Why Counting Calories is NOT the Whole Story
Written by Del Baldwin, 2021
Founder and Co-Owner, Delirium Fitness
Most of us have been taught that if we want to lose weight, we have to count and restrict calories. Using this theory alone could lead to imbalances in hormones and energy levels; affect sleep and stress; and actually cause long-term weight gain. Restricting and counting isn’t the end game. It’s also the quality and type of food we eat. Imagine feeding your Bugatti low octane gas!
There are 3 MACROnutrients. Protein, Carbohydrates and Fat. We need them all for optimal body function. In Europe, on food labels, it says “energy” not “calories”. Calories are important, we need them! Overly restricting our caloric intake and/or thinking about calories as “the enemy” is not going to help you lose weight in a healthy manner. What will help is becoming more knowledgeable about the calories that are your friends and will help you feel great and be at an optimal weight.
- The body’s main energy source
- Each gram of Carbs has 4 calories
- Help with tissue repair and growth
- Each gram of Protein has 4 calories
- Needed to protect your organs and for healthy hair, skin and nails
- Each gram of Fat has 9 calories.
If you are interested in the molecular make-up of macronutrients, here is a good resource:
Growing up, Fat was the enemy. We were eating margarine instead of real butter because it had less fat and calories, yuck! Then, we were told to avoid all carbohydrates. Now, plant-based diets are the “fad” and all processed foods are evil. It’s hard to know what to eat. Thankfully, weight loss programs such as Weight Watchers have finally moved away from calorie counting alone and now consider the different effects that the macro-nutrients we consume have on the body over time.
About ten years ago, while I was being schooled on this, I was at a little league game and heard a lady turn down a hamburger because it was “too fatty” and instead ate an entire bag of Twizzlers. It was the epitome of being stuck in the mindset that fat was the enemy.
So, let’s talk about why the hamburger was the better choice, assuming both the hamburger and the bag of Twizzlers had the same amount of calories.
1. The thermic effect of food
I find this fascinating! Your body uses more calories digesting protein than it does carbohydrates and fats. As a matter of fact, here is the percentage of calories your body takes breaking down each of the macronutrients.
Fat: 2–3%; Carbs: 6–8%; Protein: 25–30%
Using these numbers, your metabolism is naturally higher when you include sources of protein in each meal/snack! Let’s say you have 200 calories of protein, only 150 are left after digestion, whereas if you have 200 calories of fat, 196 are left. Put simply, protein takes more energy to metabolize and revs up your metabolism!
Studies show that proteins and healthy fats reduce your appetite, leaving you feel more satisfied, and eating fewer calories overall. They lower the release of hunger hormones, and hormone production, overall, is better regulated when you consume protein and healthy fats. If you are interested in the studies, here are a couple, among many:
3. Glucose versus Fructose
There are two main sugars found in foods: glucose and fructose. Glucose is metabolized by all the organs in the body, whereas fructose is metabolized only by the liver. Gherin is a hormone that tells us when we are hungry, the more gherin we release, the more hungry we feel. Studies show that fructose ingestion releases more gherin than glucose. It has also been proven that consuming a large amount of fructose increases triglycerides in women. The body converts calories it doesn’t need to use right away into triglycerides, and they are stored in fat cells.
4. Glycemic Index, why a carb is not a carb
Refined carbs: stay away. Below is a simple visual that may be helpful to you when you are choosing what carbohydrates to eat. Notice, it is related very closely to the glucose versus fructose issue as well. To put it simply, “Refined carbohydrates tend to be low in fiber and are digested and absorbed quickly, leading to rapid spikes in blood sugar. They have a high glycemic index (GI), which is a measure of how quickly foods raise blood sugar.
When you eat a food that spikes blood sugar fast, it tends to lead to a crash in blood sugar a few hours later. When that happens, you get cravings for another high-carb snack.
This is also known as the “blood sugar roller coaster.”” (source: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/6-reasons-why-a-calorie-is-not-a-calorie#TOC_TITLE_HDR_7
Additional Information on Choosing Superior Calories
Now, you can see why, in our example, hamburger versus Twizzler, the hamburger would have been a better choice! But there is even more to the story. There are “better” types of all three macronutrients.
Let’s use another example to further illustrate the difference in all the macronutrients..
I love eating out! And I eat everything! Let’s say I am at a burger joint, and I have the options of various proteins, and “buns”. You see, although the hamburger was a better option than a bag of Twizzlers, it might not be the best option when you can choose learner protein sources; or protein sources with “healthy fats” versus saturated fats.
Most proteins contain fat. Fat can be categorized as trans, saturated or unsaturated. Trans fats should be avoided all together, as it is man-made (in other words, you won’t find trans fat in food that you find in nature). Unsaturated fats are generally plant-based and liquid when at room temperature, whereas saturated fats are generally from animals and are solid at room temperature. Think of olive oil versus lard. White meats are generally lower in saturated fats than red meat. Saturated fats, though they are the same calories per gram of unsaturated fats, are much harder for our bodies to break down, so they often get stored. They are not water soluble so you don’t just “pee them out” if your body doesn’t need it. Saturated fat can clog your arteries, and often leaves you lethargic. So, when given an option of a bacon burger or a turkey burger with avocado (also a great source of unsaturated fat)….I think you can guess what I would suggest choosing.
As for the “bun”. We already discussed the glycemic index. Simple white carbohydrates, as we saw from the glycemic index chart above, are not the best for your body. The type of carbohydrates that your body loves are called complex carbs. Complex carbs take longer to break-down and usually contain fiber, which we need for proper digestion. Choose whole grain or even go with the lettuce wrap. I LOVE my sandwiches on pickles or cucumber instead of bread!
SUMMARY: Many people want “guidelines” for the amount of fat, protein and carbohydrates they should be consuming. I don’t believe in offering such general advice and would have to know someone’s body type, lifestyle and goals quite well prior to making any such recommendations. Most dieticians recommend:
- Carbohydrates 30-40% of your diet
- Proteins 30-40%
- Fats: 20-30%
(now, do NOT forget that fats contain more calories per gram, so these percentages are percentages of CALORIES, not GRAMS)
The only general advice I can give is:
- Have all three macronutrients with every meal.
- Choose carbs low on the glycemic index
- Choose lean proteins
- Choose unsaturated fats.
- And, of course, try to stay away from overly processed foods.
As for how many calories you should be eating…I don’t know your fat/muscle ratio, your activity level, goals etc. Please be careful if you opt to count calories not to use a “general” guideline. All things about an individual should be considered, and if you are really aiming to lose weight, I highly recommend hiring a nutrition consultant, a nutritionist, or a dietician.
I want to be VERY CLEAR that you still have to eat reasonable portions of food and you DO have to have less calories than you burn if you want to lose weight, but the better you eat according to these principles, the better you will feel and the more likely you will maintain your habits and weight loss.
If you enjoy this topic, I highly recommend the book “Eat Smarter” by Shawn Stevensen
One Important Footnote
As an aside, I am passionate about educating the world to the evils of diet soda/pop. Which has zero calories, but can have a long-term effect on your body, including your weight. Thankfully, it seems to be more “mainstream” now and people are “getting it”. Here is a simple visual that will hopefully stick in your brain and keep you away from diet soda/pop.