Calories, part 2: More Problems with Calorie Counting

More Problems with Calorie Counting

While many people are obsessed with counting calories in an attempt to lose weight, it’s clear that a strict Calories In Calories Out (CICO) model is not as helpful as we would like to believe.

Calorie counting is a relatively new concept

Our ancestors didn’t worry themselves with Calories and yet maintained their weight effortlessly.  In fact, the idea that a pound of fat consists of 3,500 Calories came about in 1958.  Now, despite an unprecedented amount of calorie data made readily available (via nutrition labels, menus, apps, etc.) to all individuals, we continue to witness a skyrocketing epidemic of obesity and associated metabolic disease.

Why does Calorie counting not work?

Calorie counts are notoriously inaccurate.

We underestimate how many calories we consume and overestimate how many calories we burn.

The average person underestimates calorie intake significantly.  One analysis of data in the UK showed that the average individual consumes 50 percent more calories than they think they do.  Among more than 4,000 people reporting how much they ate for 4 days, men reported consuming an average of 2,065 Calories but actually consumed 3,119 Calories; women reported 1,570 while actually consuming 2,393.

Even trained dietitians underestimate calorie intakes, although to a lesser degree than the general population.

How about those cardio machines at the gym that make you feel good about the work you’re doing by displaying a running tally of your calories burned?  Also not reliable – they overestimate how many calories are burned with activity.

Independent of machines, people also overestimate how much they move by up to 72%.

The proof is in the pudding

Multiple studies show that a calorie-counting approach to weight loss is a failure.  That doesn’t mean it can’t work, but it’s generally not an effective method for the majority of people.

In the famous Women’s Health Initiative study, over 48,000 women were randomized to a diet restricting intake by 361 Calories per day versus the control group.  Theoretically, they should have lost more than 36 pounds per year according to the Calories In/Calories Out model.  Instead, after 7 years, there was an average weight loss of only 0.25 lb.  Multiple other studies show a similar failure to achieve weight loss by calorie restriction.

Does quantity of food matter?

Of course, yes.  The problem is that Calories are not necessarily the best way to measure the amount of food consumed.

Very clearly, there is a difference between the way our bodies respond to 100 Calories of sugar and the way our bodies respond to 100 Calories of chicken.  Sugar vs protein.  These food items are markedly different in regards to:

  • Micronutrient content
  • Satiety (fullness)
  • Hormonal response – insulin, leptin, etc.
  • Rate of metabolism (thermic effect of food)

It’s just far too simplistic to treat all calories as being identical, as our complex physiology certainly knows the difference.

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