Tracking calories for weight loss (or weight gain for that matter) is the all-time best tool for measuring exactly what is going into your body and ensuring that you are staying on target. Deriving your BMI (Body Mass Index) then adjusting for level of activity to determine how many calories you need daily as fuel means that, in theory, you could simply tweak those numbers by 10-15% and you’d arrive at your magical weight loss number.
The thinking goes: If the equation tells you that you need 1600 calories a day then you just drop down to 1440 calories and you’ll be slimmer than Kendall Jenner in no time – Simple!
However there are a number of reasons why this notion is flawed, at least for everyday people who just want to keep on top of their health and fitness. So we’re going to run through a few of them now.
#1 Calories Aren’t That Simple
Understanding weight gain and weight loss as a simple matter of calorie counting is misleading, especially for those who already have weight problems. What’s more, consuming a diet consisting of 1800 calories of Pizza vs the same amount of calories from fresh meat and vegetables is obviously going to have a profoundly different effect on your body.
Taking a look at the calories you are consuming as a starting point is a good idea for establishing a baseline. But the focus should ultimately be more on the quality of the calories you are taking in altogether.
#2 Not All Calories Are Absorbed
Studies show that gut bacteria play a much bigger part in what happens to the calories we consume than what we have been led to believe. Researchers have performed tests where they have transplanted the gut bacteria from obese mice into skinny mice and as a result, the heretofore slim rodents have rapidly gained weight.
What these tests suggest is that specific microbiota may trigger exactly how much energy is derived from the food we eat. Or how many calories we absorb, and as such how much weight we gain or lose.
Maintaining diverse gut bacteria but eating both prebiotic and probiotic foods, while limiting foods that are harmful to gut health (junk food – sugar especially) may be more important than you think.
#3 You Can’t Trust Nutritional Labels
The listed serving size is, of course, the biggest culprit when it comes to misrepresenting what you’re actually eating. You may think you’re sticking to your diet and just having that single 80 calorie serving of crunchy peanut butter on those rice crackers. Until you realise that you’ve inadvertently had almost 3 times that amount.
In New Zealand and Australia we actually have very stringent laws regarding the accuracy of labeling on food items. Not so in the United States, however, where their labels allow for a staggering 20% margin of error. With that sort of leeway, even a 100gm serving could be off by over 300 calories!
#4 Fat is Good
If you’re watching the numbers you will notice that you can easily trim a lot of those pesky calories by just getting rid of fats outright. After all, each gram of fat has over twice as many of them as a gram of protein or carbohydrates right? So leaving that oily vinaigrette off your salad and just chomping on dry Cos leaves will get you skinny in no time.
While this is all true and you’re thinking that your goal here is to get rid of fat, not take in more of the pesky stuff. By cutting essential fats you actually do yourself more harm than good. Studies now show that high carb diets actually tend to trigger the body’s metabolic switch that leads to fat storage and that high fat/low carb diets tend to lead to weight loss.
Besides, fat is essential for your body to even function properly. Your brain is 60% fat itself and even your heart needs fat – Polyunsaturated fats may help prevent heart disease and even lethal heart rhythms from arising. The key here is to be taking in the right kinds of fats.
#5 Ugh, Math
This isn’t a purely theoretical article – I’ve done a fair amount of calorie counting over the past few years. I’ve carried my own set of scales around with me at all times, logged everything in a notebook or on my phone. I’ve tweaked exactly how many grams of rice I’m allowed in a day so I don’t exceed my daily caloric allowance and to be honest after a while the whole process became tedious and I began to hate food.
Yes, I lost weight, but the need to log every item and constantly be thinking about food means it takes over your whole life. Home cooking for your family becomes a complex mathematical algorithm as you work out what amount of Chicken breast you use relative to the level of carbohydrates added. Divided by the proportion of broccoli florets blanched = 420 calories, ish?
What to do, then?
What works even better than the calorie counting approach is making better food choices. To be fair, reading those food labels mentioned above does help with this. Because you quickly learn that most packaged food is processed garbage and should be avoided at all costs.
The amount of time and effort spent counting those calories could be far better spent learning about what foods you should be eating and what foods you should be cutting from your life. Even better, skip the supermarket and spend that time visiting local markets and getting fresh local organic produce. Keep feeding your body with quality, nutrient-dense, healthy foods and you can’t go wrong.