The shortcomings of calorie counting |05 May 2023
For some of us when we think about weight loss, we think about how much calories do I need to eat to be able to lose ‘x’ amount of weight. But if only it were as simple as just cutting down on calories then we wouldn’t have a problem with obesity worldwide.
In dietary guidelines and nutrition strategies across the globe including our own local one, there is no mention of people having to count their calories. That is simply because it is much more complex than what we perceive it to be. The approach used however is more food-focused and intake of whole foods are encouraged.
To improve our overall health, other than diet lifestyle habits such as exercise, smoking, alcohol and our sleep pattern all have to be taken into consideration. And when we think about our eating habits we require a deeper understanding of what and why we are eating and not just inputting numbers in an app or table to know how much calories is being taken in.
What is calories?
We can’t go further without first explaining what the term calorie means. In the context of nutrition, we will simply define it here as a unit of energy used to express the nutritional value of foods. Therefore, the amount of energy in a food item or drink may be measured in calories.
There are certain nutrients in food known as macronutrients that provides the body with energy. This energy can be measured as calories. The three main macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein and fat.
The calorie content of each macronutrient varies. One gramme of carbohydrate and one gramme of protein each provides the body with around four calories. One gramme of fat on the other hand provides nine calories, more than double the amount provided by carbohydrate and protein.
Whole food is more than just calories
This is where it gets interesting. It is too simplistic to look at a food and its total calories and label the food as bad or unhealthy. Most foods contain a mixture of nutrients. Therefore, one food may contain some or all three macronutrients in different proportions. In addition to that the food may also contain vitamins and minerals which are known as micronutrients.
A good example of a high calorie food which is actually really healthy is avocado. It contains a good amount of essential fatty acids alongside many vitamins and minerals like vitamin E, potassium and magnesium. It also contains dietary fibre which helps keep you fuller for longer and promotes good bowel health. On the flip side one doughnut containing a fairly similar amount of calories as an avocado (around 250) contains a lot of sugar, saturated fats and no fibre, vitamins and minerals.
This is a very good example of why we shouldn’t use calories alone to compare products. Just by looking at the calorie value of a food you would not know the overall nutritional composition of the food or its impact on satiety.
Another good example to further explain this is the comparison between a vegetable and a biscuit. There’s a big difference for instance between the nutrients in 200 calories of broccoli and 200 calories of biscuits, and in the portion size you would have to eat to get those calories.
You would need to eat 600 grammes of broccoli versus 42 grammes or two and a half chocolate digestives to get 200 calories. By the end of each meal you would find that the broccoli because of its higher fibre content would make you full whereas after finishing the biscuits you would still be hungry. The broccoli also contains many vitamins and minerals whereas the biscuit is mainly sugar, saturated fats and salt. This again highlights the importance to look at the nutrients present in the food and not just comparing how much calories they contain.
Shifting the focus to diet quality
If we think of calories as just a number this may lead to us avoiding high calorie foods which are filled with essential nutrients like avocado, nuts, seeds and olive oil all of which are important components of a healthy diet. Our focus should be on the whole food and what it provides.
Limiting food intake to meet a specified amount of calories without a clear indication of what kinds of food to eat has many pitfalls. The first is being unable to meet the body needs for essential nutrients due to limited food variety.
If for example you are eating 1200 calories but it is mainly highly processed foods which are low in nutrients like protein, vitamins and minerals then you may develop certain nutritional deficiencies or other health problems.
The foods selected may be low in calories but if they are highly processed, aside from being devoid of good nutrients, they contain a lot of additives and preservatives. You should really be diverting your attention consequently to the quality of the diet rather than the quantity when it comes to calories.
Another problem with restricting your calorie intake is ignoring your body cues for hunger or satiety. Over time a person may develop an obsession or very restricted way of eating which may eventually lead to an eating disorder. This also ends up severely limiting the diversity of the person’s diet.
It is noteworthy to emphasise that a lower calorie diet does not equate to a healthy diet simply because it depends on the quality, nutritional composition and diversity of foods being consumed in the first place.
Diversify your diet
The best way to promote good nutrition is to encourage the intake of a diversity of nutritious foods as illustrated in the Seychelles Food Guide. This includes eating fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, local tubers, breadfruit, fish, lean meat, eggs, milk products, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds and healthy oils.
It is acknowledged that calories are important for those working in the catering industry for menu planning purposes or nutrition professionals working with clients with specific nutritional needs. However, it’s clear that counting calories isn’t the answer for the population at large and that the focus should be on promoting whole, fresh and minimally processed foods as often as possible.
To avoid being too stringent highly processed foods can still be part of a healthy diet as long as they remain as occasional treats for a special occasion rather than being consumed daily. In doing so we shift the focus away from needing to count calories but rather on understanding that all foods can be enjoyed as part of a healthy and balanced diet.
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Yours in health
The E4OH team