Why Counting Calories For Weight Loss Is Just A Bad Idea

It’s human nature to look for simple solutions, and it doesn’t get much simpler than counting calories if you want to burn the fat or keep it off. After all, you can only lose fat if you burn more calories than you consume.

Simple isn’t it? Unfortunately, when it comes to measuring caloric values, things aren’t always this clear cut.

Why Caloric Values Are Imprecise

“The standard practice to calculate energy available to your body is by measuring caloric value based on nutrition content of a food – 9 calories for 1g of fat, 4 for 1g of protein, 4 for 1g of carb, and 7 for 1g of alcohol”

It’s simple for scientists to measure the amount of calories a food contains because that can be done quite easily in a laboratory. However, our bodies absorb only some of the calories in our food – this is called the metabolizable energy (ME).

Food labels display the ME count of the food but this figure is obviously not as accurate since it involves calculating how many calories will be absorbed by your digestive system. Additionally, calculating ME is not a very easy task.

Counting Calories Using An Example

To simplify ME calculation, we simply consider caloric value based on nutrition content of the food – 9 calories for 1g of fat, 4 for 1g of protein, 4 for 1g of carb, and 7 for 1g of alcohol.

In other words, if your packet of chips contains 60g of fat, 10g of protein, and 30g of carbs, this is what the ME calculation would look like:

60g of fat x 9 calories + 10g of protein x 4 calories + 30g of carbs x 4 calories = 540 fat calories + 40 protein calories + 120 carb calories = 700 total calories

In addition, scientists point out that there are still more variables to consider, such as the role of gut bacteria and immunity in energy absorption, as well as differences in energy absorption from processed and raw foods.

Difficulties Calculating Calorie Expenditure

“Dietitians and weight loss apps use a formula to calculate energy expenditure, using variables like age, height, weight, gender, and so on, but it only offers a rough estimate”

Measuring calorie content in foods is tough enough, but it gets even more complicated when you need to gauge calorie expenditure. The technology for such precise calculations does exist, but it’s extremely expensive and not practical for the common man.

So, most of us have to rely on less accurate formula, taking into account age, height, weight, gender, and so on.

The Formula Used To Calculate Calories Burned

Most dietitians and weight loss apps use this method to calculate calories burned when you are at rest – daily energy expenditure. Although not very accurate, it helps to give you a rough estimate of calories burned. Here’s what the actual calculation looks like –

basal energy expenditure + non-exercise activity thermogenesis + physical activity + thermic effect of food = total daily energy expenditure

That may look like rocket physics, but once you understand each of these components, you will have a better picture.

1. Basal Energy Expenditure

“This describes energy utilized at rest, accounting for 45 to 70 percent of daily energy expenditure”

Also termed as BEE, this describes energy utilized at rest, therefore constituting the bulk of your calorie expenditure in a day. It usually accounts for 45 to 70 percent of energy expenditure and includes energy used for essential metabolic functions like breathing and maintenance of normal body temperature.

This can be affected by variables like weight, height, gender, and so on, as well as health conditions like hyper or hypothyroidism, so it isn’t 100% accurate.

2. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis

“This refers to energy utilization on everyday activities, from brushing your teeth to getting dressed”

Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis or NEAT refers to energy utilization on everyday activities, from brushing your teeth to the calories burned in sex, assuming you have sex daily! Calories burned in these everyday activities will vary among different individuals, but on an average, simply fidgeting is said to burn around 350 calories a day!

3. Physical Activity

“Physical activity is an essential component of weight loss and fitness,but does not contribute much to daily energy expenditure”

Most of us think that physical activities and exercises like squats, running, or playing football will burn most of those ingested calories, but it’s a misguided approach to weight loss. While physical activity is an essential component of weight loss, and more so for fitness, it does not contribute greatly to your daily energy expenditure and varies among different individuals.

4. Thermic Effect of Food

“This refers to energy expenditure on the very process of eating and digesting foods”

Strange as it may seem, the very act  of ingesting calories contributes to calorie burn, as eating food and digesting food utilizes around 10% of your daily caloric burn. This is described as the thermic effect of food (TEF), but it’s certainly no excuse to eat more.

Energy required for digestion will vary depending on the type of food, with fat and simple carbs requiring the least energy and proteins and complex carbs requiring a lot more.

The Takeaway

Still confused? Perhaps that’s the point here. Counting calories, whether in food or energy expenditure, is imprecise and based on equations that that include a variety of variables.

So, while you can use calorie tracking and counting as a rough guide to healthy eating it is by no means a foolproof method to reach those weight loss or fitness goals.

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