Welcome to this week’s article all about the crappiness of calorie counting!!! I’m trying to be cheerful while talking about calorie counting, but it’s difficult because the premise simply makes me grouchy.
Truth be told, there are many, many reasons why I dislike calorie counting. Most of them come from my experience of doing it myself for months, possibly even years. That time is a blur of anxiety, so I couldn’t even tell you how long it lasted. All I know is that I would never go back.
Before we get into it, I want to make it clear that calorie estimations have a time and place. One important example is patients who are recovering from refeeding syndrome and must have limited intakes for long periods of time to avoid overwhelming their digestive system. I talked about this a few weeks ago in my post about The Minnesota Starvation Experiment.
Dietitians often use calorie estimations and calculations with tube feeding and intravenous feeding, and this can be life-saving for those with certain diseases and individuals in critical care. There are also certain conditions that must focus on specific nutrient intakes, like those with diabetes watching their blood sugar levels.
These are vastly different scenarios than the general public religiously counting calories like I’m talking about today. I may be partial to dietitians, since I am one, but they play a hugely important role in patient care in a wide variety of settings. We are so much more than the food police! *steps off soapbox*
Okay, so let’s get into my top three reasons about why I think calorie counting is the worst.
#1: Calorie Counting is Imprecise
The first reason why I think counting calories is dumb is because it’s incredibly hard to be accurate anyway. You spend a whole lot of your day planning out your meals and tracking what you ate, but your estimates could very well be off.
This can happen for many reasons. The first being that the nutrition label is merely an estimate of how many calories the food inside contains. For the most part, these estimates tend to be relatively close to the actual calorie amount foods contain but they are just that: estimates. One study found that the foods actually contained slightly higher calorie amounts, on average, than what was on the label in several common snack foods.1
In this study, researchers found that the carbohydrate content of these foods was significantly higher than the amount listed on the labels, but fat and protein amounts tended to be more accurate. The elevated carbohydrate content is likely what accounted for the flawed calorie listing on the label.1
This particular paper also stated that the FDA, the agency regulating food labels, has an allowable limit of foods being 20% higher in calories than what is stated on the label. So you could be eating a food that lists 500 calories on the label, but with this rule from the FDA, your food could actually have, say, 600 calories in it.
It may not seem like a big difference, but if each and every packaged food you ate and diligently tracked had this difference, you could be ingesting significantly more calories per day than you think. Not that this is a problem in my eyes, but if you’re going to the trouble of counting calories, you’d at least want it to be relatively accurate, right?
This isn’t just for packaged foods, either. Not long ago, chain restaurants were required to put calorie amounts on menu items. This irritates me for many reasons, but those are just estimates too. The amount of calories in a dish you order at a chain restaurant depends on who is preparing it, and there is no way to make it exactly the same every time.
After working in a kitchen for five years, I can tell you that many cooks don’t measure things out based on the standardized recipe, effectively throwing a wrench in whatever calorie counts that corporate calculated. They want you to like your food, and the standardized recipe may not taste as good as their personal variation. Maybe one cook uses more butter or oil, or adds more cheese and wonton crisps than the recipe calls for. Or maybe they are skimpy on the black olives, also affecting calorie estimates. I’m looking at you, Subway. I love you, but 3 black olives on a footlong just isn’t enough.
A study from Tufts in 2013 found that some chain restaurants were relatively accurate, but many menu items, especially those listed in the lower calorie section, contained more calories than labeled.2 You can use a chain restaurant’s calorie counts listed on the menu, but just know that it can be another instance of imprecise estimation. This is also true of any cooking you do at home.
Beyond flawed estimations, calorie counting is fairly inaccurate because it’s impossible for us to know how many calories we are actually absorbing from the foods we eat. A food may contain 500 calories, but that doesn’t mean we absorb each and every calorie.
The amount of calories and nutrients we absorb at any given meal depends on so many complex factors, like how hungry we are, whether or not we like the food, how stressed we are while eating, where we are in our circadian rhythm, medical conditions we have, what medications we are taking, and so much more.
An example of medications affecting our absorption is the FDA approved drug, Alli, or orlistat. This is a weight loss drug whose mechanism is to block the absorption of fat by about 25%, aspiring to promote weight loss.3 If you aren’t absorbing the fat, you aren’t absorbing the calories.
I haven’t heard this medication being used as much as I did a few years ago, so perhaps it has gone down in popularity. Maybe that is because some of the side effects include “gas with oily spotting” (literally sharting out fat), “loose stools that are hard to control” (more potential sharting), and “urgent need to go to the bathroom”.3
It’s funny to talk about urgent needs to get to the toilet and not being able to trust farts when it isn’t your problem. But it feels like a whole different ballgame when you’re the one experiencing it while you’re just trying to live your life. Why do we do this stuff to ourselves all in the name of weight loss?
Aside from unsavory side effects, blocking the absorption of some fat can also decrease the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are all fat soluble, meaning their absorption is enhanced in the presence of fat. Let’s say you have a hearty salad that contains tons of these vitamins, but you opt for a fat free dressing. Guess what? Your absorption rate of these nutrients goes way down, and it could lead to you eating more later on because your body is crying out for the nutrients you discarded in the toilet because they weren’t absorbed.
So yes, we may not know exactly how many calories are in a food we are eating and we definitely don’t know how much we actually absorbed. It’s also difficult to estimate how many calories we burn on any given day or in any give exercise session. Your exercise machines and wearable fitness devices lie to you on its calorie-burning estimates too.4
On top of this, different types of foods affect our bodies in vastly different ways. Many people think “a calorie is a calorie”, but a calorie from a cheese puff affects the body way differently than a calorie from an avocado. The types of foods one eats consistently plays a much larger role in overall health and body composition than the amount of calories consumed.5
That’s not to say that you must eat a perfect diet of only fruits and vegetables or that losing weight should be the goal. What this means is that treating all calories the same way, as one does when tracking their calories, is a waste of time.
A calorie is simply a unit of energy, it doesn’t give us the whole picture of how a food will react and work in our body. Some foods raise ghrelin (stimulates appetite) or leptin (slows appetite) levels, and other foods have the opposite effect. Some foods spike blood sugar quickly, and others raise it more gradually. A calorie is, by many measures, a useless bit of information about a food.
Back to the main idea: it’s nearly impossible to be accurate with calorie counting. There are just too many factors at play for us to actually know what we ingested and absorbed, and how our bodies react chemically and physiologically to each and every food we eat.
#2: Calorie Counting Sucks the Life out of Life
Phew, are you still with me? I sure hope so. We have already been on quite the journey, and we have only made it through one reason why I hate calorie counting. Yes, I know hate is a strong word, but I mean it, darnit!
The second reason why I find calorie counting dumb is that it takes so much time and energy away from you and your life. When I was especially vigilant about counting calories, I would spend a good chunk of my night planning out my meals for the next day. Sometimes it took me 20 minutes, other times it would take much longer. I used Supertracker when it was still a thing, and I worked to try to stay under my calories while still hitting all food groups. It was exhausting.
It also didn’t allow me to be spontaneous, or if I was, I had to face Supertracker when I got home for the night and cross my fingers that my unplanned dinner didn’t make me go over my calorie limits. Whenever I did go over said calorie limits, I would go for an extra long walk to compensate, or I would feel like a failure. Supertracker and I had a toxic relationship for real.
Beyond spending large amounts of time tracking my calories and food groups, it also took much more time to prepare meals because I tried to accurately measure my portions as much as possible.
I couldn’t just make a pot of noodles and trust that I would know when I have had enough. I would measure out the noodles, the sauce, and whatever else put in there in the name of “accuracy”, and it totally took the joy out of cooking and eating.
The anxiety I felt about tracking my food and adhering to the portions I had set out to consume was completely overwhelming. It greatly affected my sleep, and I was a walking zombie from fatigue and restricted intake. I felt stressed to the max, and I spent so much time spacing out in class and with friends because was thinking about how I could achieve my calorie goal for the day. I was rarely in the moment, and it’s really heart-breaking to look back on.
Counting calories took my time, peace, and enjoyment in food, cooking, and life in general; therefore, I hate it.
#3: There is No Conclusive Evidence Showing That Counting Calories Works
First is the worst, second is the best, third is the one in the wedding dress. This post is one of the few times that this phrase does not apply. They are all the worst, in fact, and none are the best or in a wedding dress. Anyway, reason number three is that there is no scientific backing in favor of calorie counting for weight loss. There is evidence, however, that diets don’t work.
One study I came across discussed the fact that, although excess calories may be partially responsible for weight gain, reducing calories doesn’t necessarily result in a loss of weight. This is mostly due to the fact that the body has several complex mechanisms at work to try to keep us nourished. So, if our body feels like it is being deprived, those mechanisms kick in and prevent weight loss to, you know, keep us alive.6
One such mechanism is an increased appetite. Even after being off a diet of food restriction for a year, appetite stimulant hormones are still elevated in the body.6 In addition, obesity doesn’t simply come from excess calories. It’s actually tightly intertwined with physiology, psychology, and our environment. Only focusing on calories doesn’t address these components.6
An article from Tufts Nutrition discusses the calorie counting phase that has lasted for decades. One part that I found fascinating from this paper was the notion that people get a crap-ton of weight loss advice from friends, family, doctors, social media influences, cashiers, and whomever else may feel like bestowing weight loss wisdom.
One thing that feels simple and less overwhelming than the thousands of weight loss messages one might get in a given week is calorie counting. It seems like a straightforward approach to a complex condition, and that feels appealing.7 I think this speculation makes a ton of sense, as I too look for the simple, straightforward answer when I am wading through a river of complicated problems.
In her amazing book, Anti-Diet (affiliate), Christy Harrison discusses that the vast majority of diets don’t work long term, including those that utilize calorie counting. In fact, most people regain the weight they lost from dieting, and often some extra, within five years of losing weight.
She argues that one reason we don’t see too many studies discussing this notion when it comes to diets is the fact that most of them only have a 1-year follow-up. If they were to have more with 5-year, or beyond, follow-ups, we might see more studies that show diets don’t work. We all know somebody that has lost weight and has managed to keep it off, but this just isn’t realistic or healthy for most bodies.
One popular statistic I have seen and heard many times while doing research for these posts is that 95% of diets fail. This comes from a few different older studies, and it has been remarkably difficult to find the true origin of this stat. It’s hard to find actual statistics about how often diets fail, but I did come across one meta-analysis from 2001. It showed that after two years, 50% of participants’ initial weight loss was regained on average, and that number goes up to about 80% after five years.8 Not exactly the 95% stat I have seen over and over, but still concerning results.
One study that did investigate long term weight loss was a 6-year follow up on contestants from the show The Biggest Loser. We will actually be diving into that in next week’s post, so stay tuned! The main premise of the study is that, after rapid, extreme weight loss, contestants’ metabolisms became really messed up. Even after being off the show for 6 years or more, their metabolic activities hadn’t returned to normal. Plus, most of them gained back most of the weight they had lost.
The moral of the story here is that there is no significant proof that calorie counting works for weight loss, especially in the long term.
So there you have it: my top three reasons why we should all metaphorically throw calorie counting into the garbage or fire pit. It’s inaccurate, it sucks the fun out of everything, and there is a real lack of evidence that it works in the long term.
Unfortunately, calorie counting is only one of several ways that people fall into diet culture’s clutches, but it’s still an important one to talk about and reflect on.
Check back next week for a new post. See you then!
As Always, A Book Recommendation
Last week, I re-read Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison, and I was quickly reminded about how incredible of a read it is. This book is comprehensive about the origins of diet culture and how it affects us today. Christy Harrison shares her own experiences, as well as those of her clients, and I related to almost every sentence in this book. If you haven’t read this yet, I would highly, highly recommend you read this as soon as you can. I wish I would have had this book five years ago, as I truly believe it could have prevented many of my weird diet patterns and food anxiety.
- Food Label Accuracy of Common Snack Foods
- Can You Trust Restaurant Calorie Counts?
- RX List: Alli (Orlistat)
- Evaluating the Validity of Current Mainstream Wearable Devices in Fitness Tracking Under Various Physical Activities: Comparative Study
- How Calorie-Focused Thinking About Obesity and Related Diseases May Mislead And Harm Public Health (PDF)
- Reducing Calorie Intake May Not Help You Lose Body Weight
- Is Calorie Counting Dead? Tufts Nutrition
- Long-term weight-loss maintenance: a meta-analysis of US studies
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