Why counting calories may be a waste of time
I am excited today to share a guest post on my blog with you all. With his permission I am publishing in its entirety an article by Paul Jenkins (CEO and founder of DNA Lean) titled “Calories: 7 scientific facts why calorie counting is inaccurate”. I have talked about why calorie counting may not be worth the effort in my prior posts on A Calorie is (Not) a Calorie and An easier way to calculate food portions, and this article adds some very worthwhile reinforcement to those previous articles.
The original article contains a nice infographic as well and I have linked back to it at the bottom of the post so you can also view the infographic if you like a visual synopsis. Also at the bottom of this post I have embedded a video presentation by Jonathan Bailor titled “The Calorie Myth & 6 Reasons Calorie Counting is Crazy” – the video is about an hour and twenty minutes but it is well worth the investment in time and I guarantee you will think differently after watching it.
Also, be sure to read my summary after the guest post as I have some information linked there which I think you will find highly beneficial to you if you need help with your weight management. I promise it is worth the wait, and reading the guest post first will prime you for the information which I link to.
DNA-Lean is an athletic dietary supplement company, and I have not reviewed their product line in depth. I leave that review to you the reader to conduct before deciding whether to purchase any of their products. So, without further discussion, here is the guest post:
Calories: 7 scientific facts why calorie counting is inaccurate
The purpose of this blog is to separate the calorie myths from the calorie facts. Now I wish to make one thing perfectly clear, especially for all the calorie nuts – fundamentally weight gain or loss is an overall product of calorie intake vs expenditure. An imbalance either side of the equation will result in either gain or loss. This is basic mathematics. Nevertheless weight loss, and especially fat loss, is NOT a simple “calorie equation”, and cannot be calculated in a precise manner using calorie metrics.
I will now put forward 7 common calorie myths and demonstrate how and why calorie counting is inaccurate.
Here are seven scientific facts that prove calorie counting is inaccurate:
- Restricting calories decreases resting metabolic rate.
- Digesting food requires energy.
- Some calories cause disease more than others.
- Not all calories are equal.
- Food labels are at least 10% inaccurate.
- Not all calories are utilized.
- Not all foods are equal.
So lets talk about these points in more detail…
Calorie mythology and weight loss
Calorie counting for weight loss is is one of the most common nutrition myths! If it were truly that simple, anyone with a calculator could become a weight loss coach, and there would be hardly any overweight people.
Now let me point out that “weight loss” is rather a generic term. Weight loss covers losing mass from any of the following; water, body fat, muscle tissue, glycogen, bone mass, organ mass etc. Weight loss literally means that you simply lost “weight”. This is absolutely not a measure of fat loss.
Targeted weight loss using a weight loss nutrition plan should specifically aim to reduce excess body fat stores rather than just losing mass from other tissues and areas. The most common approach to try and burn fat is to reduce caloric intake, and/or supplement with a thermogenic fat burner such as DNA Lean Thermo-XY. While the use of fat burning supplements can be effective, merely restricting calories is not specific enough to target the right kind of weight loss.
For an individual whose energy balance, and thus body weight is maintained, consuming three thousand calories daily, reducing daily caloric intake by five hundred calories will lead to a weekly deficit of three thousand five hundred calories.
1 gram of fat = 9 calories
3500 (calorific deficit) / 9 = 388 grams of pure fat.
Three hundred and eighty eight grams of dehydrated fat would equate to around one pound of actual body fat; body fat is around fifteen percent water. Therefore reducing daily calorific intake by five hundred calories should in theory lead to around one pound of fat loss per week. While on paper this may look good, in practice science shows this to inaccurate.
A calorie defined
A calorie is purely and simply a measure of heat energy. The actual word calorie, is derived from the Latin word – Calor; meaning heat. The unfaithful calorie was first defined by French chemist Professor Nicolas Clément in 1824. Professor Clement, who at that time was heavily involved in industrial chemistry research for powering steam engines, wanted to calculate the maximum amount of energy that one kilogram of coal could provide. Clement’s research led him onto the path to becoming the first person to create a standard definition of a calorie; the heat energy required to increase one kilogram of water by one degree C. Since then other standards have been defined such as the joule-calorie.
A calorie is an absolute measure of how much heat energy a foodstuff, or anything else for that matter, actually contains. It does not provide any information or metrics regarding its effects on metabolism, nutrient absorption or how a calorie is likely to affect overall health. Ergo all calories are not equal.
Outdated calorie science
Since 1824 this outdated and inaccurate calorie science has worked its way into our food labeling, food science and even our educational system. We are constantly taught that obesity is a cause of eating too much and exercising too little. Eat the right caloric energy balance and you will lose weight. It is bamboozling how we are still using knowledge and information from science that is almost two hundred years old. Modern science clearly shows that it is impossible, at this time anyway, to accurately calculate calories and “energy balance”.
Calories in vs calories out – the myths
One of the most prolific diets of recent times is the Atkins diet. The famous Dr. Atkins noticed that he could eat huge amounts of foods that contained just proteins or fats and actually lose weight. For a short while this stumped many nutritionists and scientists and became a calorie conundrum; how was it possible to lose weight while consuming extra calories?
The answer was found in the difference in metabolic and hormonal responses from following a diet with no sugar and carbohydrates. Eating no carbs minimizes insulin levels and also requires extra energy (calories) to metabolize proteins into glucose (Gluconeogenesis) which can contribute to a calorie deficit and thus weight loss.
Here’s an in-depth look at why calorie counting is inaccurate:
1. Restricting calories can slow metabolic function
Data from various studies show that calorie restriction can actually lower resting metabolic rate (RMR) and thus preserve body weight. In order to counter a reduction in RMR you’d have to reduce food and calorie intake even further, which would probably lead to a further reduction in RMR. One study in particular showed that the effect of calorie restriction on resting metabolic rate actually decreases RMR.
2. Digesting food requires energy (thermic effect of food)
The thermic effect of food is defined as the energy required to digest food stuffs, which is typically estimated at around ten percent of total caloric intake. Certain foods such a green cruciferous vegetables are so calorie rare, that the energy required to digest them vs. the energy they provide is often minimal. However it is appropriate to note that there are NO NEGATIVE calorie foods. If this were truly the case, a person eating only “negative calorie” foods, for a long enough period, could risk death from starvation.
Protein actually has a greater metabolic energy demand (Thermic effect) than carbohydrates or fats, in fact the following study showed that postprandial thermogenesis increased 100% on a high-protein, low-fat diet versus a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet.
The bottom line is “calories in” play a significant role in determining the the actual “calories out”. Hence calorie counting for weight management and improving body composition is only part of the equation.
3. Some calories cause disease more than others
A calorie is in no way a measure of health, some calories can increase health while others can cause disease. For example, calories from trans fats have a very detrimental effect upon health and have been directly linked to heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Furthermore the human body is in complete polarity from a bomb calorimeter as it readily recognizes where calories come from.
4. Calories are equal – MYTH
A Calorie from a protein, carbohydrate or fat each affect the metabolism in a different manner. One study in particular, showed that two weeks of snacking based on peanuts does not cause the same negative metabolic effects as an isocaloric diet in which the snacking is based on short acting carbohydrates in the form of candy in non-obese healthy subjects.
Sugar and Diabetes
EPIC-interact is a European community funded scientific project that researches and investigates how genes and lifestyle interact to lead to diabetes. EPIC-interact performed studies that show a direct correlation between diabetes and sugar consumption. The data from their studies indicated that for every extra one hundred and fifty calories a person consumed only increased diabetes prevalence by 0.1%, but if those one hundred and fifty calories were from a can of soda (a sugar sweetened beverage), diabetes prevalence increased eleven-fold, by 1.1%. All calories are not equal.
5. Food labels are proven to be inaccurate.
Studies show that calorie metrics on food labels are at around ninety percent accurate. Thus assuming for a ten percent error margin, an average person eating around a million calories per year, could possibly over eat one hundred thousand calories per year! The average person does not gain thirty pounds or so of weight each year.
A particular study published by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, found that the Accuracy of Stated Energy Contents of Reduced-Energy, Commercially Prepared Foods were between 8-18% inaccurate of the stated label claim
6. Not all calories are absorbed
All nutrients and calories are broken down by the digestive system. Digestion is a continual cyclic mechansim of catabolic processes to enable nutrient absorption while eliminating left over waste product.
Digestion is far too complex a process to be accurately measured in caloric numbers. It is generally recognized that proteins, carbohydrates, fats and fiber each have 4,4,9 and 2 calories per gram respectively. However there is no food label metric that accurately specifies how much of each calorie is actually extracted or likely to be extracted. Even if food labels were proven to be 100% accurate, the actual calories utilized could significantly vary from those numbers presented on the label.
There are many and various factors that influence and affect foodstuffs and calories being absorbed. Here are a few:
- Certain foods require more energy to digest than others
- Raw food vs cooked food
- Gut bacteria/health
- Nutrients work in synergy
Some foods don’t digest
Calories from sweet corn go largely unused with most of the corn passing straight through the human digestive system. The food label on a can of sweet corn certainly does not account for this. Vegetables vary in digestibility and so do their constituent parts. For example, the leaves of some plants may be more readily digested than the stems. It is impossible to escape these differences, even in the same species of plant. The cell walls in younger plants tend to be more pliable than those in older plants and are therefore easier to digest.
Raw foods provide less calories
As a rule of thumb, raw foods require more energy to digest, and the nutrients contained in them are less accessible. Thus meaning an isocaloric diet comprising of the exact same foods: raw vs cooked, would vary in calorie absorption. Essentially the cooked food diet would result in a higher calorie intake.
Starchy carbohydrates such as those found in potatoes, are mostly comprised of amylopectin and amylose. In their raw and uncooked state, amylopectin and amylose molecules are tightly packed and are virtually inaccessible to digestive enzymes.
The heat energy from cooking “gelatinises” these starches, opening up the molecular structures and enabling digestive enzymes to readily break them down for absorption. Cooked starches therefore yield more calories and energy than raw starches.
Gut health affects calorie absorption
Gut health can also affect calorie and nutrient absorption. A digestive tract in optimal health can readily absorb foodstuffs and nutrients. Anyone who suffers from leaky gut syndrome, celiac disease, or just has below optimal gut health will not absorb nutrients no where near as readily and as efficiently.
Nutrients work in synergy
Some nutrients work in synergy and thereby enhance the absorption of other nutrients. However this is also true in the opposite; some nutrients prevent other nutrients from being utilized and thus become unused and left over as waste product.
7. Not all foods are equal
There are many factors that affect nutrient content and overall food quality. These variables give rise to a vast difference between foods of the same type. Factors such as time of season, soil quality and other environmental variables all contribute to the nutrient content of foods. Thus all foods are not equal and foods even of the same type can vary in nutrient content and quality.
For example lets compare wild salmon vs. farmed salmon. Salmon is a well known oily fish, however this is only due to its natural diet. Wild salmon feed on shrimp and krill which are naturally high in omega three oils. These shrimp and krill not only provide the salmon with a high count of omega three oils but they also contain a compound called astaxanthin which gives them their orange color. Farmed salmon on the other hand are fed on man made food pellets made from a mish mash of feed including a mixture of smaller fish such as whitebait and herring, GMO soy beans, yeast and chicken feathers. Artificial colorings are then further added to these food pellets in an effort to replicate the natural orange color of wild salmon. You are what you eat; nutrients are passed down the food chain. A wild salmon is nutritionally superior to a farmed salmon and do not be fooled into thinking that eating a farmed salmon is as good!
If calorie counting is inaccurate – do you need to count calories to lose weight?
Current and modern science teaches us that counting calories is not important and that we don’t really need to actively count our daily caloric intake nor try to manage our energy balance in order to lose weight. If counting calories were necessary it would also logically follow that we should monitor our consumption of other such nutrients that are essential to life.
For example humans would need systems in place to measure and monitor input and output of essential minerals and vitamins. When was the last time you measured your intake of vitamin B1 vs. your output of vitamin B1? The human body has a series of complex inbuilt mechanisms and feedback systems for managing itself, including its intake of calories and other essential nutrients.
In order to manage your weight it is important to track macronutrient intake, eat nutrient dense whole foods (not processed) and eat regularly. Keep it simple, it’s not rocket science!!
Best plan of action for fat loss: 3 hacks that ACTUALLY lose weight
1. Track macronutrient intake
Don’t just count macronutrients, MAKE THEM COUNT! If it fits your macro’s (IIFYM) style dieting is a crude approach to nutrition and does not generally take into account nutrient profiling and health. Having a daily calorie goal and eating whatever you can as long it fits into your allowed calorie intake is a lazy approach to nutrition. This method allows one to regularly eat pizzas, burgers, ice cream and any old junk.
2. Eat nutrient dense whole foods
Eating any old junk as long as it fits a calorie allowance, will NOT improve your health, visceral fat, or your physique. Far more benefit can be reaped from measuring macronutrient intake and prioritizing nutrient quality rather than squandering time and energy trying to count calories.
Restricting calories can restrict healthy nutrients
Some foods are more nutrient and calorie dense than others, for example, per gram almonds are high in calories and typically contain around 600 calories per one hundred grams. Calorie restricted diets that focus only on total daily caloric intake will often skip such nutrient dense foods. This type of approach does not take into consideration the healthy benefits of different foods and the essential nutrients they may contain that are vital to maintaining optimal health. Almonds for example, while being calorie packed, are a great source of essential fats, protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals.
3. Have regular meals
Eating frequently is also of significant importance. Regular meals increase metabolic rate and function while eating less often and sporadically slows metabolic rate and function. A higher metabolic rate burns more calories and energy, and as you would expect, a slower metabolic rate burns fewer calories and energy.
Quality over quantity
As a rule of thumb it is more important to eat a balanced variety of nutrient dense foods rather than counting generic calories. More importantly, eat organic non-gmo plant based foods such as root vegetables, regular vegetables, fresh fruits and nuts and seeds. It is particularly beneficial to include the holy trinity of fruits and vegetables; Avocado, Spinach and Kale. These are known anti-cancer foods that help alkalize the body and are most definitely packed full of healthy micro-nutrients.
Foods from these groups are all nutrient dense and contain a variety of essential minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and other beneficial phytonutrients. Eating this way will not only keep you in good health but will also help support a healthy body fat level including lower visceral fat. Further steps can be taken to stimulate metabolic rate to such as using high quality thermogenic fat burning supplements.
Ultimately calories refer to food consumption as there are no “calorie free” or “negative calorie” foods. Eat too much food and you will gain weight. It is therefore ignorant to say that calories don’t count; you cannot escape over eating. Needless to say you can’t accurately count calories. Food labels are proven to be inaccurate and calories in directly affect calorie expenditure (calories out). Furthermore, as discussed, there are other factors that are significantly more important than overall caloric intake for maintaining health and weight. These factors more specifically help determine fat loss/gain, overall body composition and health.
Thanks for reading everyone, I hope you found this blog useful. Please leave your comments below – I would love to hear from you all.
Article by Paul Jenkins CEO and founder of DNA Lean®
Quite the article! I hope you find it useful and it brings some much needed perspective to the role of calories in your weight management protocol. The infographic which accompanies the original article can be found on the original blog post at the link right below.
The whole concept of energy balance is crucial to weight / fat loss – you must achieve negative energy balance or you will not see the results you desire. However, energy balance within a dynamic system such as our human bodies is way more complicated than just a simple math equation of calories in and calories out – even if either one could be calculated accurately, which they cannot.
In a previous post titled Precision Nutrition – The Energy Balance Equation I go into some of the complexities and link to the featured PN article, which is outstanding information. As a trained PN Level 1 coach I can confidently say that following the guidance freely available on PN’s website will be hugely beneficial to any weight management effort.
Check out all the resources linked in this post, and you will be in much better condition to get and keep that healthy weight for life.