Throughout my studies in undergrad and graduate school, I was taught to count calories in my nutrition courses in order to help someone gain or lose weight. It made sense initially to do so, it was always calories in and calories out. If you burn more than eat, you’ll lose weight and vice versa. Simple, right? Yet, counting calories never appealed to me personally. It always felt like extra work and I hated doing the math to figure out the numbers. Nevertheless, I still obliged and continued to use the formulas and do the math when I trained clients.
As years passed, gaining more experience working with countless amounts of people as a trainer, some clients still weren’t losing weight or couldn’t sustain the weight loss counting calories. On a larger scale, obesity rates were still rising as they are now. Yet, if people were to follow the simple equation and count their calories, one should be able to put weight on and take weight off as they please. Obviously, that’s not the case.
Therefore, over time I followed my original inclination about calorie counting and started doing my own research. I stumbled upon other literature and experts in their respective fields of health and fitness who didn’t necessarily prescribe calorie counting because they realized just like myself that counting calories are only part of the story, not the whole story. There are other variables that play a role and relying on calories alone without taking other variables into consideration is when people run into trouble.
All Calories Aren’t Equal
Calories in and calories out isn’t the whole story. Although a calorie is a calorie in terms of a unit of energy. All calories are not equal in how they are metabolized by the body. A 100 calories of white sugar versus 100 calories of apple slices will not have the same effect. One is clearly more nutritious being in its whole food state while the other is clearly processed already with no nutritional value. It’s like needing a hole patched in the wall with repairman “A” showing up with all the necessary tools and repairman “B” only showing up with scotch tape. While both are repairmen, one is clearly more ready to do the job.
The chemical make-up of a food can affect one’s hormones leading to different results too (1, 2). One study found that fructose and glucose had differing effects on satiety hormones in rodents (2). Another showed the brain regions in participants involved in attention and reward processing may affect feeding behavior differed when participants ingested glucose versus fructose (5). Our health goes deeper than only counting calories. It’s not just a matter of how many calories but what those calories do inside us.
Food Labels Aren’t Accurate
The number of calories on food labels are only estimates and is known to be off. The FDA allows for a 20 percent margin of error for nutrients listed on a food label, including calories, meaning that these calorie counts aren’t pinpoint accurate. Many experts recommend that food labels only be used as a guide when it comes to counting calories. Even if two people eat the same meal, there is pretty much no way the calories will match between them. One meal may have a teaspoon of extra than the other.
These numbers on food labels are also based on a chemist named Wilbur Atwater who found another way of calculating calories over 100 years ago by calculating the number of calories in different foods and then testing people’s feces to see how many calories were expelled to come up with the 4-9-4 system calculating calories for macronutrients (protein, fats, and carbohydrates), that was proven to be inaccurate by some experts (3). In addition, Wilbur rounded up to get those numbers, they aren’t approximate. Therefore, not all fats equal 9 kcals, not all proteins and carbohydrates equal 4 kcals.
We’re Not Robots
The process of figuring out how many calories are in food involves putting food inside a sealed unit known as a bomb calorimeter, burning food, and record the rise in water temperature surrounding the unit to determine the number of calories in the product (3, 4). The problem here is that humans aren’t bomb calorimeters. We are a little more complex, wouldn’t you say? We all don’t utilize energy with the same exact efficiency as each other. People have different health conditions, gut bacteria, levels of stress, sleep habits and amounts, and so forth affecting calorie usage.
Just because we eat a certain amount of calories doesn’t mean we use all the calories. This is especially true when considering what state the food is eaten in. This may vary when consuming raw food versus cooked food. The number of calories available for use varies. How efficient we utilize food varies depending on so many factors unlike a machine with no emotions, hormones, stress, or life, in general, to deal with.
It’s Not Realistic for Everyday Life
Counting calories is not a realistic thing to do for most people. It can be extremely tedious and time-consuming. Think about it, you’re out having dinner where the menu doesn’t have the number of calories your food has in it. What are you going to do? Pull out a bomb calorimeter and calculator on your phone, sit there and burn your meal up and do math to figure out how many calories it has in it. Then have no meal at all unless you order another one, raising your bill. You definitely don’t want to try the Wilbur Atwater method at that time, disgusting.
I’m joking, of course, you wouldn’t do that but realistically, sitting there staring and making some wild guess, over or underestimating the calories won’t help much, especially if you have no prior reference. Who wants to do math and plug numbers in formulas be they eat? Not very many I’m sure. Eating your meal shouldn’t be a pleasant experience, not a math test.
If you’re already struggling with what to eat, why add the burden of counting calories. Even if the restaurant has calories listed on the menu, it’s not accurate. There is no way they are making the food exactly the same down to the calorie every time. Go ahead and enjoy your meal, have a good time, and stop stressing.
Can Prevent You From Listening To Your Body
Counting calories can prevent you from being in tune with your body. Instead of listening to satiety and hunger cues, you’ll be thinking about numbers instead. One can become so obsessed with meeting the calorie goal that they may over or under-eat. This can be quite stressful mentally and physically. It can even lead to an eating disorder if not careful.
We are born with all these senses to send signals to our brain to relay messages to our body for a reason. If you feel full, stop eating and if you feel hungry, eat. Don’t eat based on some number that’s an estimation. Your body tells you a lot, all you have to do is pay attention and not ignore the signals it sends.
Again, it’s not all about calories, there may be nutrients your body needs instead of just calories. Yet, you continue to eat thinking you’re not getting enough calories. Health and wellness go beyond counting calories, the quality of the calories count as well. The body needs change as well, it may need more or less energy depending on the demands put on it or about to be put on it. It won’t be the exact same every day. A healthy body is self-regulating always aiming for a state of homeostasis, therefore it will adjust its needs as needed.
Now, hopefully, you have a greater understanding of why I don’t recommend calorie counting. I aim to make a lifestyle change in people that’s sustainable which calorie counting isn’t for the majority. Calorie counting works great for sports in which athletes are trying to peak at a certain time or in certain medical scenarios with patients. Besides those two things, forget calorie counting.
Current times call for people to get back in tune with their bodies. We already have worry and stress out enough in our lives, so scrap calorie counting. There are plenty of other ways to lose or gain weight rather than counting calories. Calorie counting is not a permanent solution and only yields temporary results. Establish a healthy relationship with food and enjoy it.
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