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Should You Be Counting Calories?

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What is a calorie? Have you asked yourself this? At the very least, we know that having too many calories, and not enough exercise or movement is BAD. What is this unit of measurement, though, and why do we think counting them is going to be the answer to our fat-loss frustrations? Should YOU be doing it?


A “calorie” is a unit involved in measuring heat. We must clarify though, that there are actually TWO kinds of “calories”. Large calories are known as Cal/Kcal, and small calories are known as simply, cal. Large calories (the ones on the back of labels and the ones we care so much about) are a measure of the heat needed to increase the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree celsius. Small calories are a measure of the heat needed to increase the temperature of one gram of water by one degree celsius. Basically, 1 large calorie is equal to 1,000 small calories…sort of the way 1 kilometer is equal to 1,000 meters!


That information is not quite as important as what follows- but it is important to acknowledge it and understand that when we talk about calories we eat- we are usually speaking in terms of LARGE calories, or Kcals. We use this calorie system to basically measure the energy within food. It is done by basically burning food and seeing how hot it gets! Crazy, huh?


Having a general idea of how much energy contained in food is good, and necessary in fact for consumer knowledge, and for attempts at measurements. That said, human beings are not machines, thus the energy in food measured in a lab is highly unlikely to be the same energy WE will get from eating it. There are other factors at play that determine what we actually get from food, changing those calories and making it near impossible to actually KNOW what’s getting utilized as energy.


We can make assumptions on how many calories go IN, but what about what gets absorbed and utilized? Did you know that it actually takes energy to digest food? You burn calories you eat, by eating! Not only that, but some foods require more energy or “thermic effect” than others. For instance- protein takes a lot of energy to digest, as opposed to carbohydrates. This is one reason why protein is such an important macronutrient for weight loss. It is filling AND takes energy to digest. Additionally, if our gut health is compromised, then our absorption of nutrients is compromised. Think of it this way: If you are in a classroom but you’re really sick- do you think you’ll retain or absorb much information that’s being taught? The same goes for a sick gut. If your gut is unhealthy, it can’t focus on the function of absorbing food. Hence why some people can’t lose weight even if they eat less or eat really healthy. These are just a few of the physiological occurrences that can manipulate what calorie content from food actually means for us.


Not only does our body not get the same amount of energy (calories) from food as is measured in a lab, some data is simply inaccurate relative to what is labeled on food! Measurements can be performed poorly, food labels can be outdated, and not every product is exactly the same. The way we cook food can often have an effect on what we get out of it, and of course, the way an animal lives affects energy as well. This applies to produce of course, too. Eating out of season fruits and vegetables will not yield the same vitamins and minerals as eating in season.


Based on this information, does it not seem a wasted effort to try to figure out how many calories you need based on: how much your body burns at rest, how much you burn during exercise, how much your body burns while digesting, when in reality we have no REAL WAY to calculate how much energy we are actually GETTING from the food we eat?


Not only is calorie counting VERY inaccurate- it seems that in my experience with clients, it had the worst track record for compliance I have ever seen. I have yet to meet someone who wants to weigh their food and count their calories for extended periods of time. It might last a few weeks or a month at best, but then people fall off, and when people fall of nutrition- other things typically come undone as well. Don’t get me wrong- there are people with highly specific goals who will do what it takes to get where they want to be…but that is 1% of the population. For the rest of us, there HAS to be better ways of managing food portions, energy balance, and peace of mind when it comes to a nutrition plan we can stick to. It is my hunch then, that 99% of the population need not waste time on calculations and measuring. What we need is good practice of food hygiene, and balanced nutrient intake that is in alignment with our daily energy NEEDS and GOALS. No- you probably should NOT be counting calories…

Lucky for you guys, I am hosting a nutrition “workshop” on Saturday, June 3rd at 10:15am. Join me to learn more, and for a discussion on what a sustainable nutrition plan might look like for you! Click here to register for the FREE event or email