Why Calories In, Calories Out Isn't As Simple As It Seems

It's January and people are making resolutions. Losing weight is the #1 resolution that people make this month, with over 21% of adults seeking to shed some pounds. Thus, food and its caloric intake is a very hot topic and app download segment. A search for calorie counting apps yields 1.1 million results in Google, and a slew of articles listing the top apps. 

In my teens, I learned what a calorie was. I learned to count them, and to monitor macros, particularly fat. It was the low-fat craze days, and woe to those like myself who got on its train-to-poorer-health. I've since learned that low-fat packaged foods are also generally low in nutrition and high in calories, while natural high-fat foods are mainly high-nutrition compared to their calories. (More on that another time). 

But is a calorie always a calorie? Popular advice says that if we take in less than we expend, we'll gain weight. Conversely, if we burn more than we consume, we'll drop weight.

Not according to science. A recent Greatist article, "Why You Shouldn't Trust Calorie Counts," that helped me gather my own thoughts on the calorie subject. From what I've learned and what this article postures, a calorie isn't always just a calorie. Some foods burn more during digestion, while others slow down the metabolism and cause inflammation. Every body is different and thus, how our bodies handle food and its energy also differs. A 2,000 calorie intake of brownie sundaes will perform very differently in your body than 2,000 calories of lean proteins, vegetables, healthy fats and intact grains.

My takeaway is: 

Focus on nutrition, not calories. 

The article author, Emily Shoemaker, breaks down why food nutrition fact labels (an indicator of gross energy) aren't a great indicator of actual calorie absorption (net energy). Actual calorie needs are complex and are determined by resting metabolic rate, physical activity, the thermic effect of food (calories required to digest food) and non-exercise activity (like standing at work, fidgeting, or cleaning the house). 

I know that calorie-for-calorie, if I eat a salad for lunch with plenty of protein and good fats, I'm going feel energized, but I also get hungrier faster (raw vegetables take more calories to digest!) than if I eat less calories in a cooked soup. Calculators and diets are good guides, but listen to your body and observe what real nutrition can do for that bio-machine that runs you.

I recommend reading the article at Greatist, but if you can't afford the time, here are the four key areas that equate into a person's daily energy expenditure: 

basal energy expenditure + physical activity + non-exercise activity thermogenesis + thermic effect of food = total daily energy expenditure

As mentioned in the article, tracking calories can be a valuable method for self-monitoring, even if calorie counts aren't accurate. Alternative tools like Orac and NuVal highlight the healthfulness of foods. 

Resolving to eat better and to exercise is always a good choice, but my advice is to not obsess over digits in an app. Instead amp up your unprocessed foods intake and see if you feel better, and as a side benefit, lose weight since they take more energy to digest and are more nourishing to your body. 

In the end, educating yourself on what whole, nutrient-dense foods are and how to prepare, portion and consume them on the regs is a more sustainable lifestyle strategy. Oh, and be sure to ENJOY what you eat with gratitude. 

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