The Obsolete Art of Calorie Counting

by Sergio Rivera

When real men go on a diet, they just eat. They don’t count.

That's a bold statement considering the association between the words diet and restriction. When I tell you to go on a diet, for instance, the message you’re going to get is “Eat less than you would eat on a typical day.”

If your idea of diet is more Spartan than just eating less, you’re going to hear something like “Eat nothing and make it look like you’re happy doing it.”

This is not to say that the association between diet and restriction is downright wrong. There are two ways to define the word diet, after all.

  1. The first definition, perhaps the one you're more familiar with, refers to the act of eating sparingly to reduce your weight
  2. The second definition refers to the practice of choosing the right kinds of food for a specific purpose, like weight loss, muscle gain, or recovery from a certain ailment.

Now I can hear you asking. Which one's the better definition? Which one should dictate the way we see and approach dieting?

If you ask me, I'm for quality over quantity. What’s the sense in counting when you’re eating the right kind of food?

A Short History of Calorie Counting

The calorie was first used as a unit of heat in the early 1800s. A calorie of heat increases the temperature of a gram of water by one degree celsius.

In 1887, an American chemist named Wilbur Atwater revolutionized the calorie. Burning food in a bomb calorimeter, Atwater measured how much heat the food released, and how much ash it left behind. He then used the data to figure out how much energy was in the food he burned.

The unit he used to express the energy found in food? The calorie.

Atwater’s experiment made the link between food energy concrete and practical. And it was not long before his fellow Americans got fond with the idea.

The entire nation fell in love with the calorie soon after. And because weight loss issues were abound then as it is now, Americans turned to the calorie for their diet and exercise plans. Thanks to Atwater, the burn-more-than-what-you-eat idea was at its most tangible state.

19th Century America also turned the calorie into a unit of morality. High-calorie foods were evil, low-calorie foods were good. Numbers made things so easy for the masses that calorie counting became a fad.

If anything, this explains why we can’t easily get off the hook when it comes to counting calories. Everybody has been doing it since time immemorial!

Simple Mathematics

The problem with calorie counting is the presumption that our bodies react to calories alone.

This is why high-fat low-carb diets seem counterintuitive. How the hell do you lose weight if you eat lots of fat, which has 9 calories per gram, over carbohydrate, which only has 4 calories per gram? The unit of morality alone is enough to tell us that fat is the evil one.

It doesn’t stop there. In bigger proportions, calories can make fat look super-evil.

Take this example. Your friend Dave ate 100 grams of carbs for 400 calories (100 grams x 4 calories per gram = 400 calories).

You on the other hand, ate 100 grams of fat for 900 calories (100 grams x 9 calories per gram = 900 calories).

Suppose you and Dave both weigh 210 pounds. To burn 400 calories, Dave has to run a six-minute mile (10 mph) for 16 minutes.

And you? You’ll need 36 minutes of the same exercise. You get to exercise for an extra 20 minutes! That’s a big difference considering that you and Dave both ate 100 grams of something, only that he ate carbs while you ate fat.

So who’s got the upper hand in this situation? Certainly not you on your high fat diet, right?

Numbers are not everything

Calories only tell you how much energy is in food. It can’t account for other details, like the ability to satisfy your hunger, for example.

How easy is it to eat 100 grams of carbs versus 100 grams of fat?

A can of Coca Cola Classic has 38.5 grams of carbohydrates. You’ll need three cans to get to the 100-gram mark.

How about fat? One tablespoon of butter contains about 12 grams fat, which means you’ll need about 9 or 10 tbsps to get to the 100-gram mark.

Which one’s easier to ingest? I’ve known guys who can go for five, even six cans of coke a day. I guess you can say that chugging down 100 grams of carbs isn’t all that difficult.

As for 10 tablespoons of butter, I guess that would be enough – in fact, more than enough – to make me feel full and bloated for a half day.

The benefits of calorie-counting, in theory are eye-opening. But in reality, there’s a big difference between eating this much carb and that much fat. That’s because your body reacts to carbs in a different way compared to fat.

Some Foods are made to Last

I practice intermittent fasting, which is why I only eat two meals a day for six days a week: lunch and dinner.

On days when I don’t work out, I stuff my first meal of the day with fat and protein sources. Bacon and eggs are my favorite.

A good lunch with a lot of fat and protein will last me around dinner time. I wouldn’t even have to worry about getting hungry in the afternoon.

Back in the day, things were very different. Before I got into the habit of fasting, I would start my day with a carb-heavy breakfast. Mom and dad always insisted that I eat “energy-giving foods during the most important meal of the day.”

Come to think of it, the problem with my carb-heavy breakfasts was that they couldn’t last me through the next meal. I would always feel hungry an hour or two before lunchtime.

What was the difference between satiety and nagging hunger? It wasn’t the amount of food I ate.

It was the type of food I ate.

Meals loaded with fat and protein made me full for hours. You can also say that it helped me stabilize my mood. Not having to worry about feeling hungry until my next meal always made me feel good. It gave me a sense of control over my time and energy.

My carbohydrate-based breakfasts meanwhile, were fast a goner. An hour before lunch, food fantasies would start knocking on my consciousness. My appetite would seem to double every passing minute. And as the clock approached noontime, I was more ready to eat a feast than a light pit-stop lunch.

Hormone Action

What makes fat, and up to some extent, protein, last longer than carbohydrate? Fat and protein stimulate the release of certain hormones that are responsible for making you feel full:

  1. Leptin – Leptin is released by your fat cells, telling your brain that you’ve eaten enough and that it’s time to turn the hunger signals off.

Calorie restriction inhibits the release of Leptin, while the ingestion of short-chain fatty acids (saturated fat) stimulates its production. 

  1. Ghrelin – Does the opposite of what leptin does. Ghrelin signals hunger and increases your appetite, particularly for high-carb foods.

High fat diets are proven to inhibit ghrelin levels among mice, giving us a clue that appetite suppression is more dependent on fat than on any other macronutrient in food.

  1. Peptide YY – Peptide YY is a hormone secreted in the small intestines. Peptide YY regulates appetite, and its release is mainly stimulated by protein and fat in the digestive tract.

What fat and protein can do to these hormones, carbohydrate cannot. In fact, carbs can even do the opposite of what fat and protein do. High carb diets inhibit leptin and peptide YY, while at the same time activating Ghrelin. These hormone effects trick your brain to think that you still haven’t eaten enough.

When this happens, there’s nothing left to suppress your appetite. You’ll end up eating more. The precious calories you counted can’t save you from your body’s desire to eat more.

On the other hand, eating more fat and protein makes you eat less throughout the day. That also means ingesting less calories than you would burn in a day. You’d never have to stress over amounts and you’ll enjoy your meal more.

By preferring certain macronutrients over others, you just rendered the art of calorie counting obsolete.

Eat All You Want Without Getting Fat

Another important hormone which makes calorie counting irrelevant is insulin. Insulin’s role is to regulate how the body uses glucose for energy. It also signals to store excess glucose for fat.

Dietary carbohydrates trigger insulin release. Fat meanwhile, has no effect on insulin. What this means is that you can eat all the fat you want without triggering the hormone that tells your body to store fat!

In one remarkable experiment, two men ate nothing but fat and protein for a year. “Inuit style” as they called it. Both men were fit and weight loss was not the goal of the study. Despite consuming 2,000 to 3,100 calories a day, they still lost weight by the end of the 12-month experiment!

A Calorie is a Calorie

In 18th Century France, long before the calorie was used as a measure of energy in food, there was no way of looking at food in terms of numbers.

It would take another 100 years before the invention of calorie counting, and before the invention of processed foods. Everybody enjoyed their healthy meals without counting, and without restrictions.

And yet the French, no matter how fond of eating they got, just couldn’t get fat.

At the end of the day it’s clear that food isn’t just about calories. There are other factors you should be looking at, like fiber content or how much you need to chew your food. If calories were all that mattered, most Americans would not have weight problems today.  

After all, the math of calorie management is so simple. Isn’t this the reason why we crave non-fat choices at the expense of increased carbohydrate intake?

A gram of carbohydrate over a gram of fat saves you five extra calories, right?

Dave, your carb-eating friend from the previous example, doesn’t think so now. He may have saved five extra calories per gram by going the carbohydrate route, but he’s still hungry after 100 grams. He still has an appetite after downing three cans of coke – if not immediately after, then he will soon enough. My guess is that he will binge out on the next meal.

You on the other hand, after downing 100 grams of fat, will be feeling full. You can stop thinking about food now that you won’t be hungry in five, maybe six hours. Go and spend your time doing something productive.

Sadly, you and I can’t convince everyone to forget calorie counting.

Calorie counting will always be popular, and a lot of people will abide by it regardless of all the evidence that it is way past its heyday. Once again the simplicity of it has won everyone over; the temptation to simplify everything into discernable and controllable units is hard to ignore.

Whereas the complexity of nutrition is oftentimes a burden for us, calorie counting keeps everything simple. 1 calorie + 1 calorie = 2 calories, and perhaps another rule that says you shouldn’t eat foods that go beyond 5 calories.

But go ahead and take a good look at your food choices. Ask yourself, am I going to eat just this, or will this force me to eat a lot more throughout the day? Enlightening answers will be abound once you figure out how one single serving of food dictates how you eat in 24 hours.

What do you think about calorie counting?

Let’s talk about calorie counting in the comments section below.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Chandan October 13, 2014 at 12:25 pm

Then how can we know that how much calorie deficit/surplus we are on?

Btw Nice Article!!

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2 Tom B November 23, 2016 at 12:33 pm

Who says that calories are the appropriate measure of diet?

The French drew up the laws of thermodynamics to measure the efficiency of fuels for steam engines 1824. It clearly states it is used to measure the fuel for closed thermodynamic systems.
A steam engine is clearly such a system. The human body is clearly NOT either a thermodynamic system or closed.
Atwater, an American!, applied calories to food some thirty years later. So Calories were never intended to be applied to food.
Calories do not measure nutrition.
Calories don’t exist, they are a measurement. So there are no calories inside food, we don’t eat calories and we therefore can not possibly burn them.

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3 Manly Nutrition January 23, 2017 at 2:58 pm

Rightly said Tom!

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