Some people swear by calorie counting as a way of losing weight or gaining weight. Most people calorie count to try and lose body fat. However, to lose body fat there are specific foods you should eat, foods you should avoid and activities you should do. When it comes to gaining weight (more specifically for people at the gym trying to put on muscle), people are less concerned with counting calories since it’s much easier to overeat calories.
Why Calorie Counting Is Stupid
Energy In vs Energy Out
The reason lots of people believe calorie counting is the best and most simple way to lose fat is due to the first law of thermodynamics, the law of conservation of energy.
The law of conservation of energy states that the total energy of an isolated system is constant; energy can be transformed from one form to another, but can be neither created nor destroyed.
Based on this, one would assume that since our body stores food as energy in the form of fat, we would need to expend more energy through metabolic processes than we intake through food in order to lose fat.
However, whilst this law is very real and is applicable to the world around us, it simply doesn’t apply to the goal of human fat loss. Your body is more than just a calculator which ‘counts calories’. Do you think your body counts calories that come into your body? I don’t, and I’d be very surprised if it did.
There are many biochemical hormone-mediated pathways which control whether you burn or store fat and whether the weight you lose is due to muscle or fat. For example, in one study, calorie-restricted people with 5.5 hours of sleep a night decreased the proportion of weight lost as fat by 55% compared to the group of calorie-restricted people sleeping 8.5 hours a night.
Calorie Counts Are Estimated And Rounded
Many calorie values you see on labels are estimated and rounded. This is what has been widely accepted is seen on labelling:
- 1g protein = 4 calories
- 1g carbohydrate = 4 calories
- 1g fat = 9 calories
The problem is they are estimated and rounded. In fact, not all carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram. For that reason, whenever you count calories you’re going to be calculating a wrong figure. Here are the real figures you might want to be aware of.
- Sugars = 4 – 4.2 calories per gram
- Starch = 4.4 calories per gram
- Soluble fibre = 2 – 2.5 calories per gram
- Insoluble fibre = less than 1 calorie per gram
- Protein = 4.25 calories per gram
- Polyunsaturated oil fats = 9.1 – 9.2 calories per gram
- Animal fats = 6.5 – 8 calories per gram
- Cocoa butter (pure saturated plant fat) = 5.5 calories per gram
As you can see the figures we’re given are widely off the real figures for how many calories certain food molecules contain. When you add all these up, it’s very easy to underestimate how many calories you’ve eaten or overestimate if you consume lots of animal fats. If I were you, I wouldn’t bother trying to put these figures into a calculator – I just don’t think it’s worth it.
Your Body Doesn’t Just ‘Burn’ Calories
Your body isn’t an oven which just burns the food which you ingest. We metabolise the molecules of food products to produce ATP and other molecules essential for metabolic function.
Carbohydrates are used solely for energy – they aren’t used to build any cell or structure within the body so any carbohydrates you eat are going to largely contribute to your total caloric intake. These will either be ‘burned’ for energy or stored as fat.
Now let’s look at protein. When you eat a juicy beef burger, does all that protein get ‘burned’ for energy? Not really. In most cases, little protein is actually burned for energy. These proteins are broken down into their constituent amino acids which are then reconstructed by the body to be used in cells all around the body such as in enzymes, tissues, muscle, skin, hair, blood, bone and more. Most protein is used for growth and repair so does it really count as ‘calories’?
A similar concept applies to fat. Is all the fat you eat ‘burned’ as fuel or stored as energy? Not at all. Fat is used to repair cell membranes throughout your body, make bile acids, make myelin sheaths, make hormone and many more molecules. So how many calories of fat are actually metabolised or used? I don’t know, but you can’t calculate it easily.
And then come the other variables. How much protein or fat will your body need to use? How well did you sleep last night? How about last week? Have you been training intensively? Are you injured? Does your body need to direct more resources to the growth and repair of muscle cells? How stressed are you?
This will all vary the amount of fat and protein your body uses on a day to day basis to synthesise hormones and other molecules your body requires.
Food Product Labels Aren’t Always Accurate
Labels on food products aren’t always accurate. They can be off by up to 20%. If a food manufacturer can decrease the calorie value on their label to convince you it’s a better product to consume to lose weight, they’ll do just that.
Let’s take a look at an apple and the variables which could change the caloric value of an apple:
- Species of apple?
- Weight of an apple?
- How long the apple has been on the shelf?
- How ripe is the apple?
- When was the apple picked?
These all affect the percentage of starch and sugar within the apple, altering the caloric value of the apple. It’s pretty much impossible to know and this means every single piece of fruit, vegetable and meat will have a different caloric value.
It Uses Up A Lot Of Time
Extending on the points made above, calorie counting makes you think you are doing something which has a meaningful effect on your health, but this isn’t the case. Instead, you’re using up valuable time counting calories and you’re stressing about how much calories are in each piece of food you are eating which is not conducive to living healthily. For most people, they haven’t lost any fat by the end of it, or they quickly put it back on after. The result? Calorie counting was essentially meaningless.
If you need to track arbitrary figures to keep your weight stable or to lose fat, then I think you’re doing it wrong and need to embrace another holistic approach which encompasses how your body feels rather than lots of number on the back of food products.
My Thoughts On Calorie Counting
Sometimes I certainly think it can be useful to look at the labels on the back of the packaging of food products to get a rough idea of how many calories are in a product, but I don’t think it’s wise to try and make sure you stick to 2,000 calories a day or any other number. You could easily end up eating more of a particular food by accident, some high-calorie sauce could have been consumed which you were unaware of and it’s inherently a stressful process having to track the calories in your food instead of focusing on enjoying the food in front of you.
That said, I can acknowledge that calorie counting a useful strategy for some when trying to manage weight since it can give them a rough idea of how much energy they’re intaking, but it’s a rough estimate. If you feel it works for you, isn’t too time-consuming and it’s worth doing then, by all means, go ahead. Do what works for you.
I personally like to look at food labels to get an estimate as to how many calories I’m consuming and from what nutrients and sometimes use that as a bit of a guide to know when I’ve eaten enough for the day provided my stomach is also satisfied.
If you want to be able to truly break free of calorie counting and listen to your body’s satiety cues I think you need to follow a low-carb or ketogenic diet (which is either vegetable or meat-based with ideally a mix of both types of foods.
Thanks for reading, if you found this post useful I’d appreciate it if you shared this information with others!
Further Reading: 8 Ways To Eliminate Sugar Cravings