‘Calories’ must be the most commonly used word by people who are trying to lose weight or make lifestyle changes! And why shouldn’t it be? Counting calories makes the whole dieting business a tad easier. It is simple math isn’t it ? Eat that last piece of left over cake > Check your calorie counting app for the calories in that piece of cake > Decide to walk extra next morning. Account settled !
Partying tonight ? No problem. Run a few extra kms on your treadmill in the morning and earn the right to eat an entire pizza!
It is hard to not keep up with calorie counting rage these days. We are surrounded with tons of apps that track the calories eaten and calories expelled, we instinctively look at nutrition labels for calories in packaged foods and there is an information overload about how you need to just keep a check of the calorie content of food. But don’t be a blind sheep and join the bandwagon mindlessly.
Let me break the news for you: Calorie in and calorie out method won’t give you the rightful claim to eat whatever you love in excessive quantity and still think of losing weight!
We have heard all along that the key to losing weight is creating a negative energy balance. The equation seems to be so very simple-
Calories eaten < (less than) Calories burnt = lose weight
Else gain weight
Well, this math does NOT work. WHY ?
While a calorie burnt is a calorie burnt, a calorie eaten is not a calorie eaten.
Conventional experts, doctors and self-proclaimed nutritionists all still preach the age old concept of calorie control to lose weight. This goes back to a study in the 1950’s which suggested that we need to eat less and move more! Let me tell you that this study was conducted on mice. 1950’s and mice! Yeah, take your time to make peace with it! Now this sparked an entire revolution of gyms, slimming centers, apparel brands, FMCG companies etc. Digest this: The present market size for the anti-obesity market in the country is estimated as being over Rs 1,800 Cr but interestingly, the rate of obesity is increasing even though we seemed to have found the Holy Grail to staying healthy.
Let’s put this equation to test- If I can lose weight by creating a calorie deficit and only eating 1200 calories per day (60% of my calorie requirement), eating a medium burger for breakfast, a couple of pizza slices and chocolate mousse for dinner is what I would love my menu to be like and it fits well within my calorie allowance (Hell yeah! I want to be on this diet for the rest of my life). But, it’s not as easy as it seems. Life isn’t a bed full of roses, right? A calorie eaten is not just a calorie eaten.
- So why is a calorie eaten not just a calorie eaten?
Let’s consider our body mechanisms when we eat a serving of almonds (160 Calories) and drink a serving of soda (160 Calories). When you eat almonds, due to its fiber and rich nutrient profile, the food does not get digested immediately and the blood sugar rise in your body is slow and steady. Whereas, when you consume soda, all the simple sugars get absorbed and give you a large sugar rush. In this moment, all your liver can do is convert this sugar into fat and store it in your body. There are plenty of reasons why calorie counting does not work and it is not just because fiddling with all those numbers drives you crazy or you are bad with math. Let us talk about some deep stuff!
Your body does not treat all the calories in the same way. Good calories can be obtained from sources like whole grains, veggies, nuts etc. where the breakdown of nutrients present in the food uses up a lot of energy to digest and absorb the calories. Similarly, calories from processed foods lack in essential nutrients and the breakdown and absorption requires minimum work by your body. A 5th grader can tell you that 250 calories from a serving of potato chips are way different than the 250 calories from a grilled vegetable sandwich. Well, talk about common sense!
- A calorie burnt is a calorie burnt (but there is a catch)
You exercise to burn calories. You monitor the calories burnt through heart rate monitors, fitness bands, tracking apps etc. You can determine that a brisk walk for 30 minutes helped you lose 250 calories. And yes, you do burn 250 calories. But the problem starts when you try and correlate this to the calories eaten. You think you can get away with drinking the cola that you had earlier OR you have earned the right to eat an extra piece of cake.
Reality check: The calories you burn during and after your workout mostly come from the meal/snack you eat before and after your workout or from the existing level of glucose in your body.
To add to that, there is no way one could possibly determine if the burnt calories was from a gluttonous dinner last month or the claimed chocolate pastry as the post-workout reward from last night. It is most likely that the stored fat from the tasty treats you have been rewarding yourself with, is sabotaging your health goals and sitting happily, untouched. Remember, you can’t outrun a bad diet!
Well, to put it simply – Exercise will help you build muscles and a stronger heart, but in order to lose weight you need to eat better. Smarter. So go ahead and enjoy that piece of cake but don’t connect it with the calories burnt from your workout and remember – exercise or no exercise the second piece of cake will surely make its home on your hips.
- Your body runs on biology and not math!
Firstly, the formula that is used to determine the caloric value of food is a 100+ years old and has its own shortcomings. Old is not always gold, after all. You require calories to even ingest digest and absorb food and the calories required for doing so may vary for every item. Moreover, the calorie absorption by your body depends on various factors like hormones, metabolism, digestive health, sleep pattern, fiber in the food etc. Here is an example- A serving of almonds is listed to have a 160 calories but in fact, due to its fiber content, it only ingests 120 calories in our body.
- Calorie labels can’t always reflect the right information
A calorie is the amount of energy needed to water heat a kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius. So various food items are burned in the laboratory and the heat captured is then measured and the calorie content is determined. The calorie consumption in our body would be similar only if we had a laboratory inside us! Also, despite numerous attempts, the calorie content of everything that comprises of a product is not considered. In fact, calories mentioned on a food label could be inaccurate upto 50%! *Jawdrop*
- Calories are not everything and you need to look at the bigger picture.
If this equation was all that was required for you to lose weight, the obesity epidemic would not blow out of proportion. If it was this easy we wouldn’t need nutritionists or any sort of guidance in matters of diet. A math teacher would have been enough! Ask yourself this question, what is making me overweight? Is it binge eating, poor choices or unhealthy eating habits? Find out the answer and rectify your habit. Don’t give so much importance to calories because there are many other factors which must be smiling surreptitiously at your ignorance.
The verdict on Calories!
Instead of the calorie in < calorie out, focus on the quality > quantity. Eat mindfully and don’t fret about eating too many or too few calories. Give the body the nutrients it needs and choose food judiciously.
- Instead of constantly number crunching, eat smaller portions
- Instead of counting calories, make sure you consume the right kind
- Instead of maintaining a negative balance, try and ensure you maintain a balanced diet.
It’s high time we look beyond numbers and reduce the frenzy around calories!
And if you are one of those who like technology to help you change your lifestyle and habits we have a cool app that helps you manage your portion sizes, pair the right foods and gives real-time feedback for your meals. This app is a brain child of a team of foodies and mathematicians who have come together to solve this struggle.
From weight loss to lifestyle change to mindful eating to just enjoying food without worrying about calorie intake. This app has it all.
Akansha is the Founder and Consultant at Beyond the Weighing Scale. With a wide range of expertise and skills, she is adept to speak about nutrition, health, lifestyle management and physical activity. She is a popular food columnist, a passionate foodie, a health enthusiast, an avid traveller and a happy yogi.