Calorie counting is probably one of the best known methods for losing weight. It’s also been suffering from poor PR in recent years. The ‘calories in vs calories out’ equation has been derided as overly simplistic and controlling. It ‘takes the joy out of eating’ (somewhat true), doesn’t guarantee a perfect nutritional balance, and in some cases indirectly encourages people to eat out of a packet because they can read the calorie count on the label.
Calories in vs calories out
While some of these arguments are perfectly valid, my response to this is that a) there is no foolproof method – weight/fat loss is always a process of trial and error, and b) despite the arguments against, it does still work. My personal philosophy has been to count calories as part of the process of retraining my brain and as one strategy in a more holistic process of self-education about nutrition and the human body. Yes there are nutritional programs out there that use other means of measuring and tracking food intake. Weight Watchers, for example, applies a points system to food so that all you have to do is make sure you eat under your required points limit for the day, and you’re on track. The points are applied based partly on the calorie count of the food, so in the end it comes back to the same thing. Food ‘religions’ like the paleo diet, based around the idea that our cave-person ancestors only ate what they could hunt or gather (essentially eliminating many forms of carbohydrates and ‘bad’ fats through sheer unavailability), don’t count calories, however the food they predominantly eat happens to be naturally low calorie or calorie efficient.
Follow any of these well-reputed nutritional programs and combine it with the right type of exercise and you’ll probably end up eating fewer calories than you burn. Therefore, your body dips into its fat stores to find the energy it needs to function, burning fat, and voila – weight loss! So in the end, calorie counting, while pretty un-sexy and in some cases mentally demanding, continues to work.
To back-track a little, what is a calorie? A calorie is a unit of energy. To be more precise, it is the “amount of energy required to raise one gram of water by one degree Celsius” as Medical News Today explains. Every single process in the human body requires energy and therefore burns calories. We burn calories even when we’re in a coma, just keeping our organs functioning. This is known as your base metabolic rate.
Just as every function of our bodies burns calories, everything we eat contains a certain number of calories. Here’s a rough breakdown of this calculation:
- 1 gram of carbohydrates contains 4 calories
- 1 gram of protein contains 4 calories
- 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories
(Source: Medical News Today)
We can see from this that fat is comparatively more calorie dense than carbohydrates and protein. Possibly, this is where the traditional notion that fat is ‘bad’ comes from. In fact, fat is not the enemy, but I digress. However the important thing to note is that 1 gram of protein or fat will keep you fuller for longer, and generally has a broader range of nutritional benefit, than pure carbohydrates. It’s almost too easy to eat 250gm of bread or white rice in a sitting, but you have to work harder to get through 250gm of steak. Add to this an understanding of the thermic effect of food, (the amount of energy your body burns digesting your food, which happens to be greater for protein and fat than carbs) and you come to an understanding that protein and ‘good’ fats are essential components of any weight loss program. I’m not suggesting carbs are the enemy either, but you don’t get the same nutritional ‘bang for your buck’ from them that you get from protein and fat.
Calorie counting is not a perfect method for losing weight, but it’s one method, and it usually works, allowing some margin for error for the role of hormones, stress and metabolic disturbances. If the concept of calories is new to you I encourage you to read up on it, and then choose a program that you think will work for you and your nutritional needs.