Is Calorie Counting Useful?

To count calories or not count calories, that is the question? There may be no more of an enduring debate in diet camps than this question alone. On one side you have those that prescribe to the “what gets measured, gets done” camp. That the only way to ensure progress is meticulously tracking every morsel that enters your mouth to guarantee an energy deficit. The other side professes the importance of food quality in managing hormones to regulate the body’s metabolism. With your body’s cellular processes humming along in congruence with the efficiency of our ancestors, calorie surpluses (and deficiencies) can be regulated with very little weight gain (or loss).

Both approaches have their benefits, and I believe both can coexist in the healthsphere as helpful tools to achieve both weight loss and vibrant health. As with any tool, there is a time and a place to employ each. I, myself, have tried both approaches and in doing so discovered what has worked for me. If you are feeling stuck in your weight loss endeavors, it may be high time to try a different tract and try a new strategy below.

Let’s start with the calorie counting camp. It should be stated right away that all calories ARE NOT created equal. Different sources of food cause the body to react differently when ingested, including stimulation of different hormones that govern how the food is processed. I could go into the science behind this, but there are entire books written on the subject (check out Good Calories, Bad Calories or The Calorie Myth). Just remember that looking at only energy balance leaves out an important part of the equation.

The funny thing is calories are not even the body’s energy currency. We do not use calories to fuel exercise and movement. We use molecules either broken down from food or the ones stored in our body’s tissues to generate ATP to fuel our cells. To put it another way, the calorie is simply a unit of heat energy. Specifically the amount of heat necessary to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water one degree. We could just as easily use joules, kilowatt-hours, therms, or any other unit of energy to assign values to our food.

The calories in food that you would find on a nutritional label or a database are determined using a mechanical system known as a bomb calorimeter, in which the food is experimentally burned to break down chemical bonds and the resultant energy release is measured.


Calories are units of heat energy, at best determined experimentally in a laboratory

You may see the shortcomings of this method of energy tracking in that our bodies are not mechanical systems. We are are biological systems that utilize the “calories” in a much different fashion than a bomb calorimeter. This is why you see people walking around that seem to defy the the first law of thermodynamics (which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system). You know, the guy who eats whatever he wants, yet the caloric excess does not put an extra pound of fat on his frame. Or the girl who utilizes the fat loss math (1 pound of fat = 3500 calories so at a daily deficit of 500 calories one would lose 1 pound of fat per week) to ensure she is in a calorie deficit every single day, yet the scale doesn’t budge for weeks. The reason these seemingly impossible scenarios play out is because we are biological systems, and the processing of calories coming in is dictated by complex biochemical processes.

Overall energy balance still plays a part in weight loss, but our hormones work to maintain that balance far more that the calories coming in or going out (through movement, exercise, and everyday activity). “Calories in” isn’t necessarily the whole picture when we look at intake. We have to take into account what is actually absorbed and digested, which is partially dictated by our hormones, what kinds of foods we are actually eating,  and even the make up of our gut microbiome. In the face of this it could be easy to dismiss calorie counting as useless, and I haven’t even touched on how inaccurate nutritional labels and databases can be and the fact that the more heavily processed a food is, the easier it is for the body to absorb the calories during digestion (which isn’t a good thing). Like I said earlier, counting calories has it’s place (and value), but not nearly as much as some diet gurus would have you believe.

Despite nearly every packaged food having clear nutritional information and access to large databases of every food imaginable, most people simply have no idea how many calories they are taking in on a daily basis. When the average person is questioned, it is common to underestimate caloric intake due to not knowing the caloric makeup of foods consumed, forgetting about small snacks throughout the day, not including liquid calories, and underestimating portion sizes (particularly when eating out).

This is where tracking calories can be extremely helpful. By measuring and recording for as little as a week it gives you a much clearer picture of what your actual intake is. It doesn’t matter how many calories you are actually absorbing and using, but rather it gives you a baseline from which to compare subsequent results. From there most people can identify “big wins” – things to remove that you may not have realized are contributing to a caloric excess. In rare cases you may even find that your intake is far too low, and thus the tracking allows to recalibrate your intake up.

That actually happened to me about a year ago when I decided to embark what I affectionately call my bodybuilding experiment. To “bulk up”, I needed to add in quite a few more calories than I was eating at the time. Actually it was an uncomfortable amount, which is why I called that part of the experiment quits after 6 weeks. I did put on some muscle, but since I was committed to the bodybuilding experience I proceeded to “cut” via caloric restriction and meticulously counting my calorie deficit daily and dialing it progressively down week after week.

Food Spreadsheet Crop

My nitty gritty macro tracking experiment

I will speak to the results of that cut and the pitfalls of calorie counting at the end of this article, but for now I want to paint calorie counting in a useful light. It is a great data gathering tool to use periodically.  It can provide you with a baseline of information, against which you can monitor progress along your journey of weight loss (or gain). That sort of information can provide valuable insights and allow for course correction along the way. However, counting calories can become obsessive for some, and unnecessarily over complicated for others, which is why many people eschew counting calories all together.

As alluded to earlier, not all calories are created equally, and that’s where proponents of focusing on nutrient QUALITY (or nutrient density) over QUANTITY (total calories) use this concept as a warcry to rally to their position . It’s only common sense that 100 calories worth of salad greens pack far more nutritional value than 100 calories of ice cream. Why eat a portion controlled snack pack full of chemical laden oreos that will leave you hungry and craving more when you can down a handful of nuts that leave you satiated and pack many more good for you nutrients?

It should be intuitive that the calories from a doughnut are not the same as the equivalent number of calories from something like kale

It should be intuitive that the calories from a doughnut are not the same as the equivalent number of calories from something like kale

There’s a saying that as a society we are vastly overfed, but horribly undernourished. The processed garbage on grocery shelves and in drive through windows contain little nutritional value, yet provide an excess of caloric energy that the body easily absorbs and prefers to store as body fat. We are missing so many micronutrients in the standard American diet that some even postulate that this is the true underlying cause of obesity. It’s this micronutrient deficiency that leads to the disruption of many biological processes, including the rate of your metabolism.

Vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and even certain enzymes contained in whole foods are vital. They either participate directly or aid (as cofactors) in many cellular reactions. Heck, cellular membranes are made of lipids, and they, along with other minerals regulate how information is directed in and out of the cell.

It’s in this way that food acts as information, not as energy or fuel.  If we input (eat) the right sorts of information our body knows what to do and the processes that generate our energy (ATP) will run more efficiently. Over a long enough time period the body may even begin to fix it’s broken systems, including regulation of appetite and body weight, regardless of the amount of calories coming in.

That is a big draw of this approach. You cannot fix a broken metabolism by simply eating less of the same stuff that caused it to be broken in the first place. That’s like smoking a half a cigarette instead of a full one and claiming that is healthy. Instead you need to upgrade the nutrient quality of your meals, with a focus on health first and weight loss a distant second. Believe me, if you are diligent about upgrading the nutritional value of your foods, the weight loss will follow.

The are a few drawbacks of this approach, the first of which is that there is widespread confusion over what is considered highly nutritious food. This post isn’t meant to be a diet book, but several good ones that I recommend are The Wild Diet, The Calorie Myth, The Primal Blueprint, or The Bulletproof Diet. In general, commonalities include eating large amounts of green leafy vegetables (organic if possible), quality meats (grassfed and/or organic to limit growth hormone/antibiotic use and improve quality of the fat content), healthy fats (monounsaturates like coconut oil and olive oil, eggs, avocado, etc.), avoiding processed and/or added sugars, grains, and industrial seed oils (corn, soybean, canola, etc.) and limiting starchy vegetable consumption.

It's simple: We need to do more shopping from this section of the grocery store

It’s simple: We need to do more shopping from this section of the grocery store

That is just a start, and things can get much more complicated for the individual as things like food sensitivities and allergies can widen or narrow that list. Basically avoid stuff in a box that has a laundry list of chemicals and additives. I’ll leave deciphering a food label as another topic, but as an example sugar can be called about two dozen different things in the list of ingredients. In addition, claims on packaging such as “healthy” and “natural” really aren’t regulated, making them pretty much meaningless, yet misleading for people simply trying to eat the right things. And don’t even get me started on “heart healthy” claims on sugar laden cereals or loaves of bread. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

The essential micronutrients need to come from whole food sources. You know, the ones with a list of ONE ingredient. No matter how fortified your milk or cereal claims to be these are not acceptable forms of nutrition, and there’s the possibility that such fortification is ineffective.  For example, the phytic acid found in grains has been found to reduce mineral absoprtion.  Besides, there should be something suspicious about how processing certain foods strips all of the nutrients out and then we try to add them back in afterward or try to improve with extra stuff added in.  As great as science has been for improving so many aspects of our lives, when it comes to food you can’t really improve upon nature’s design. Our bodies have evolved to extract the necessary nutrition from whole, natural foods.

Those vitamins added to foods are synthetic versions, usually chemically equivalent to just the dominant form of the vitamin found in food. Take Vitamin C for example. If you look closely at a supplement label of vitamin C you will see it listed as ascorbic acid. Ascorbic acid IS NOT vitamin C. It is only a single molecular compound found within the more complex biological matrix known as Vitamin C in whole foods, such as an orange. Whole food vitamin C is actually a collection of compounds, enzymes, minerals, and cofactors that give it its biological activity.

This is just one of many examples that highlight the need for whole food sources of nutrition. I could go on and on, but hopefully you see the point by now. I’m not against supplementation, but whole foods in general have much greater bioavailability, that is the micronutrients are more easily absorbed and utilized by the body.

With that piece of the puzzle concerning what to eat in place, the next biggest worry of this approach is how to regulate the quantity (which is still important) of food coming in if there is no calorie counting. This can be particularly tricky with the knowledge that you should eat more healthy fats than what is currently encouraged by dietary guidelines. Fats are very calorie dense, and despite only including healthy ones it is possible to overeat and throw off energy balance. No matter how good coconut oil is for you, eating an entire tub a day will have a detrimental impact on your waistline.

Here are some simple guidelines to follow when it comes to portion sizes for a meal. In general, you will want some protein, some carbs in the form of non-starchy vegetables, and some good fats. There are some more complex strategies revolving around nutrient timing and activity levels, but in an effort to keep things simple what I outline here will be sufficient for most people.

First up, fill at least half your plate with non-starchy vegetables. Seventy-five percent is even better. You want to work up to at least 10 servings a day, which works out to about a cup per serving, or a portion the size of your fist. This should be the base of every meal, and don’t worry about over eating. I’m not sure how much broccoli you’d have to eat to start gaining weight, but I’m pretty sure it far exceeds the level of anyone’s intake.

The next thing you’ll want on there is a protein source, usually some grass-fed meat or fish. Guys, portion size will be two palm size servings. Ladies, one palm size serving. Using this measuring system is a simple approach, and quite convenient because it allows you to just eyeball serving sizes without obsessing over the exact number of grams of protein you are getting or weighing your food. This is based on three square meals, so if your meal frequency is different you may need to adjust. Also, if you are engaged in some strength training, bumping up the amount of protein is highly recommended for repairing muscle tissue.

Lastly, we want some healthy fat. We are going back to use the hand again and meter out fat intake equivalent to a thumb size portion. One or two should do the trick. Nuts, seeds, an egg, or some oil or butter that you sauteed your veggies in (much tastier than steaming).

A typical dinner for me: Big ass salad with salmon, olives, and avocado. Huge serving of broccoli with braised cabbage and ground pork

A typical dinner for me: Big ass salad with salmon, olives, and avocado. Huge serving of broccoli with braised cabbage and ground pork. Notice that the veggies dominate the meal.

Boom! A simple way to set up your plate that doesn’t require counting or math. It is easy to see the appeal of this approach, and the simplicity of it is what draws me to it. Fat loss and eating healthy doesn’t have to be complicated. That said, transitioning to this method after years of eating the standard American diet can be difficult, especially when all of that junk has led to disruption of the hormones responsible for regulating hunger cues. In addition, energy balance still plays a role, which is why the focus is on nutrient dense vegetables that are difficult to overeat to help self regulate the process.

So back to calories. This unit of heat energy is a relatively new addition to human knowledge. While sources vary, the discovery of the calorie was made in the mid 1800s, which means that for thousands of years we had no idea what a calorie even was. During that time we managed to maintain a relatively stable state of good health right up until about midway through the 20th century, when obesity rates skyrocketed.  Databases of caloric content have only been compiled in the last seventy years and regulated food labeling wasn’t introduced until 1990.

A relatively new way of measuring what's in our food

A relatively new way of measuring what’s in our food

Sidebar: The jump in obesity rates occurred right about the time as the low fat craze explosion, where we were told to eat “healthy” carbs and grains, and food began to slowly resemble less actual food and more chemical monstrosities.

obesity graph

Hmmm…Wonder what happened around 1980?

If we were able to maintain stable weight and good health, without knowing what a calorie was for so long, why in the heck would we need to track such an energy unit in order to reclaim that lost health? You may know the answer if you’ve read this far, and it is sad to consider. The truth of the matter is that in the presence of overwhelming food abundance, added sugars, refined grains, hyper-palatable frankenfoods, and disrupted hormones, we have lost the ability to self regulate our food intake. We are overfed and undernourished and that keeps our bodies constantly hungry for more of these poor food choices For many tracking calories is the only way to truly get a handle on what is coming in, and the only way to know what reduce or allow in their diets.

Whole diet systems like Weight Watchers revolve around this concept yet their success rates are horrible because they continue to peddle chemical laden foods that further starve the participant of much needed nutrients. Short term success with caloric counting and restriction is possible, but without using real food to rebalance hormones that weight can easily (and often does) come right back. Sorry, Oprah. You can keep eating your bread every day but you will be seeing those twenty some pounds back on your frame unless you knock that crap off!

Clients I work with go through a simple stepwise process to change eating habits that focuses on upgrading nutritional quality, with minimal calorie counting. This roughly follows what I outlined above. We take a look at what good things to add in first. By doing so, it is surprising how the “bad” things usually tend to come right out. If we hit sticking points, then it may be time to use calorie tracking as an informational tool to identify shortcomings and areas to work on.

Usually we only track for a few days. Anything longer than that borders on obsessive seems almost like a form of disordered eating to me based on my own experience. Who wants to measure and calculate every morsel of food that goes into your mouth. I did it for three months, and while at first it was kind of cool to generate spreadsheets (I’m not sure why I didn’t use an app) of all the foods I was eating and meticulously dial the precise level of macros each day, eventually it became such a chore that I was relieved when it finally came to an end.

I was doing insane stuff like using a scale to measure all of my protein portions and eating almond butter with an actual tablespoon to get an accurate measurement. So what was the result after two months of weight cutting via caloric restriction and immaculate tracking? I dropped about ten pounds (which was somewhat in line with the calorie math) and was able to see my upper abs again after losing them to the one month bulk. Decent results, yes, but I was miserable from the amount of mental effort it took.

Eating food is not supposed to be stressful, but by making it a numbers game rather than a pleasurable experience, I had taken all the fun out of eating. This happens to a lot of people “dieting” based on caloric restriction alone. Before that experience I had gotten really lean eating large quantities of delicious food, enjoying every bite without counting a single calorie, and I’ve done it again since then. Should I need to get on stage in a banana hammock for fitness competition or cut weight for some other competition, I would probably consider employing some form of calorie counting again.

Most people are not going to do anything like that so that level of tracking and planning every single day really is not necessary. Let’s put the calculators down and focus on just enjoying REAL food. Fat loss and health doesn’t need to be absurdly complicated. Complication leads to stress, and we already have enough of that in our lives already, not to mention the digestive disruption that stress can cause.

Do we really need to bring a calculator to the dinner table?

Do we really need to bring a calculator to the dinner table?

Just a few generations ago we managed to stay in good health without a database, an app, mathematical formulas, or any knowledge of caloric intake. It was a simpler time.  While technology, tracking, and math can aid in reclaiming our health, isn’t it much more appealing, and much more sensical to just make nutrition simple again?

Are You Blind to Your Own Progress?
Deadlift & Push Press Superset "Fun"isher

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *