When you’re browsing in the supermarket, that familiar rumble in your stomach can make grabbing the nearest snack very tempting. Naturally, you stroll past the confectionary, settling your eyes on a glossy packet of some sort.
You pick it up, feeling the weight of the chocolate inside. Then you flip it over, read the pack, and grimace: 600 calories per bar. Glowering, you replace the chocolate bar on the shelf, foiled once again by those damned calorie counts.
But are all of our calorie-counting efforts in vain? Does calorie counting actually help us lose weight and maintain good physical health, or can it make things worse in the long term?
A calorie count: a rapid history
Counting calories is older than most people would expect. Early in the twentieth century, a series of odd experiments were carried out on various foodstuffs to calculate their caloric content—one calorie being the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one millilitre of water by a single degree Celsius.
When we eat food, the calories contained within act as fuel for us to go about our day.
Calories give us energy to think, heal, grow and move. When we scoff surplus calories, however, our body isn’t able to find a use for them, our body simply stores them for later—mostly in the form of fat.
This stuff is undisputed. Where people disagree, however, is over whether monitoring our caloric intake can actually help us lose weight. Science has evidence for both sides of the argument, which makes things… a little complex.
Counting calories and food groups
Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram, fat has 9, protein has 4, and alcohol has 7. This means that your daily calorie intake depends heavily on the kinds of food you are consuming. Let’s look at it this way…
A diet rich in cheese, gummy sweets and wine will see you consuming far more calories than somebody opting for a dinner consisting of chicken and brown rice. And it’s a well-documented fact that consuming more than you burn means weight gain. But what about weight loss?
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A calorie deficit is achieved when we burn more calories than we consume. When our body lacks the calorie intake it requires to function properly, it draws on its reserves, i.e. our body fat. This caloric deficit is a necessity for losing any body fat.
Different kinds of calories
There’s a lot of debate around whether all calories—those from protein or fat, carbs, for example—can be considered equal. Is 200 calories worth of bananas the same as 200 calories of chocolate? In terms of weight loss alone, the answer is yes: all of these calories will factor into your overall count, and create the required deficit.
However, in reality, those 200 calories of bananas will also contain vital nutrients that may be lacking in the chocolate (sorry!). Although that deficit is present and you may be losing weight, there’s no guarantee you’re giving your body the sustenance it needs.
Also, because fruit and vegetables contain hormones that regulate hunger far better than, say, chocolate chip ice cream, you have to eat far fewer vegetables in order to feel full and satisfied. When the nutritional content of our food is low, we are inclined to overeat—no matter how diligently we’ve planned our daily calorie count.
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An inexact science?
One reason counting calories is argued over as a method of weight loss is that people claim that you can eat as much as you want, provided your diet is made of the right foodstuffs.
Apparently, supporting this is the fact that studies in which subjects are placed on low-carb diets seem to show them losing more weight than people on high-carb diets, even though they’ve matched their caloric intakes. So what gives?
The truth is that a caloric deficit is always required for weight loss. The reason some people doubt the science is largely because individuals in studies are typically very bad at estimating not only how much food they’ve consumed, but how much exercise they get in a day.
Studies often use self-recorded food diaries of subjects; a notoriously inaccurate method of data collection. It’s been found that subjects can under-report their intake by as many as 2000 calories. Also, people on low-carb diets typically eat more protein, which makes them feel fuller and therefore eat less.
The bottom line: counting calories isn’t easy
But, if you get it right, it really works.
Counting calories is a proven way of losing weight, assuming it’s done right. Recording what you eat is a good place to start. Try writing down each foodstuff or drink you consume in a journal or on your phone to help you keep track. There are also plenty of apps available to input your meals – such as MyFitnessPal – making it quicker and easy to document.
However, it’s important to be consistent and thorough. If you eat a sandwich, for example, don’t forget to list everything in it. Those knobs of butter all add up faster that you’d think! Scales and measuring cups will help you out too—it’s all about accuracy.
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In the end, losing weight does come down to eating fewer calories than you burn. This doesn’t mean that you should eat whatever you please as long as there’s a caloric deficit, unfortunately—while you certainly could do this and you would lose weight, you’d be potentially missing out on a ton of crucial nutrients.
A balanced diet is key!
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