Anyone who is trying to lose weight is familiar with the concept of creating a calorie deficit. The idea, of course, is to eat fewer calories than you burn throughout the day to generate weight loss. While this approach may seem simple, there are several factors that are not immediately considered with the idea that “a calorie is a calorie.”
Educational tidbit time! A calorie is a measurement of how much energy is required to raise 1 gram of water by 1 degree celsius at sea level. When it comes to food, exercise, and energy balance, the calories we track for our daily intake and expenditure are actually large calories, or kilocalories (seen as kcal) where 1 kcal is the equivalent to 1000 small calories.
The primary problem I find with focusing on energy balance alone (a.k.a. calories in vs. calories out) is that it does not take into account the actual nutrition of a food! For example, drinking a soda might rack up a 150 kcal intake, but compared to a 150 kcal of chicken and veggies, you aren’t getting a whole lot of bang for your calorie buck. The chicken and veggies will fill you with protein, fiber, and important nutrients, while the soda will leave you with a whole lot of sugar, some unidentifiable chemicals, and little else. This concept is thought of as the nutritional density of food. Nutritionally dense foods are those that offer lots of nutrition for relatively few calories. Similarly, but not to be confused, calorically dense foods are those that are high in calories, whether or not they offer other nutritional properties. While I do not agree that using calories alone to track food intake is a good idea, I will say that for some people, keeping an eye on calories helps to put a focus on eating more nutritionally dense foods so as to be able to consume more food in general.
The second problem that I find with counting calories is that it is tedious and inexact. While the concept of energy balance is important, I find it is better to get an idea of healthy portion sizes and adjust your food intake based on your energy levels and extended results. Keeping a food journal to see how much and of what you are eating can be an incredibly useful tool, even without exact calorie counts! Because many real foods do not come with labels, sometimes it can be a real challenge to find exact calories, and, for some, this can take the emphasis away from eating real food. Focus on finding real foods first, familiarize yourself with general calories per food if you’d like, and eat a variety of foods in moderation.
Finally, by relying on calorie counting and working towards a calorie deficit, it seems that many people fall into an unhealthy relationship with food. It is a slippery slope that can easily lead to obsessing over burning off excess calories, and using exercise or under-eating as a way to “make up” for prior overeating. The most important thing to remember is that food is fuel! Our bodies function optimally when fed a variety of nutrients in the form of adequate energy, or simply, eat healthy foods and eat enough of them! By focusing on nourishing our bodies rather than punishing ourselves for what we consider to be poor food or exercise choices, we can develop a much healthier relationship with food.
In short, not all calories are created equally, and in my opinion, focusing on calories is not the best way towards optimal health. Of course, it is very important to find strategies for maintaining your health that work for you! Questions or comments? I’d love to hear them! Stay healthy friends!