By. Garrett Guzman
Today’s post is something I have wanted to discuss for a while. It’s something that is preached in society every day. It’s something that it believed as 100% truth without argument. It’s something that is so engrained in our being that it’s hard to ever understand any other truth. What is it that I am eluding to here? Per the title of this post, you may already have your guess. Well, I am here to say it, calories are BS!
Let’s begin by discussing what a calorie actually is. Ask 100 people what a calorie is and 99 of them won’t know. They may say it’s food, or it’s what we eat, or it’s what we burn, or you just need less of them. But what is a calorie? A calorie is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water one degrees Celsius. This definition doesn’t mean much to you, nor does it really even mean much to me. What we typically understand with regards to calories is that we eat them in the food that we consume, and we burn them in the activity that we engage. We know that certain foods contain more of them and certain activities burn more of them. We have been continually told that we need to eat less of them and burn more of them, and we will have optimal health and body weight. But what if I told you that this concept has countless flaws? Well . . . keep reading.
Flaw Number One: In Our Food.What if I told you that nearly all calorie labels are inaccurate? The FDA allows food companies extreme latitude in their food labelling. In fact, they can be “off” by as much as 20% in either direction, and still be acceptable by their standards. And restaurants are no better averaging nearly 20% variability (1). Further, when people attempt to track their calories, without the precise weighing of every morsel of food, they typically underestimate by 30% (1).
And what about the thermic effect of food (TEF), or sometimes also referred to as diet induced thermogenesis (DIT), which is not included in the calorie model? In laymen’s terms, it’s the increase in metabolic rate derived from eating certain foods, which is expressed as a percentage. Did you know that DIT for protein, and even alcohol, is between 10-30% (highest for protein), with fat and carbohydrate between 0-10% (2)? How do you possibly account for this factor?
And then we discuss actual absorption? Specifically, fiber-rich foods are the greatest challenges here (and we should all be including these fiber-rich foods from various fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds). With all varieties of nuts and seeds, we absorb fewer calories from them than calculated. With almonds, we only absorb 68% of calories; with walnuts, only 79%; you get the idea (3). And with fruits and vegetables, we often absorb more calories. With tomatoes, we absorb 17% more calories; with kale, 28% more calories; with cabbage, 21% more calories; with oranges, 12% more calories; and the list goes on (3). Now, how do you account for this little wrinkle?
What about preparation method? Who would have known that the way we prepare a certain food, whether raw, boiled, or grilled (among other cooking methods) would have an effect on the calories within that food? Did you know that a hard-boiled egg has 35% more calories than a raw egg? Did you know that grilling up that New York Strip increases the calories by 22% on average (and this depends on how well done you cook your steak)? Did you know that a baked potato has 91% more calories than a raw potato (3)? So, again, how will you account for this often-large deviation?
Finally, we must also realize that foods in their natural state always contain more living nutrients and enzymes than their processed version. Therefore, not only do these whole foods (meats, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds) often contain less calories outright, they also have a much higher TEF/DIT than processed foods.
Now, are you starting to understand the problem with counting calories?
Flaw Number Two: In Our Activity. It has become increasingly popular to track how many calories we are burning during activity and exercise. While well-intentioned, it leaves many people feeling that they must continually burn more and more calories, especially with regards to losing weight. Well, guess what? These activity trackers (and watches) are also wildly inaccurate. Without wearing a heart rate strap throughout the entirety of your day, and everyday thereafter (not recommending this; think worst rash of your life), you would have no way of accurately tracking your calories burned. And so, what if against my advice, you decide to wear a heart rate chest strap for the rest of your days (or at least during all activity/movement/exercise sessions)? At this point, you are validating that calories matter most. You would be making the decision that the only effective forms of exercise are those that burn the most calories. Additionally, would you be simply be accounting for those calories burned during the actual exercise, or also those burned after exercise (study EPOC for more on this topic). Big picture question here, but do the calories burned during an exercise session determine its effectiveness? With absolute certainty, I tell you this idea is 100% false; and unfortunately, entirely misleading to the betterment of our health and wellness.
Flaw Number Three: In the Concept. Calories in, calories out. If you want to lose weight, eat less and move more (and if you wanted to gain weight, eat more and move less; although seldom a desire). It’s just that simple, right? Wrong! If it weren’t enough already regarding all the topics discussed above with the caloric inaccuracies, there are many other reasons this calorie concept is flawed. For one, we are not considering the effect that certain foods (and their constituent macronutrients) have on our hormones. While this topic will be discussed in a future post, know that certain foods positively and negatively affect hormones, thus making them assist with or prevent weight loss. And beyond weight loss, certain foods positively or negatively affect health, which often have no correlation with the calories within those foods. While on the topic of hormones, when people set out to lose weight, they often follow the societal norm of eating less and moving more. While this may work for a short period, this concept will ultimately fail, and often at the expense of your delicate hormonal balance (especially in women). I have worked with thousands of people in their weight loss (and health improvement) endeavors, and one surefire way of setting them up for failure is to have them eat significantly less food and exercise significantly more. Follow me closely here. When we do this, we are creating a substantial caloric deficit, one which can challenge the functioning of many hormonal systems, most specifically the HPA Axis (hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal systems) leading to an array of undesirable health issues. And let me be very clear, when your hormonal system is not functioning optimally, you WILL NOT LOSE WEIGHT! Then, you will try to eat even less calories, and burn even more calories through exercise, and will worsen your hormonal balance further, thus making your weight loss efforts (and health) even worse.
This last piece of advice is truly the most important moral of this entire post. If you eat real food in the right amounts, you will feel better. If you are active daily in the right amounts, you will feel better. This is a far better indicator of health improvement (and be it consistent weight loss, if desired) beyond the calories you consume and the calories you burn.
1. Noel, Sebastien. All About Calories, Part 2: Top Ten Reasons Not to Count Calories. Retrieved from https://paleoleap.com/reasons-not-count-calories/
2. Westerterp, Klaas (2004). Diet induced thermogenesis. Nutr Metab (Lond), 1 (5).
3. Berardi, John. The Surprising Problem with Calorie Counting. Retrieved from https://www.precisionnutrition.com/problem-with-calorie-counting-calories-in