Is counting calories really the answer to weight loss? No. Here is the short answer to why you need to stop counting calories – because it’s just a number and that number doesn’t mean anything unless you know what’s behind it. It’s not a bad idea to keep in mind your calorie intake per day if you want to, but that’s not necessarily the path to losing weight or a healthy lifestyle (if this is your goal). The total number of calories is not as important as most people believe and it shouldn’t be used as an indication of how healthy the food is, unfortunately it’s not that simple. We have been brainwashed by the numerous TV adverts over the years which give us the impression that “fat-free” and “low-calorie” products are a healthier choice, well this is not necessarily true either.
What is a Calorie?
First, let’s make sure we all understand what calories really mean to us. In very simple terms, a calorie is a unit that is used to measure energy. The food we eat provides us with the energy we need to live and to function as an organism. Calories are our main source of energy, which our body uses to drive chemical reactions. They are not some bad, evil thingies that make us fat but that all depends on the quality of our food.
How are calories calculated on food labels?
So how are calories actually calculated on packaged food? The total calorie value is calculated by using the Atwater system. The method basically adds up all energy-containing nutrients, which are carbohydrates, proteins, fats and alcohol and multiplies each by an average value of Kcal/g to come up with the total number. The average values are 4 Kcal/g for protein, 4 Kcal/g for carbohydrate, 9 Kcal/g for fat and 7 Kcal/g for alcohol. Fibre is normally excluded from the carbohydrates as we don’t really utilise it. So to illustrate this with a simple example, if on the food label it says that the food contains 40 g carbohydrate, 10 g protein and 15 g fat, your total calorie value will be 335. So does the total number really matter that much if for example most of the nutrition of a product is made up of carbohydrates like sugar? The nutritional distribution could be completely different between two foods, even if they have the same total number of calories.
Counting Calories – do we have it all wrong?
The basic assumption we have been made to believe is that obesity is caused by high-calorie foods and weight-loss is achieved by eating less calories and choosing “lighter” foods. Is it really that simple? Are all foods the same? If we have two packaged foods, both 335 calories, does it mean that our body will react the same way to both of them? Of course not, different foods trigger different hormonal and chemical reactions in our system.
Our body needs good quality calories like protein, unrefined fats and unprocessed carbohydrates to have the energy it needs to function. Most packaged processed foods don’t provide us with these needed nutrients, they are made of empty calories, mostly consisting of processed carbs like sugars. Examples of such foods are pastries, bleached and highly processed sliced breads, ready-made packaged meals like Lasagna, breakfast cereals and so many more.
Doughnut vs Avocado
Let’s just have a look at one drastic example that will highlight why calories are not a factor when determining if a product is healthy or not. One Sainsbury’s Jam Doughnut has 220 calories, one medium avocado has 223. Both are high in fat and have the same calorie value but are they really the same? The fat in the doughnut is from refined, toxic vegetable oils whereas the avocado has natural monounsaturated and saturated fats that are a must in a healthy diet and shouldn’t be associated with weight gain. The avocado is a natural whole food, the doughnut is made up mostly of sugar. Even though they have the same number of calories, the nutritional value in the avocado is much greater than the doughnut.
The problem is that there are many other less obvious examples that consumers choose to have every day even when trying to buy “healthier” products.
“Jelly-Donut” photo by Evan-Amos.
Low calorie packaged foods = low energy & nutrition
Another problem that most people don’t realise is that eating low-calorie processed foods all day long is doing them a much greater harm than the opposite. Living on foods that don’t provide us with the needed nutrition and energy, make us crave more food and keep our appetite satisfied for a very short time. This forms something like a processed food circle.
Let’s say for example, for breakfast you have a low-fat cereal (but you don’t realise it’s actually very high in sugar) with your skimmed milk (low in energy). You start feeling a bit hungry before lunch time so you have a small snack (something “healthy”, like breakfast biscuits). You then decide to get lunch (but you are watching your weight) so you choose a low-calorie triangle whole wheat sandwich (which has no taste and barely has any whole wheat in it), how long before you feel hungry again?
The answer to this problem is to simply try to avoid processed food no matter how many calories it has and instead turn to fresh whole foods and soon the weight will be lost seamlessly. Just because it’s says on the package that a product is low-calorie, that does not mean it’s healthy. Look in more detail what is says on the label, what kind of ingredients are there in this food? Does it have any added sugar? What nutritional value does it have? Food is not simple and it can’t be defined with one number.
If you suffer from stubborn extra weight, try to plan your meals in advance and watch the size of your portions but don’t count the calories or starve. As long as you are eating real food in a balanced way, there is no need to count calories because they are all good calories!
If you are interested in reading more about what real food is, have a look at The real food guide that will help you become a smart consumer.