Should We Still Be Counting Calories?
I keep seeing an article about the calories in Easter candy pop up in my social feeds. Around Halloween, it’s the same article, except with Halloween candy.
The article bugs me because who gives a crap how many calories are in their Peeps? Seriously! Enjoy your Easter candy (or Halloween candy) once a year, and get over it. We don’t need to be reminded that candy is candy, thanks.
The article did get me thinking about calories and how much stock people put in them when really, it’s sort of a waste of time. Sure, calories matter, but should you be counting them?
Probably not. At least, not too closely.
This is why.
Are There Bad Calories?
A calorie is a calorie in terms of definition, and yes – lettuce and cupcakes have the same ‘type’ of calories. It’s helpful to have a rough estimate of which foods are higher in calories and which foods are lower in calories, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when we’re talking about the role of those foods and their calories in our bodies.
Calories have been used since the 1860s to calculate the energy in food. Since then we’ve assumed that all calories are created equal, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Calories do count, but not like you might think they do. The first rule of nutrition I learned in school was that 3500 calories equals a pound of body fat. Therefore, if a person eats 3500 calories over and above what they need in a day, they’ll gain one pound of weight. It was such a neatly packaged little rule that we all took to it immediately, and it was only recently that we’ve discovered that the rule is deeply flawed.
While the 3500-calorie rule assumes that all foods are equal in weight-gaindom, we’re now learning that that is far from the truth. In fact, not all foods are metabolized the same and we don’t absorb calories equally from different foods. For example, if you eat 3500 calories in Twinkies or 3500 calories in chicken breast, which do you think the body absorbs more calories from? I’ll give you a hint – it’s not the chicken breast, my friends.
Even though 2 foods may have equal calories, there are a few factors that affect how many calories in those foods you’re actually going to absorb. A recent study using almonds expands on the theory that the digestibility of the food greatly affects its caloric absorption. We used to think that an ounce of almonds had 160 calories. Now we understand that we only absorb about 120 of those calories due to the structure of the almond. Read about the study here.
It’s the same with potatoes. Poor potatoes have gotten such a raw deal, and even I admit that I used to tell people that white potatoes were ‘nutritionally void’. I take it back. Potatoes, when cooked and cooled, contain what we call ‘resistant starch’. That type of starch decreases the calories absorbed from 4 per gram to 2 per gram. Other foods like pasta and rice contain resistant starch, but again, they need to be cooked and cooled before eating to derive benefits from it.
Different people absorb calories differently. Our metabolisms, gut bacteria, and genetics are all factors in how many calories we absorb from food. So while you might be more efficient at absorbing calories (and therefore may put on weight easily), your friend might be the opposite.
This post wouldn’t be complete without a nod to whole vs processed foods. There is good research out there (and here) that proves that when a food is processed – cooked, chopped, blended – you’re absorbing more of the calories in that food.
Keep in mind that as usual, the least processed food is probably still the best choice versus ultra-processed food.
Packaged foods have a very large margin of error in their calorie counts
We’d like to think that nutrition labels have accurate numbers, but in reality, the FDA allows a 20 percent deviation in calories from what is listed on the label. If you’re counting calories, that’s a fair amount. A study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that label accuracy was variable at best. And food labelling in restaurants? Probably not very accurate. With different people making the food, counts likely deviate significantly from what’s listed on the menu, and from one chef to the other.
In terms of weight loss, the more you lose, the less you need.
A lot has been written on the premise that if you create a 500-calorie deficit on a daily basis, that will equal a 3500-calorie deficit at the end of the week, and therefore a pound lost. Wrong! Sorry! That’s not how your body works –at least not in the long term.
Let’s say you start on a diet, and you create a 500-calorie deficit. All goes well, and you start losing weight. You’re happy, your jeans are loose, and you’re thinking that this is super easy. Then, you stop losing weight. All of a sudden, you’re minding your own business, doing the 500-calorie a day deficit thing, but you’ve plateaued. The weight starts creeping back on. How frustrating! This is the nature of diets, and do you know why this happens? Because 3500 calories in a pound ends up being a soul-sucking weight-loss vortex. As you lose weight, your metabolic rate slows and your caloric needs decrease.
If you were losing weight by eating, say, 1400 calories a day, soon you’dl need 1300 to keep losing. Then 1200. Then 900. Gulp…then you’d be at your breaking point of extreme hunger and too little food. Diets don’t work and neither does 3500 calories in a pound!
Counting calories distracts us from what we’re eating.
We don’t eat calories, we eat food. Counting calories can distract us from our hunger: “I’ve eaten too many calories today and I’m still hungry, so I’m not going to eat any more”; it can take away from the pleasure of food: “this food has so many calories, I shouldn’t be eating it”; and it can cause us to eat more: “my tracking app says I have more calories to spend, but I’m not hungry. I might as well eat something anyhow.”
Wouldn’t you rather be aware, but not hyper-aware of what you’re eating? Yeah, me too.
So do calories matter at all? They still do, but as I say, quality of food, not calories, is what really matters. Calories consumed in excess will cause you to gain weight, and believing that all calories are treated the same by are bodies and are metabolized equally is incorrect.
Instead of counting calories, count the quality of the food that you put into your mouth. 100 calorie Thinsations seem ‘healthy’ and fit into your diet, but you are most likely absorbing them differently (and not that good kind of different) than an apple. Take the focus off of counting, and realize that when you count every single calorie that you eat, you’re probably coming up with a hugely erroneous number at the end of the day, either positively or negatively.
Concentrate on your hunger and fullness cues. Really take the time to enjoy the food you eat. Nourish your body with food that’s as high-quality as you can afford. That’s what nutrition – and a healthy diet – should be about.