Sometimes I am asked about calorie counting and whether it is something I do. The short answer is no, and it’s also not a part of the TNE Academy.
A calorie is defined as the measure of the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1kg of water by 1 degree Celsius.
Whether calories matter or not has been one of the most fraught scientific debates of the century and is still is fiercely argued. On both sides there are seemingly evidence based experts, doctors and practitioners so it’s little wonder that we, the general public, are confused.
Let’s start off with one fact, how much food you eat does matter!
But is calorie counting, which has been touted as the go to weight loss solution for many years, the best approach?
The food you eat (calories) is by far the biggest lever signalling your body to build or break down. This is what we call the energy balance – calories in and calories out. BUT the further down the rabbit hole you go, the more complex the story gets.
For calorie counting to be effective you need to know how much energy you require each day and how much you are using each day.
But this is far from simple…
Counting Calories In: Factors To Consider
1. Food Labels
- Labels are allowed a 20% margin for error, although some have been found to be out by as much as 70%.
2. Food Logs
- Without incredibly diligent weighing and measuring (to nearly laboratory standards) by the person filling out their food log/diary this margin for error becomes even greater.
Counting Calories Out: Factors To Consider
1. Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)
- Is the amount of calories required to keep you alive e.g. the general functioning of things like your heart, kidneys, brain and liver.
- RMR can account for up to 60-70% of the total calories burnt on a daily basis.
- RMR is calculated in a lab or by using the Cunningham equation for women and the Harris-Benedict equation for men.
- BUT RMR is constantly changing based on how much or little you eat, train and sleep, how lean or fat you are, your age and sex as well as mental and emotional stressors.
- Your sport or exercise contributes heavily to your energy expenditure and can be calculated using metabolic equivalents (METs).
3. Nonexercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
- Is the term for all of the calories you burn going about your day: Walking, taking stairs, carrying shopping, playing with your kids, chatting with friends etc.
- It counts for up to 50% of expenditure in fit people but only 15% in sedentary people (hence why moving is so essential for weight loss).
4. Thermic Effect Of Food (TEF)
- It costs your body more energy to metabolise certain foods over others.
- Protein has the biggest TEF, costing 25-30% of its calories to process.
- 6-8% for carbs.
- 2-3% for fat.
- This is why people who struggle to gain weight (hard-gainers) need to add so many more calories to their diet, because as they eat more they also more energy due to TEF.
As you can see already, calculating your energy balance is incredibly complex and the story doesn’t end there….
- Two items of food with identical calorific values may be digested in very different ways. Each body processes calories differently. Even for a single individual, the time of day that you eat matters.
- Calorie counts are based on how much heat a foodstuff gives off when its burns in an oven. But the human body is far more complex than an oven. In the laboratory food surrenders its calories in seconds. In the body the journey from dinner plate to toilet ranges from 8 to 80 hours depending on the person.
- The process of storing fat is influenced by dozens of factors: Apart from calories, our genes, the trillions of bacteria that live in our gut, food preparation and sleep affect how we process food.
- Bodies do not respond to calories in identical ways: Research is showing that when different people consume the same meal, the impact on each person’s blood sugar and fat formation will vary according to their genes, lifestyles and unique mix of gut bacteria.
- The amount of energy we absorb from food is dependant on how we prepare it. For example the calorie load of carbohydrate-heavy items such as rice, pasta, bread and potatoes can be reduced simply by cooking, chilling and reheating them. For example you absorb fewer calories from toast that has been left to go cold.
Counting calories is sometimes seen as a simple solution but the human body is far from simple:
Think of a burger: take a bite and the saliva in your mouth starts to break it down, a process that continues when you swallow, transporting the morsel towards your stomach and beyond to be churned further. The digestive process transforms the protein, carbohydrates and fat in the burger into their basic compounds so that they are tiny enough to be absorbed into the bloodstream via the small intestine to fuel and repair the trillions of cells in the body. But the basic molecules from each macronutrient play very different roles within the body.
So what other options are there? Rather than counting calories how can you keep track of how much you eat?
Well one easy way is to keep a simple food log. I’m not talking about weighing and measuring amounts, just simply jotting down everything you eat and drink, or perhaps taking a photo.
What this essentially does is show you in black and white the foods and amounts you are eating. And often the mere fact of having to record an item will help you make better choices.
And the reality is you probably only need to do this for a week or two to provide an understanding of your own eating habits.
For myself I focus on something else…
What you eat matters a lot!
This is the strategy I use above all others and it can be summed up like this:
Focus on quality, listen to your body, eat whenever you are hungry but only when you’re hungry and eat real food not food ‘products’: Stuff from a real plant, not an industrial plant. If you can’t pronounce it don’t put it in your mouth. If it wasn’t made 100 years ago it’s not food now.
If you do this 90% of the time I guarantee you will lose fat, sleep better, have more energy and better mental clarity.
This can be easier said than done but with small steps and the knowledge to build effective habits it is completely achievable.
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