What Are Calories & Why They Don’t Count

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What’s this? A nutritionist telling you that calories do not count? Surely I’ve gone mad? I can assure you that I have not and in this post, I’m going to talk to you about what a calorie is and why calories don’t really count when it comes to a healthy lifestyle.

Please, before I get started, let me just disclose that this post is not about going out into the world and eating your weight in doughnuts and ice cream – living my dream right there. It’s not about throwing calories under the bus and telling you that you can eat as much food as you want without consequence. This is why counting calories is an outdated method for healthy eating habits, nutrition, and ultimately weight management.

But first…

What is a Calorie?

This very much depends on what you’re talking about. Believe it or not, this isn’t just “what a food is made of” or “what we eat for energy”.

What Are Calories & Why They Don't Count

A Physics calorie

In 1863, a calorie was defined as the amount of heat needed to raise 1 kilogram of water from 0 to 1 degree Celsius. Then in 1925, calories became scientifically defined in terms of joules, which are units typically used by physicists to describe the amount of work needed to force one newton through one meter. This is why you sometimes see calories being called kilojoules, especially in Europe and Australia. One calorie equals 4.18 joules; 1 joule equals 0.000239006 of a calorie.

A Nutrition Calorie

A calorie in nutrition is actually 1,000 of these smaller “physics” calories. Some researchers use the term kilocalories (kCal) to refer to the nutritional unit of 1,000 small calories. These 1,000 small calories are also sometimes called large, dietary, nutritional or food calories and Calories with a capital C. 

Each macronutrient has a standard amount of calories. One gram of protein has 4 calories. One gram of carbohydrates has 4 calories. One gram of fat has 9 calories. One gram of alcohol has 7 calories.

Where Did Calories Come From?

We don’t eat calories, we eat nutrients. When we eat a piece of steak, we’re actually consuming protein, fat, and many vitamins and minerals.

The calorie counts we see on food packets didn’t actually appear until 1900 when a scientist called Wilbur Atwater took the kilocalories of 1000’s foods and fed them to fasted participants. He then took their waste products (faeces and urine) and burned them in a bomb calorimeter, which then told him how much energy was used during digestion. These numbers were then averaged out to give the standard calorie counts of macronutrients, which are added together for a total calorie number on the packets of food.

So yeah, a guy burned poo to decide how many calories our body uses for energy from food.

female food scientist

So, Why Don’t Calories Count?

As I said at the start of my post, calories have their place as a general guide to what the average person should be consuming, but it is a flawed system.

A perfect example of this is calories consumed from protein, around 30% of that energy is used purely to metabolise that protein – that is not energy going directly to our bodies and being used. However, the numbers on the food packet do not reflect that.

They Are A General Guide

Like most things in healthcare, such as the infamous BMI measurement, Calories are just a general measuring tool to give people an idea about how much food they should be consuming. In reality, this requirement fluctuates day by day and is very different for each individual.

No two people are the same, our genetics have the same backbone but are programmed very differently. Telling every woman who is 1.67m tall and weighs 60kg that they should be eating 2000 calories a day is bad advice. One woman might be very lean and active with a perfectly working metabolism whereas the next might have issues with metabolising carbohydrates or PCOS which may mean she naturally burns a few hundred fewer calories each day than other women.

Calories Deficit Only Works For The Same Foods

Many in the nutrition industry, especially those who believe a calorie deficit is the be-all and end-all of weight loss, believe that every calorie is created equal. This simply isn’t true. Your body does not treat 100kCal of chicken the same as 100kCal of granulated sugar.

So when talking about a calorie deficit, it’s useful in the sense of 500g of chocolate is fewer calories than 250g but that is where it ends.

weight loss

Your Body Doesn’t Like To Lose Weight

Most people on a diet end up gaining the weight back, and then some. So, if most “fad” diets and those with restrictions work around a calorie deficit (which many weight-loss gurus like to claim) then even calorie-counting is doomed to fail.

This is because the body doesn’t like to lose weight, it’s a survival thing. It has a “set-point” or range where it is happy and can generally maintain. As soon as you start reducing the food you eat, the body counters it by increasing your hunger signals, storing more of the food you eat, and often limiting non-vital functions like hair and nail growth or even delivering blood to your extremities.

Yes, you will lose weight at a calorie deficit, for a short while, but then you’ll most probably plateau and start to gain again. You’ll then have to drop your calories further to compensate and the cycle repeats.

So, What Should You Be Doing To Lose Weight?

Firstly, ask yourself why you’d like to lose weight. If it is because you want to look better, or think weighing less will make you feel better then you need to define what “better” is. If “better” is to an impossible standard, such as that of your favourite celebrity, then you may need to have a serious talk with yourself. You might never be able to reach that goal so instead, ask yourself:

  • Are you healthy in general?
  • Are you active and can do mild exercise easily?
  • Can you play with your children?
  • Are you eating the right foods?

If you answer yes then maybe it’s time to be a little more realistic and stop being so hard on yourself. If you can maintain your weight while eating a balanced diet and living a somewhat active lifestyle then you should continue to focus on that, rather than the numbers on the scale or society’s “ideals”.

If you answer no to those questions or have health issues that your weight is influencing or is an added burden to, such as diabetes, high blood pressure etc, then yes, you should be focusing on reducing your weight while improving your overall lifestyle.

Changes For Your Health That Don’t Focus On Weight Loss

Healthy Changes: It’s About Progress, Not Perfection

protein and fibre foods

Protein, Fibre and Reducing Sugar – Oh My!

I recently had the pleasure of attending a webinar hosted by Dr Giles Yeo about this very topic, which was a bit of inspiration behind this post. He covered the very science behind calorie-counting being pointless, something that I have thought about for a long time – even before I started my studies.

His advice is to focus on protein, fibre and reducing added sugar in your diet, as well as throwing in a few meat-free meals each week. He talks about this, and the science behind it, in his book “Why Calories Don’t Count” – which you can either *grab here at Amazon or enter the giveaway below.

Protein and fibre take longer for your body to digest which means you feel fuller for longer. Protein is the building block of life and fibre helps maintain a healthy gut microbiome. Focusing on these two makes a lot of sense.

Eat Whole Foods & Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods

If you can, focus around 80% of your meals on whole foods including fruit, vegetables, legumes, pulses, and wholegrains with meat, fish, eggs, and dairy should your dietary preferences allow them. You don’t have to fit everything into every meal but allow a variety across the day and week.

A massive 56 per cent of the calories that the average person in the UK eats come from ultra-processed foods. These foods usually contain ingredients that you would not add when cooking homemade food from scratch. Many of the names of these ingredients are unrecognisable and will be chemicals, colourings, sweeteners and preservatives. You want to aim to eat as few of these products where you can. There is more information about UFPs in this article by the BBC.

To Summerise

Rather than being miserable, wasting most of your day weighing out food and having to decide whether you “can afford” to have that chocolate bar. Just eat better, move more and be happy. Stop spending money on slimming clubs, fancy food tracking apps and instead spend it on affording better quality food.

What do you find the hardest about making healthier lifestyle choices?

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What Are Calories & Why They Don't Count

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