Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

5 Reasons I Hate Calorie Counting

I hate calorie counting.

Don't get me wrong - I think calories count. The total amount of food you eat matters.

But counting calories to manage your food and exercise?

I hate it.

Here are five reasons why.

#1: It creates a false equivalency.

Counting calories lets you pretend that a calorie is just a calorie. It tells you all calories are equal. 300 calories of pizza, 300 calories of chicken, 300 calories of beans, 300 calories of soda - it's all 300 calories, right?


But they have completely different effects on your body. 300 calories of nutrient-dense, protein-filled food beats 300 calories of soda with a stick.

They aren't the same.

We know this.

Yet the calorie count tells us common sense is wrong, it's all the same.

We don't do this with exercise - we don't swap out 30 reps of pushups with 30 reps of biceps curls and say it's the same. We don't equate 10 sets of 10 with 100 pounds (10,000 pounds) with 5 sets of 5 with 400 (also 10,000 pounds.)

(Okay, people do tell me that they skipped squats but it's okay because they did the treadmill for 20 minutes.)

Calorie counting does that.

It even does it in reverse - 300 calories worth of biking negates 300 calories of beer, right? That hurts just to read, doesn't it? Your body isn't running a daily account total and deals with the net/net at the end of the day. It takes each stimulus (300 calories of energy burning doing bike sprints, 300 calories of beer) and applies both to you.

Even if you stay aware of this, it's hard not to fall into the "300 of X is equal to 300 of Y" trap.

#2: Calorie counts don't measure food value.

A calorie is a measurement of heat. They're calculated for food by incinerating it in what's called a bomb calorimeter to see how much heat the food gives off.

So right there, we have an issue - your body isn't a bomb calorimeter. It doesn't incinerate your food and reduce it all to its component energy. It doesn't always digest everything you eat. You might eat 300 calories of food and digest most of it, some of it, or almost none of it. Probably most, but you can't be sure.

Even so, how useful that food is to your body isn't measured. Your body uses macronutrients (which have calories, and provide fuel) and micronutrients (which don't, and provided needed chemicals.)

Your body seeks macronutrients and micronutrients, not just a sum total of calories.

You can get thinner just eating twinkies, and improve your blood work by dropping excess pounds. But that's not a sustainable model for health. Any diet with insufficient food will get you thinner - they don't get you healthy.

#3: Calorie counts and needs aren't accurate.

You know those calculators that estimate your calorie needs? They're based on formula put together based on studies. Different formulas will give you different calorie counts.

All of them are estimates. They're expanded from the original sample groups. Even there, if they come within 10% or so of your actual needs, they're doing really well. Twice that is more common. After all, it's an estimate based on an average.

That's even assuming you correctly estimated your activity, measured your weight, and so on.

So are the calorie listings on food labels.

They're based on a small sample of those foods. The those results are rounded off to whole numbers (not a lot of food with 173 calories, but 170 and 175, sure.) They can vary widely each way - plus or minus 25% according to some estimates.

And that's assuming you measure the foods right when you count. If not, you are:

- estimating your needs.

- estimating the caloric value of food.

- and estimating the amount you ate.

Those estimates aren't negating each other, they're compounding each other.

#4: It's easier with processed foods.

Ever track your calories with an app or a website?

It's vastly easier to find the calories for processed junk than for complex but healthy dishes.

Had a piece of name-brand frozen pizza? No problem, calories are on the box.

Made a salad with three kinds of lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, celery, cucumber, olives, and topped it with spices and extra virgin olive oil? That's at least seven ingredients to measure, weigh, look up, and add in. If you estimate and eyeball it, you're adding your own inaccuracy on top of the estimates. That's even assuming you find the right calorie count for the food you chose.

#5: It's difficult.

Finally, it's just hard.

You have to know exactly how much of what you ate, just to cut down from three points of estimation to two. You have weight foods. You have to mind the calories from everything, healthy or not.

It's all the hard work of tracking your food and planning your meals, plus math based on inaccurate numbers.

And that's if you plan.

If you don't plan your meals, you end up with those late-night "got to get in 500 more calories!" moments. Or "I'm starving and I only have 100 calories left for today!" Neither is conducive to a stress-free eating experience.

For those five reasons, I hate calorie counting.

So, calorie counting doesn't work?

It can work, but I find it usually doesn't, based on the five reasons above.

If you can manage it, and find the downsides are outweighed by the upsides - by all means, count away!

What's the alternative?

I prefer people to just go for portion control. I point people to Precision Nutrition's hand/fist/thumb approach, because the approach is easy enough. It's a good starting point. Where we go from there - and foods, and meal count, and so on - is more individualized. But we don't go with calories . . . and now you know why.

Agree? Disagree? Have a different spin on this post? Feel free to comment below!


  1. I totally agree on the logic but using an app and counting that way is about as much as I can handle with work and life. Remembering that 300 calories of candy bars vs fruits and veggies is something I need to keep in mind. Also, I still can't get into eating smaller meals more often. It's too damn hard right now time wise.

    I may have to dive into a more serious approach as I approach 200lbs. It's still working right now though!!! :)

    1. Perhaps I've just seen way too many people undereating, choosing the easier-to-log food, and making the total calories for the day matter more than the food they eat.

      Like I said, it can work. I'd suggest using the app and the counting to learn how to eyeball what's a serving of food, how much food is really one sufficient meal, etc. You want to learn to transition off at some point or you'll have to weight, log, and track every time you want to control your food.


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