You may have heard the phrase “calories in versus calories out” when it comes to losing weight. It is true that calories do count for losing weight. The idea of counting calories started around the turn of the 20th century with the invention of a machine that helped measure calories or energy in food.
If we could measure calories, then it must be useful to be able to count them. This belief has stuck with us for the last 100 years and has spurred the idea that you must eat fewer calories in order to lose weight.
Creating a calorie deficit is meant to force your body to look for calories elsewhere, hopefully in your fat stores, which will eventually lead to weight loss. It has been traditionally believed that you need to be in a deficit of 3,500 calories to lose one pound.
Most health professionals recommend a calorie deficit of 500 calories per day over the course of a week to achieve a pound of weight loss per week. But, as many of us who have tried these calorie-controlled diets know, every calorie is not created equal.
It is also very difficult to count calories accurately. Most of us have “portion distortion” where we don’t have any true understanding what a real portion looks like. This is made worse when we consume foods at buffets or at restaurants that serve huge portions. Even dietitians and nutritionists have a hard time accurately estimating calories.
When 200 dietitians were shown different restaurant meals, they were unable to accurately estimate the calories in the meals. Sometimes they were off by as much as 50%. If you want to more accurately estimate calories, it is important to actually measure or weigh your food instead just guessing on the exact amount. This is difficult to do in a restaurant setting since you don’t know the exact ingredients in the food, therefore it is best to prepare the food yourself for the most accurate measurement.
Not all calories are created equal. Some foods tell our body to store fat or release insulin more than other foods. Some foods have a thermic effect, meaning they use more energy when they are digested. The differences are small, but it they can add up. Foods that take more energy to digest and absorb are generally foods that are high in fibre and protein. For example, whole grain bread takes more calories to digest than white bread due to the fibre content. These high fibre, high protein foods also increase satiety or feeling of fullness, leading you to also eat fewer calories overall.
So should you count calories? Calorie counting may not be for everyone. If you are just starting out on a weight loss program, first begin by improving your food quality and eating less quantity to see if that gives you the results you want. Increase your intake of high fibre and high protein foods. Add more fruits and vegetables to your diet and cut out high sugar and processed foods.
After a few months of improving your diet, if you are still not getting the results you want, then you may want to consider counting calories to see if you are eating more than you think. There are many smartphone applications that help make calorie counting easier. Just make sure to actually measure your food before you consume it so you can begin to learn what a real portion looks like and get an accurate perspective.