In recent years, more and more restaurants and fast food chains are offering caloric and nutritional breakdowns for their menu items. Whether due to pressure from governing bodies or from consumer bases, our days of chowing down at Boston Pizza in blissful caloric ignorance are officially over. And with the availability of nutrition-tracking apps such as MyFitnessPal and Lose It!, designed with the primary intention of helping us to lose weight, we really have no excuse to not track our calories.
Of course, people track calories in order to gain weight as well. But for the vast majority of the population, losing weight is primary. And minding our caloric intake is said to be the most important step for weight loss.
But are calories really the be-all and end-all when it comes to losing weight?
Yes. And no.
On a purely biological and mathematical level, a calorie is a unit of energy, and all the energy that we expend (whether through exercise, our basic biological functions, our NEAT, etc) must be greater than the energy that we consume in order for weight loss to occur.
But the simple calories-in-versus-calories-out equation doesn’t take into account the various factors that determine whether or not that calorie will become fat on your body. Plus, to complicate matters further, there are some studies that suggest that the nutritional labels and calorie information available aren’t always accurate, and that our own estimations are prone to error, so what can we do in these cases?
Let’s take a deeper look into the science of calorie-counting, the factors that can skew the math, and what you can do to prevent inaccuracies and reach your weight loss goals!
You probably already know that you should be getting more fibre. Besides helping you to feel full, fibre will help your body to pass a calorie from your body that might otherwise stick around. Fibre is one of the reasons that many keto-diet followers still include carbs such as some vegetables and fruits in their diet. Most count only their net carbs—that is, the number of carbs minus their fibre content. So, if one cup of cauliflower has 3 grams of carbs and 2 grams of fibre, then that cup of cauliflower really only has one gram of carbs. And the same goes with calories. A food might be higher in calories, such as sweet potato, but high in fibre, so that food will be much less likely to be converted to fat in your body.
So, make sure to get lots of fibre in your diet! A good ballpark figure recommended by experts for your daily fibre intake is 25-30 grams for healthy adults (not including supplements).
Sugar is another factor that is not often considered when we’re counting our calories. While I am a firm believer in the idea that no food is bad and that restricting ourselves from beloved foods will more often than not lead to diet failure and frustration, your sugar habit, unfortunately, may be sabotaging your weight loss efforts. Excessive sugar consumption, typically defined as more than 36 grams a day of added sugar for a healthy adult man and 25 grams for a woman, is linked in countless studies to increased rates of obesity. Sugar, it has been found, can decrease our feelings of satiety and make us eat beyond our caloric needs. Furthermore, many food manufacturers chemically engineer their food using sugar, fat, and salt to render it highly palatable and virtually irresistible. As a result, it can be difficult to interpret our body’s hunger signals and to stop eating, even when we are “full”.
ARE OUR CALCULATIONS CORRECT?
You’re diligently counting your calories, but are your calculations correct? Some studies investigating the accuracy of calorie content claims made on popular food items found that people are often incorrect when it comes to guessing the calories in their meals. One study done with overweight individuals found that the larger the size of meal, the more likely it was that an individual would grossly underestimate the caloric content (up to 38% inaccuracy, according to the researchers). And this finding has been reproduced in multiple studies since.
The recommended serving size on any given package, also, can muddy the waters. The Recommended Serving Sizes typically found on packaged food today were created in the 1970’s and 80’s and many experts argue that these standards require adjustment, as the portion sizes of the average North American consumer have drastically increased. A serving size that more accurately reflects how much we are eating today might help us to make better-informed decisions when it comes to our caloric intake. One study found that offering both the nutritional information for one serving size and the information for the entire package or container guided consumers in making more thoughtful food choices.
ARE NUTRITION LABELS EVEN ACCURATE?
If you’re someone who pays close to attention to your calories and nutrition, you might be disturbed to know that nutrition labels are often inaccurate in the calorie information that they offer. In the U.S., the FDA allows for a 20% margin of error when it comes to the caloric breakdown of a food manufacturer’s product. So, a 100-calorie food item could in reality actually contain 120 calories or, theoretically, 80 calories.
One study done in 2010 investigated the stated calorie content of 29 popular ‘reduced energy’ ready-to-eat restaurant meals and 10 frozen meals. All of them contained more calories than stated, and in a couple of cases, more than 200% of the calories reported.
Another similar study, though, found that of the 269 restaurant meals analyzed, there were very few “statistically significant” discrepancies between the stated calorie content and the actual calorie content…except when it came to ‘low calorie’ meals. They conclude: “foods with lower stated energy contents contained higher measured energy contents than stated, while foods with higher stated energy contents contained lower measured energy contents”. Ironic, right?
SO, SHOULD WE COUNT OUR CALORIES TO LOSE WEIGHT?
As is reported by multiple studies on the subject, calorie counting is still a highly-effective tool for losing weight and maintaining weight loss. Fundamental to weight loss is the understanding that our caloric intake must be lower than our caloric expenditure.
Besides giving us a clearer picture of how, exactly, we’re fueling our bodies, tracking our calories also helps to keep us accountable and focused on our goals.
That being said: the quality and macronutrient breakdown of our food will make a huge difference in the long-run. Minding the sources of our calories will improve our satiation response, our energy and mood, and our body composition. And if at some point you don’t want to track your calories, focusing on a nutritionally-dense diet that is balanced in its macronutrients will lead to a healthy and sustainable weight and an exceptional quality of life.
Wishing you all the best on your journey to optimum health!
Written by Theresa Faulder, Master’s in English, ACE-Certified Personal Trainer and Infofit fitness blog writer.
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