Why counting calories is not the best idea for weight management

One of the oldest ‘tricks’ in the book of weight management solutions is to keep track of your daily calorie intake — aka counting calories.

If you want to lose or maintain weight, you are expected to consume only a certain amount of calories each day, and you must burn more (calories out) than you eat (calories in). It’s simple math, right? But is calorie counting the best way to go about managing your weight? There have been mixed feelings about this method in recent years, and as the science of nutrition has changed, many health and wellness professionals are on the fence where calorie counting is concerned. Let’s examine some of the reasons this theory of ‘calories out/calories in’ is flawed and why it isn’t the best way to go about trying to manage weight or track burn during a workout.

What is a calorie?

Before going any further, let’s first explain what exactly is a calorie. A calorie is a unit of energy that we get from food, which is denoted by a common ‘c.’ This is actually the layman term for a kilocalorie, which is denoted by ‘kcal.’ We cannot talk about calories without talking about energy, which is the ability to do work. Our bodies require energy to perform; move, breathe and just to operate on a daily basis, which is why we eat food, which is our ‘fuel.’ For the average adult, 2,000 calories is recommended for his daily needs.

Research has indicated that the true calorie count of most, if not all, foods is often dramatically over — or understated by as much as 25 per cent. So it is fair to assume that calorie count is imprecise, to the point where two identical food items may not even contain the same number of calories. Let’s take into consideration a fruit: two apples of exact size and weight. The calories contained in each can still vary depending on the time they were harvested and the conditions under which they were grown (conventional versus organic farming practices.) One medium apple could have calories measured as low as 83 and as high as 116, or an average of 93 calories, so what is used is merely an average.

As the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) said in a statement: “Foods, being biological materials, exhibits variations in compositions; therefore a database cannot accurately predict the compositions of any given single sample of food.” We should also note that the method which was invented to count calories by Wilbur O. Atwater is the same method used for measuring total energy in objects. However, foods are not classified as objects, which leaves us to wonder.

Our bodies do not absorb all the calories consumed

Not all calories consumed are digested by the body, some pass through undigested and this varies depending on the makeup of macronutrients; carbohydrates, fats and protein. It is therefore insufficient to use as a general rule that all protein yields 4 kcal, all fats yield 9 kcal and all carbohydrates yield 4 kcal, because this formula does not hold true for nuts, seeds and fibre rich foods. The body absorbs fewer calories from nuts and seeds than what is actually calculated. Yet for years, scientist have used this standardized method to arrive at calorie counts that reflect what we absorb.

Focus on nutrients

I’ll often use examples to have you visualize me driving the point home. An average homemade smoothie with some fresh, leafy greens, mixed berries, almond milk and a tablespoon of flaxseed and chia seeds could contain as much as 200 calories — versus a diet soda with zero calories. Now, if we are focusing on a calories in/calories out approach, the logical thing to consume would be the zero calories diet soda. However, if we now take into consideration the antioxidant, anticancer and antiviral properties of the leafy greens and berries, as well as the overall micronutrient and phytonutrient benefits from that smoothie (plus the fact that is can be used as a meal), it is clear that the better choice is the smoothie. That zero calorie diet soda is laced with sugar, high fructose corn syrup and a host of artificial ingredients, plus it is lacking in nutrients and is highly acidic. This is a perfect example of why nutrients trump calories. It is important that we see food as more than calories, fuel or energy. Food becomes your thoughts, actions, hair, skin, nails and may also determine whether or not you’re aiding an ailment or preventing one.

How you prepare your food can also change the number of calories. Blending or chopping foods can increase calories absorbed. So even if we assume that total calories listed on food packaging are correct to the ‘t,’ the available energy changes for digestion and absorption.

Your fitness tracker is also inaccurate

Do you religiously track your workout with a fitness tracker? Be it the Apple watch, Fitbit, Nike Fuelband or another, to indicate how many calories you burn throughout the day? “Consumer fitness trackers calorie count are off by about 30% for total daily calorie expenditure. And for aerobic exercise, the devices show errors between 9% and 23%.” — Dr. John, Berardi, Cofounder of Nutrition Precision.

Science aside, I personally have put my Apple Watch and the Nike+ Running App to the test as ran on the treadmill. After a 22-minute run, I got three different calorie readings: Nike+ stated that I burned 212 calories, while the treadmill reading was 185 calories and the Apple Watch activity reading was 169 calories. If you have a fitness tracking device, I suggest you do the test yourself and note the outcome. Although they certainly have their uses, don’t obsess over their readings because these calorie result are all estimates.

Many factors contributes to how an individual burns calories, and these include genes, hormones, brown fat, rest and even weight history. A variation in one’s genes such as fat mass and obesity-associated protein (FTO genes) can result in one burning 150+ fewer calories daily. People with brown fat tissue containing more mitochondria, in colder environments, may burn up to 400 calories more per day than people without. Inadequate sleep in just one night may also decrease calories burned. Adaptive thermogenesis may cause an individual who has been overweight or obese to have a lower metabolic rate. In essence, some people will easily gain weight and find it hard to lose as their energy expenditure goes up significantly after overeating and they expend less energy when they eat less. Others may find it hard to gain weight and easy to lose it because their bodies adapt to overeating by firing up their metabolism.

Don’t be confused by the information you’re bombarded with, but learn the art of eating. That is, learn to eat better foods — foods without labels: plants and vegetables. Move you body as much as you can, stress less, and of course, get enough restorative sleep — a factor we often ignore. Things are never simple when it comes to our bodies. Various calories have varying impacts on our bodies; from the type of energy to the effects on hunger and even our hormones. Watching your calorie intake in important, but try not to obsess over it in your quest to lose or maintain weight.

You might ask, “If calorie counting is so imprecise, then how do I go about keeping track of what I eat?” Next week’s article will take a look at another alternative of portion sizing. Forget counting calories. There’s a better way to figure out how much food to eat at each meal.