Why Calorie Counting Doesn’t Work
How many calories should you really be eating…
As you aimlessly wander through the local grocery store, perusing the shelves for those 100 calorie snacks, zero calorie beverages, or “light” options, have you ever thought to yourself, “How does the same food have a lot more calories than its close-but-ever-so-distant low-calorie relative?”
Here are a few questions worth addressing to help you make a more informed decision as you seek to answer the question above for yourself.
Do more calories = weight gain/fat?
Well, that’s a loaded question? Let’s see if we can take it one small bite at a time. We go for low calorie foods in the grocery store because we’re often led to believe that fewer calories means less fat, fewer carbohydrates, less sugar, less cholesterol, etc. #alltheless! Fewer calories doesn’t always mean less, and to keep it simple, we have to dive into the fine print.
To give you an example, we’re going to compare* two meals. One is a boxed meal: Roasted Turkey and Veggies (green beans, cranberries, slivered almonds), the other is what we’ve created from whole foods: 3 ounces of roasted turkey, 1 cup of green beans, 12 grams of dried cranberries, 11 almonds.
*In our example, we will do our best to maintain parallel portion sizes and nutrition for a like comparison.
Here’s what we found when using only the ingredients and portion sizes listed above.
Looks fairly harmless when we look at the calories: only 190 for the boxed meal, nice small portion.
Now let’s take a look at this meal if you make it from foods you bought in the grocery store (talking to your butcher at the meat counter, grabbing some fresh green beans from the produce section, then finishing up walking down the aisle to grab some dried cranberries and raw almonds, “a quick and purposeful trip”).
As you can see, there’s quite a difference when you’re focusing on only calories. Now back to our statement earlier: “less is more.” Less calorie content, may mean more fat on our bodies. Why?
Plain and simple when you compare a boxed meal to a whole, minimally processed, nutrient-rich meal, the numbers add up differently. So how does a boxed meal have way fewer calories than a whole food, minimally processed, nutrient-rich meal, but we advocate for the other meal, the exact opposite of what we’ve been led to believe?
The devil is in the details. As you study the ingredient list, you find a lot of words that are difficult to pronounce or may not even be food at all. Most companies throw in a little extra pizazz to their foods to make them look healthier at a quick glance, but when we eat the food, our bodies recognize (and respond to) this food differently than the package reads. Which leads into the next important point.
Why we cannot get enough low calorie foods.
The pizazz we discussed just a second ago; remember the stuff that is most likely getting tossed into our boxed meal is another piece to this puzzle. So far we know that our low calorie boxed meal has had some sort of alteration to deprive the foods contained within it of nutrients/calories. We also know that whole, minimally processed, nutrient rich foods look a little different when we put our calorie glasses on. So why could these lower calorie foods be harming us more than helping us? Pretty simple: our boxed meal is most likely deprived of nutrients and/or has some other stuff added to it to bring those calories down to look good on the box. Unfortunately, when we eat it, our body does not recognize it as food. Our body will do one of two things with our boxed meal we just ate: it will not recognize the boxed meal and will tell us to eat more to satiate us, or it will view it as a foreign substance in our body and start to process it as such. However, if we overload our body with foreign substances, we start to store them until they can be processed and excreted. Regardless of what our body does with them, both scenarios seem like a good recipe for putting on a few extra pounds.
1 calorie, 2 calorie, 3 calorie, 4. 5 calorie, 6 calorie, 7 calorie floor! Wow, that was difficult…
The question of the hour: does counting calories really matter? In some very particular situations under an educated and watchful eye, yes it does. But for our everyday needs, it really isn’t something to lose sleep over. As we saw above, the whole, minimally processed, nutrient rich food was much higher in calories, but the kicker with that meal was, despite higher calories, our body will recognize this meal as actual food, nutrients.
The food we eat is used in our body as fuel and energy for the long list of functions that we need to keep us alive. Notice I did not say the energy to pick our kids up in our arms, throw a ball to our dog, walk up the steps to go to bed, etc. I am talking about the things we don’t think about, our body just does them for us: breathing, heart beating, blinking, etc. Our daily activities cost us extra calories.
Since most of us shouldn’t be concerned with the calories that a particular meal contains, what should we be focusing on? It is a fairly simple answer: focus on eating balanced meals containing whole, minimally processed, nutrient-rich foods, while also eating slowly and undistracted. Allow your body to tell you when you’re full and you have enough nutrients to continue with your daily activities.