When choosing what to eat, do you consider cutting calories? If you’re like most of us, you do, especially if you’re trying to lose weight. For good reason, conventional wisdom tells us that in order to shed pounds, we simply need to use up more calories than we take in. This advice encourages us to count calories and thanks to food labels and an abundance of apps, we can easily track every calorie and every gram of carb, protein or fat we consume as well as every calorie we burn. Quantifying calories eaten versus those expended should, mathematically, make battling the bulge pretty easy, right? However, if you’ve ever tried to drop a few pounds, you know, it is neither simple nor easy and rarely does the math work this way.
1. For starters, calorie counts on menus and labels are often wrong … sometimes grossly so, making it virtually impossible to estimate how many calories you consume when dining out or rationing your pretzels. Researchers at Tufts University’s nutrition research center discovered after visiting over 40 U.S. chain restaurants that a dish listed as having 500 calories could contain upwards of 800 calories. Easily explained – the chef’s overflowing ladle of sauce on your salmon and a too generous dab of butter on your green beans adds up and certainly can explain the discrepancy.
Furthermore, the FDA allows calorie information on packaged goods to be accurate within a margin or error of 20%. I’m guessing manufacturers understate rather than overstate their foods’ calorie content. Unfortunately, someone trying to limit their intake to 1200 calories/day could, despite their diligence, actually be eating closer to 1500. If so, they better walk another 5 miles each day to account for the difference.
2. To complicate matters, calorie counts are based on an over simplified system developed in the late 1800’s that doesn’t take into account the “complexity of digestion.” We now know that the number of calories we extract from our food depends greatly on, among other things, the type of food we eat, the state in which we eat it, how it is prepared, the amount of protein, carbs and fat it contains, and the makeup of bacteria that resides in our intestines. Believe it or not, even the time of day you consume your cheese and crackers matters.
More simply put, the more digestible or processed a food, the more calories we obtain from it – an important fact that food labels don’t reflect. Cooking, blending, mashing, chewing and converting whole foods into refined ones virtually digests food for us making calories more readily available. Fiber-rich foods left intact, on the other hand, hoard some of their calories allowing us to excrete not absorb them.
So from a practical standpoint, if we want to count calories accurately, then we’ll have to consider the following:
How the Food was Prepared: Cooked, raw, ground or pulverized? It matters.
The Timing of Meals: If you’re limiting calories, it shouldn’t matter when you eat those calories, but it does. Research continues to show that individuals who consume more of their calories in the morning and midday hours lose more weight and have greater improvement in insulin and cholesterol levels than individuals eating the same number of calories but consume more of them in the evening.
The Macronutrient Content of Food: Protein-rich foods take more energy to break down than fats and carbs, leaving fewer calories available for our bodies to absorb.
The Type of Microbes in our Gut: Our intestines host trillions of bacteria that affect our risk for disease and aid in digestion. The diverse combination of species that reside in the gut is unique to an individual and varies greatly from person to person. The variety of our gut bacteria, which is easily influenced by one’s diet and environment, appears to affect our metabolism and ability to digest food. This may explain why, in studies where lean individuals received a transplant of gut microbes from an overweight donor, the subjects gained weight without a change in diet. The gut of an obese person typically contains more Firmicutes, a type of bacteria that more efficiently breakdowns food and allows greater extraction of calories.
Unfortunately, it’s not just counting calories that lead us astray. The charts and apps we use to determine how many calories we expend each day, both exercising and performing our body’s basic functions, are often based on weight and age of an individual and can be hugely inaccurate. The calorie expenditure of two 55 year old women of equal weight can vary as much as 600 calories a day depending on their height, percentage of body fat, cortisol levels and size of their organs.
It’s no wonder tracking calories-in versus calories-out can be so frustrating. The above factors, none of which is taken into account on a food label or exercise machine, collectively contribute to a distressingly large margin of error for someone trying to monitor their calorie intake. I’m in no way suggesting you abandon the calorie content of food – it remains a useful guide but you must understand that for reasons explained in this article it is flawed. Instead, I encourage you to focus less on the number of calories and more on the quality of calorie.
Stay tuned! Next month, I’ll dive deeper into what types of calories we should be eating and why quality vs. quantity matters. In the meantime, here are some adjustments you can make to your diet immediately to improve your health and your waistline:
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, and is not a substitute for medical advice.
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