When you first look up how to lose weight you're going to see people go on about how it is a simple calculation of calories. It's all about calories in vs calories out. But honestly, how is that working out for you? Not great? Don't worry you aren't alone.
Yet people continue to count calories. They will pull out the latest calorie-tracking app, plugin whatever foods they've eaten, feel guilty when they have gone over their "recommended" amount, go to the gym and try to compensate for it. Honestly, it makes me feel exhausted just thinking about it.
While yes I do think there is value in recording the foods you've eaten to understand what you're consuming and offer accountability, I think it is such a waste of time to do it for every single calorie that passes your lips. Not only that but counting calories can be a real drag at best, and a dangerous practice at worst.
It is also important to note that weight loss is so much more than just nutrition. Which is why all my programs encompass exercise, sleep, stress and more!
What Is A Calorie?
If you are here, I'm guessing you have counted calories in the past, but do you know what a calorie actually is? A calorie is defined as the amount of heat energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by 1°C.
However we most commonly calories are described as the amount of energy your body gets from what you eat and drink, as well as how many calories are burned by performing a particular activity.
The last time I checked having energy is a good thing, however, so many of us have this diet mentality that makes us think calories are evil and something to avoid. But simply they are a unit of measurement.
My goal through this blog and my coaching is to raise awareness that what we eat represents so much more than just calories. Food is part of everyone's cultures, it is pleasurable, shareable and nourishing. But there are so many practical reasons why counting calories just doesn't work!
Why Calorie Counting Doesn't Work
Food labels are deceptive
Reading a food label is hard enough and confusing as it is. First of all serving sizes on the packaging often don't resemble how much we are actually going to eat. For example on a pack of chips, a serving might be 10-15 chips. But honestly who here will stop and only eat 10 chips? I know it would take me a hell of a lot of will power to do that. So instead of just looking at the calories per serving, you need to work out how many servings you would actually be having. And let me tell you right now, that relatively low-calorie snack is going to add up fast.
Now whilst it is super-inconvenient for you to go work out how many calories you will be eating if you have those chips there is another problem. In Canada, America, Australia and probably many other countries, there is a law that allows for a 20% variance for calories on nutrition labels. Let's be honest for a second, these food companies are not going to overestimate the number of calories, they are highly more likely to underestimate it. Don't believe me? Check out this, this and this study. It really does happen more than we would think.
20% isn't that much, on the one-off it happens, however, what happens if you were eating 20% more calories every single day without realising? No wonder you aren't losing weight.
Whilst on the subject of food labels, research suggests that when people see a label suggesting that something is low-fat and low calories, they tend to eat more of it! So yes it may be low fat or low calorie, but in the end, you could be eating just as many or maybe even more calories, than if you just ate the real deal.
Calorie counts are done on averages
Okay so we now know that food labels can be very deceptive, but what about foods that don't have labels? Most fruit and vegetables don't come with a nutrition label, so if you want to know their calories you will need to go to a database online. The problem here is that these too may be flawed. You need to either weight all your food or estimate what size portion you had. What on earth does a medium-sized apple even look like?
For even more bad news, even if you were able to look up every single food you put in your mouth, there is no guarantee that the medium apple numbers on the database would accurately describe your apple. They after all are just averages. Just some of the factors that could influence the nutrient composition are the soil, time of harvest, maturity and fertilization. The only way to accurately determine the calories in a specific food is to incinerate it in a calorimeter, which makes it pretty tough to then eat it.
Which brings me to another point, we just kind of suck at counting calories to lose weight! One study found that women underestimated their calorie intake by 13%, while the men only did slightly better at 11%. But it's not just the cories, we also aren't great a working our the number of serving we eat either. This study found most people believed they consumed fewer servings that they actually did eat.
We don't absorb all of the calories we consume
Alright, you have done your best to work out how many calories are in your meal from the ingredients you used now what? Well, what if I told you we don't actually absorb all of the calories we consume! I know this just got even more complicated. I will say scientists have tried coming up with a formula to work this out, but there is such a high percentage of error it really doesn't work. But to give you an example when you eat almonds you could be only absorbing 68% of the calories.
But did you chop, blend or cook your meal? Chances are you did, and guess what that can affect the number of calories you can absorb as well. For example, a raw potato on average is 101 calories, cook it and the number of calories that can be absorbed could go up to 193! That's a 91% increase.
Or you may have heard about the Sri Lankan undergraduate student who found a way to cut the calories of rice in half simply by adding coconut oil and letting it cool down before eating it. There is no easy way to know how cooking will affect the calories in the food you eat.
Now there is one more piece to the puzzle. Our own individual gut bacteria can increase or decrease the calories we absorb! One study found that people with a higher proportion of Firmicutes bacteria absorbed an average of 150 calories per day more than those with a higher proportion of Bacteroidetes.
Not all calories are created equally
When it came to managing weight we thought it was as simple as burning the same amount of calories as we consume each day. But just like inches, centimetres, pounds and kilograms, a calorie is a unit of measurement.
Therefore yes 100 calories will remain 100 calories whether it comes from an apple, chips or a cupcake. However, in terms of health new evidence suggests that the quality of food may trump quantity. This is because different foods contain different macros and micronutrients that play a big role in your health.
Not only that but studies have shown different foods tend to affect your metabolism, hormone levels, hunger, and appetite in different ways. For example, eating 100 calories of a sugary doughnut (just over half) will most likely not diminish your hunger as effectively as eating 100 calories from carrot sticks (2 cups). I know for me 2 cups of carrots sticks is definitely going to be more filling than half a doughnut... To be honest I don't even know if I would eat all 2 cups of carrot sticks after all that is a lot.
People also often try going low fat when trying to lose weight as fat (9 calories) has more calories than carbs (4 calories) and protein (4 calories). Which can make sense if you are ONLY looking at calories. However, research suggests that having fat in our diet can boost satiety, meaning it could help stop you from snacking on higher sugar and refined foods.
Calorie Counting Alternative
Alright if you are down this far still reading, then I am sure you realise how counting calories just doesn't work for weight loss. Even if you found a way to do it kind of accurately, who wants to do that for every little thing you eat. It just isn't sustainable. If you have been following me for a while you would know I am all about finding sustainable ways to help you lose weight.
So what should you do instead? Eat mindfully. This includes being mindful of the quality of the food we are eating, when we are eating, how often and really honing in on our built-in hunger and fullness cues.
Which I know is all easier said than done, which is why I have built a 5 Day Lean Up Challenge, all about how to start losing weight without counting calories! It's a big jump to go from calorie counting to intuitive eating, so we will go through how to make this transition easier and more flexible.
If you want to learn more about eating mindfully then be sure to check it out.