Let’s take the example a step further and say that on the same day, you similarly miscalculated the flour and oat measurements from the photo. In this case, you measured each of them by fully packing measuring cups instead of using the weight equivalent for 1/4 cup flour (30 grams) and 1/2 cup oats (40 grams). This would mean that you consumed 51 and 50 more calories than intended. All things considered, now you’re at 145 calories more than you had intended for the day.

At this point, you might be wondering whether 145 calories is really a big deal. And on one day, it absolutely isn’t. But let’s say that you do this every day. As a result, at the end of the week you’d be 1015 calories over your target. That variance, while seemingly small, can be enough to bump you out of a deficit (or even from maintenance into a surplus, in some cases).

Conclusion and Final Thoughts

I’d like to take a moment to point out that miscalculation is not a huge issue, provided that your miscalculation is consistent. In other words, it’s okay to be consistently wrong, as long as your method is predictable enough to allow for adjustments to the baseline.

For example: let’s say that you think you’re eating 1800 calories, but you’re actually miscalculating and eating 2000 calories. That’s not the end of the world because, if you’re not making progress, you know that you likely need to reduce your calories to get the ball rolling. The starting point doesn’t change the required next step.

Regardless, I still prefer to track as accurately as possible. Not for the sake of complete accuracy — because we’ll never be 100% accurate in our tracking — but more from a behavioral standpoint. Because when we start half-assing one thing, it’s easy for that attitude to bleed over into something else. Then, before we know it, we may find ourselves making excuses for putting lackluster effort into many things, then wondering why we’re not making any progress.

Having said that, is a kitchen scale unconditionally necessary for general fat loss? Absolutely not. Admittedly, there are far less meticulous methods by which one can achieve a caloric deficit — which, at the end of the day, is the single most important factor that is going to lead to weight loss.

If you already track your calories, can you still succeed using measuring cups and spoons? Yes, absolutely. A scale is by no means mandatory. It is simply a tool that allows for better consistency. For many, weighing food on a scale will range from mildly annoying to a flat-out terrible personality fit. And that’s okay! Again, the scale is a tool at our disposal, but there is no requirement that we must use it in order to be successful.

Lastly, I have been asked, “isn’t it micromanagement to weigh your food on a scale?” It sure is. However, let’s be honest: that’s what calorie counting is. If you’re inputting all your food every day into an app or journal, you’re already micromanaging your food intake. So while I don’t want to present this as an approach that the average person needs to implement, it can definitely be helpful.

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