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The Issue with Calorie Counting

calorie counting

How many times have you started and stopped calorie counting in your life?

If you're anything like me... it's probably an infinite amount or at least so many that you lost count (pun intended).

Here's the issue with calorie counting... it's not always a clear indication of what is going on in your body. Though to a calorimeter (the scientific instrument that translates the change in temperature into calories per gram of food) a calorie is a calorie, that isn't always the case when it comes to our bodies. Because we're a lot more complex and multifaceted than a calorimeter.

Most people also assume that calorie counting is an exact science. But it's not. Don't get me wrong the principles of energy balance work; consume more calories than you expend = weight gain and consume fewer calories than you expend = weight loss. Not only can calorie counts be imprecise since the majority of food labels and tracking apps are based on averages not specifically what you're eating. Research has shown that the true calories of what you’re eating is often significantly higher or lower than reported. Food companies may also use different methods to estimate calories, so the FDA permits inaccuracies of up to 20%. So “150 calories” may actually mean 130-180 calories. Not a huge difference, but added up over time it could be.

We also don’t absorb all of the calories we consume. Some calories pass through us undigested, and this varies from food to food and individual to individual. Each person absorbs calories uniquely and variably. Largely in part to our own individual gut bacteria which can increase or decrease the calories we absorb. People with a higher proportion of firmicutes bacteria absorb an average of 150 per day calories more than those with a higher proportion of bacteroidetes microbes.

What I notice the most with calorie counting is that focusing just on calories often means we restrict healthy foods. This seems to happen the most when it comes to dietary fat because per gram of food, dietary fat is significantly higher in calories. This means we often eliminate healthy fats without taking into consideration the benefits that we might get from them, such as staying fuller for longer, getting antioxidants from vegetables, and absorbing necessary nutrients like fat-soluble vitamins.

And I think my biggest issue with calorie counting is that it doesn't allow you to connect with your body to know when and how much to consume. Outsourcing your nutritional requirements to an app that is often way under-feeding your caloric needs, can set you up for failure. One of the leading causes of overeating or binge eating that I see in my practice is due to restricting food too much during the day. Which often leaves to our physiology taking over in ravenous states of hunger and feeling completely out of control around food.

I think the key to remember is that your body needs fuel throughout the day (and every day) to just be alive. So that even if you did absolutely nothing all day except binge watch Netflix on the couch - you would still require a base amount of calories (aka nutrients).

With that, I invite you to get in touch with your body's hunger and fullness cues. To let your body determine how much sustenance it requires because it's not a linear number of calories, it's going to vary day to day depending on your activity level, age, sex, and the current size of your body.

What to do next...

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