When I was a teenager, I went to the doctor for my irregular menstrual cycle. It had come with other symptoms (weight gain, hair growth on my face, mood changes, etc) and I was concerned. I told my doctor that I thought I might have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. I was told that my symptoms were just a result of weight gain, there was nothing wrong with me. All I needed to do was count calories.

Of course, that’s what I did. I was a broke young adult, attending college, working multiple jobs, recently moved out. So, of course, I counted calories. One bean burrito from Taco Bell was only $1. And it only had 350 calories!

I continued to gain weight like crazy. I had no clue what I was doing wrong and didn’t know the right questions to ask. Looking back, I realize what I should have done differently. But I didn’t know any better. Thankfully, I know better now. All calories are not created equal, and here’s why.

How Are Calories Calculated?

Calories are a measure of the amount of energy in a specific food. Originally, something called a bomb calorimeter was used to measure calories. The food was dehydrated and placed in the device, where it was literally incinerated. The calories were calculated when the heat from burning the food raised the temperature of a liter of water by 1˚ Celsius.

There are several problems with this method. First, plant fiber in food is not absorbed by the body, so the calories from the fiber itself should not be included when calculating the calories of that food. Second, your body burns calories when digesting food. You consume the food, use your muscles to chew it up, it goes down your esophagus, and into your stomach, where it is further broken down by stomach acid and your gut flora. Which brings us to the third point. Every person has a unique gut microbiome, which means your body might not interact with food the same way my body does. The nutrients released by the food are absorbed by the body, then the waste is removed. Every part of this process has its own energy expenditure that may not be equal to the calories consumed.

The bomb calorimeter is no longer the standard. Now, we use the Atwater system to calculate calories. This is an estimation of the caloric content of a food based on the protein, carbohydrates, fat, and alcohol content. The Atwater system estimates the caloric content of the food as 4Kcal per gram of protein, 4 Kcal for carbohydrates, 9 Kcal for fat, and 7 Kcal for alcohol.

Sounds like it would be more accurate, right?

Are All Calories the Same?

The simple answer is no. 4 Kcal from 1 gram of carbohydrates is not the same as 4 Kcal from 1 gram of protein simply because your body doesn’t interact with carbohydrates the same way it does with protein.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are sugar molecules. They’re a source of energy for the body, and are often digested quickly, especially when consumed without added nutrients (such as fiber, which slows the rate sugars are absorbed by the body). When you consume carbohydrates, your blood sugar goes up. In a healthy body, insulin is produced by the pancreas and the sugars enter your blood cells, where they are used as energy.

Fiber is technically a carbohydrate, although it isn’t absorbed by the body like sugars are. Consuming fiber has protective properties, and many fibrous foods are anti-inflammatory or pre-biotic.

Eating an excessive amount of sugar can increase your risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Here’s one study about the relationship between sugar and heart disease.

Protein

Protein contains necessary amino acids. Consuming protein will sate your appetite and keep you full for longer. It is a thermogenic food, which means heat is generated by the body when it is broken down. This means it also takes more energy to break it down (i.e., it burns more calories to digest protein).

Fat

There are three types of fat: saturated fat (animal fats, peanuts, palm oil), polyunsaturated fat (plant fats such as soybean oil and corn oil. This category also includes trans fats such as shortening, vegetable oil, and margarine), and monounsaturated fat (plant fats like avocado and olive oil).

Saturated fat, primarily the type of fat found in red meat and butter, was once blamed for the heart health epidemic in the US, which led to a huge shift to lean protein and trans-fat-containing butter alternatives. But recent studies have shown that trans fat creates an inflammatory state in the body, increasing your risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Monounsaturated fat, however, may be protective to the body.

Can Calorie Counting Be Effective for Weight Loss?

Yes, but it is important that calories are not the only thing you consider. Here are a few tips for effective calorie counting.

Balance Your Macros

Don’t just consider the calories when making a decision about your diet. Look at the nutrients contained within the food and assess how your body will respond to it. Aim to balance everything you eat. When consuming carbohydrates, try to make sure you’re also eating protein (to sate your hunger and keep you full longer) and fiber (to aid digestion and slow the absorption of the carbs).

Let’s go back to the burrito for a moment. One bean burrito from Taco Bell is 350 Kcal, 4g saturated fat, 55g total carbohydrates (including 10g fiber and 3g sugar), and 13g of protein. Overall, this is probably not the worst fast food item to eat considering the fiber and protein content, but there are definitely better options out there.

Another thing to consider, however, is that nutrition labels may not be accurate. The FDA allows the nutrition content to be up to 20% more than the label states, according to their guidelines. Also, when packaged convenience foods were studied, it was found that the carbohydrates contained in certain foods were up to 8% greater than their nutrition labels stated. So be aware of these things when counting your calorie intake for the day.

Measure Your Portion Sizes

The American Society for Nutrition estimates that roughly 85% of adults in the US overestimate how healthy their diet actually is. It’s easy to think that you ate less than you actually did when you don’t measure your portion sizes. Use a kitchen scale to weigh your food or measure it when you portion it out, that way you keep your calorie count as accurate as possible.

Support Your Microbiome

Having a healthy gut flora improves your body’s nutrient absorption, which creates a healthier response to food. Healing your metabolism starts with healing your gut. One of the easiest ways to do this is to increase your prebiotic (such as leafy greens, onions, and garlic) and probiotic foods (yogurt, kimchi, and kombucha are great examples).

One study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism studied 65 overweight women with PCOS. They found that those that took a pre- and probiotic supplement experienced 60% greater reduction in BMI than the control group.

Even if your goal isn’t weight loss, having a healthy gut microbiome will only help your body digest what you are putting in.

Minimize Processed Foods and Refined Sugars

As often as possible, try to eat whole, natural foods free of added sugars, preservatives, and artificial colors and flavors. I try to buy ingredients, rather than prepared foods. Of course, this isn’t an option for everyone. So if you don’t enjoy cooking or don’t have the means to do so, be aware of the ingredient list. Do you recognize the ingredients, or are they words you aren’t able to pronounce?

My Experience

Counting calories didn’t work for me at the time (and it did come out later that I actually did have PCOS, which meant that I would have likely had to cut my calories significantly more than the average person to achieve weight loss), but that doesn’t mean it is a bad method.

I personally do not count my calories, simply because I do not believe it is the most effective method for weight loss. A diet low in carbohydrates and high in protein and fiber has allowed me to lose almost 50 lbs (I’m about 0.3 lbs shy of 50 lbs lost as I write this article). Granted, I also do not believe diet is the only component to health. Staying active, drinking water, getting enough sleep, and reducing stress are also huge components to achieving a healthier lifestyle.

If counting calories is what works for you and you like it, then stick with it! Every body is different.

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Comments (2)

  1. Reply

    Woah I didn’t realize calories can be 20% more than stated on the label. That’s nuts! Why is that okay?! Loved the article. 😄👍❤️🥳

  2. Reply

    I so enjoy reading your articles, Emi. They’re very informative, well-structured, and easy to understand. Keep up the good work!

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