When choosing what to eat, do you consider cutting calories to lose weight? If you’re like most of us, you do. 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.
How does cutting calories lead us astray?
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.
Don’t blindly trust the food labels.
Furthermore, the FDA allows calorie information on packaged goods to be accurate within a margin of 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.
To complicate matters, calorie counts are based on an oversimplified system developed in the late 1800s 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 tougher the cell wall of a plant, the harder it is to digest. That means we extract fewer calories from it. Thus, despite the calorie content of 1 cup of kale, we absorb fewer calories from a cup of mature kale leaves than from a cup of baby kale leaves.
- Despite the calorie count of whole almonds and walnuts, because of their unique structure, we absorb 33% and 21% respectively fewer calories than their serving size suggests. Ditto for pistachios and peanuts. If we process these nuts into butter, then we absorb far more calories than in the whole form. In fact, studies show people eating the same calories worth of peanuts vs. peanut butter lost significantly more weight.
- If we eat fruit, our body will have to work to separate the calories it contains from the fiber attached to them, burning calories in the process. However, throw the fruit in a smoothie and the blender does the work of our digestive tract, relinquishing most of the fruit’s calories into the bloodstream without much effort on our part.
- Research shows, similarly, a burger made with ground meat contains more useable calories than steak tartare. The same number of calories consumed from sweet potatoes in the raw, whole form leads to weight loss. Whereas the comparable calories from cooked sweet potatoes, mashed or whole, leads to weight gain.
- The method of cooking matters too. If you prefer your meat rare vs. well done, you’ll consume far fewer calories.
- Foods that have been highly processed with intense heat and pressure, such as chips, energy bars, juices, crackers, breads, baked goods, and cereals, are in essence turning our food into mush, giving our digestion system the day off and allowing maximum calorie absorption. A 2010 study demonstrated that participants eating whole-wheat bread made with sunflower seeds and kernels of grain topped with cheddar cheese used twice as much energy digesting this meal than those eating the same number of calories from white bread and processed cheese spread, resulting in 10% fewer calories being absorbed.
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. This leaves 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. 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. This is 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 the 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. This depends 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. None of the above factors are taken into account on a food label or exercise machine. This collectively contributes 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 calories.
How to Cut Calories
Here are some adjustments you can make to your diet immediately:
- Swap the breakfast and energy bars for a handful of nuts.
- Replace the dried fruit, juices, and smoothies with a piece of fresh fruit.
- Exchange the instant oatmeal for ½ cup cooked steel-cut oats, barley, wheat berries, or quinoa.
- Use lettuce leaves for sandwiches instead of bread or wraps.
- Abandon cereal for low or no-fat plain, yogurt, or eggs.
- Choose sashimi over well-cooked, red meat.
- Eat pasta al dente and choose a bean or whole-wheat variety.
- Encourage the proliferation of healthy gut bacteria by eating copious amounts of high-fiber foods.
- Make non-starchy veggies the volume of your meals and
- In the words of Michael Pollan, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.”
Want to lose weight? Take a look at Prime Women’s PLATE program. Now available in an app with reminders to keep you on track.
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.