For decades, the recommended way to lose weight was by counting calories. Popular weight loss programs required weighing and measuring your food. Even today, there are numerous tracking apps where you count your calories and keep track of how much you’re eating.
However, does counting calories guarantee you’ll lose weight? Are all calories the same?
Many more recent diets like Paleo and Keto don’t use calorie counting at all. Instead, they stress low carb and whole, nutritious food over processed food.
While some nutrition experts still believe that keeping track of calories in and calories out (through exercise) is still the only way to lose weight, others suggest that calorie counting may contribute to weight gain.
The basic math of intaking fewer calories than you burn in a day holds true, but is calorie counting the way to get there?
What Exactly Is A Calorie?
Calories are the amount of energy your body gets from food, and also the energy it uses during the day like walking, breathing, exercising, sleeping.
Scientifically speaking, a calorie is a unit of measurement. It measures energy. The original definition of a calorie was the amount of energy, or heat, required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius.
There are two types of calories. What we think of a calorie in food is actually a kilocalorie. A kilocalorie equals 1000 calories, and the word Calorie has come to mean a kilocalorie. If a can of soda says it contains 200 calories, it’s really 200 kilocalories, or 200,000 calories.
Calories Are Not All Created Equally
Not all calories are the same. The amount of energy you receive from simple carbohydrates or sugar is different than you get from protein or fat. Your body expends energy differently for nutrient-dense foods compared to highly processed foods and sugar.
Macronutrient Calories per Gram of Food
- Fat = 9 calories per gram
- Protein = 4 calories per gram
- Carbohydrates (sugar, grains) = 4 calories per gram
- Alcohol = 7 calories per gram
What about vegetables? Most vegetables contain a varied amount of carbs, protein, and fats, so their calorie content varies as well.
Non-starchy vegetables with higher water content like celery or cucumbers contain about 20 calories per 100 grams. Starchy vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes range between 40 and 86 calories per 100 grams (which is about a half a cup).
For example, a stalk of celery only has about 7 calories, and a cup of steamed broccoli is around 31 calories.
Compare that to a slice of whole wheat bread with the fiber and germ intact which contains around 69 calories while its white bread counter is 79 calories.
Fruits contain sugar, so their calorie count is higher, but like vegetables, part of their calories comes from fiber which cuts down the actual calorie absorption.
A half-cup of sliced strawberries is about 25 calories and an average-sized red apple is 95 calories.
While whole foods and processed sugary foods may contain the same calories, whole foods contain nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Simple carbohydrates turn immediately into sugar and your body doesn’t have to work hard at all to process them, so it doesn’t use as much energy as whole foods like whole grains and vegetables. The calorie count may be the same, but you’ll burn more calories with whole, nutritious food.
How Does Calorie Counting Cause Weight Gain?
The premise of calorie counting is that you calculate how many calories you need per day based on your body weight. For women, it’s usually around 2000 calories per day.
To lose weight, you must have a calorie deficit, meaning that you take in less calories than your body uses. For most women that would be around 1500 calories per day.
In typical calorie counting, it doesn’t take into effect the type of calories you’re consuming. As long as you stay within your calorie allowance per day, you can basically eat anything you want, including sweets and processed foods.
In fact, it’s easier to calculate calories from processed foods that come in a box or frozen food section because the nutrition label specifies how many calories the food contains but we already know that calories are not equal from vegetables or whole foods versus processed foods. Additionally, food that contains a lot of empty carbs and sugar won’t keep us feeling full like whole foods will, so you’ll probably end up eating more.
Calorie counting also puts your focus on food which isn’t a great idea if you’re constantly thinking about what you can eat or justifying eating bad food because it’s within your calorie allowance.
If you’re eating primarily processed foods, you’re probably not getting enough nutrients. Because your body needs nutrients, you will crave food, even if you’re not hungry. The hormone Leptin, the hunger hormone, signals your brain when it’s full, telling you to stop eating, but too much sugary food and simple carbs can disrupt those signals to your brain causing you to overeat.
What’s the Alternative to Counting Calories?
If you eat a diet primarily of lean meat, healthy fats, whole grains and fruit, and lots of vegetable, calorie counting isn’t necessary. Portion control is a much better option and is a lot easier to do than counting each calorie which may be inaccurate at best.
Most plates are too large. Most restaurant portions are too large. We live in a world where “supersizing” your meal is encouraged, buying in bulk is economical, and where we learned to eat everything on our plate. The acceptable portions have gotten bigger and bigger.
So, how do you know what is a good portion or serving?
- Protein like meat, poultry, or fish, a serving is 3 oz, about the size of your fist.
- Leafy greens, 2 cups
- Other non-starchy vegetables, 1 cup.
- Whole grains, about 1 cup, or 1 slice of whole grain bread
- Healthy fat like olive oil, 1 teaspoon
It’s tempting to fill up your plate, but instead of using a large plate, choose a smaller one.
If you’re used to eating a lot of processed foods, it may take a while for your body to adjust to more natural food and balancing your Leptin, so you stay full longer. Over time, replacing those empty calories with nutrition dense alternatives is the healthier choice, and in the long run, a better plan for losing weight.