Before we start looking at the pros and cons of calorie counting, we should first take time to understand what a calorie is. It's not just something that makes a food tastier!
It is in fact a measure of the energy (more specifically heat energy) available in any food, or in fact, anything that contains energy. Coal has an abundance of calories, but I wouldn't suggest using it to fuel your workout. These days we know roughly how many calories you need based on how active you are, your age, gender, bodily build and whether you want to maintain, lose or gain weight.
Technically, the calories we all know and (maybe count) are actually kilocalories. That is, they are the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius. An actual calorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius, 1,000 times smaller than a kilocalorie.
So when you hear that you need 2,500 calories a day for example, it's actually 2,500 kilocalories, or 2,500,000 (2.5 million) calories daily. No that doesn't mean you're greedy! It's just that food manufacturers simplify to make numbers easier for us to understand, and probably because all those zeros wouldn't fit on the label.
Now we know what they are, let's take a look at some of the pros and cons of counting them.
- If you spend a little time on the mathematics of it, you can get a pretty good idea of how many calories you need consume each day to reach your goal, whether that's to lose, maintain or gain weight, or to improve exercise performance. Numbers don't fail either. If we use reasonably accurate formulas and can stick to what they say, then over time, the results we want will come.
- It helps us to better control portion sizes. Counting, even for a short time can help us to get a handle on exactly how much we should eat to meet our needs. I know a few people who have incredible calorie knowledge and it helps them to weigh up (almost literally) the portion sizes they require so that they ensure they get what they need without going over the top.
- It helps us make better choices about what to eat. I'll be honest, I've often had little idea of how many calories are in the foods I eat, but in recent times it's been good to become more aware. It's certainly stopped me having quite as many custard creams with my evening cup of decaf tea. Certain foods (often the less healthy choices) are more calorie dense, that is they contain lots of calories in a small amount of food. They're also often lower in fibre, meaning you need to eat more of them before you feel full. Put these together and it's easy to eat way over your calorie needs. Getting to know your numbers can help you to know when to stop.
- It's hard work. It takes a lot of time and effort to remember to log everything and weigh and measure foods so that you're getting accurate readings. This can also be mentally challenging, making food seem less enjoyable and somewhat of a chore.
- It comes with a degree of inaccuracy. Even the most detailed calculations available are based on estimates. The only ways to know exactly how many calories you need are complex and expensive. One is to be tested in a special room that examines the content of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the air as you go about your daily life. These rooms are generally only found in science labs and universities, so it's unlikely many of us will be able to have these tests. Another is to drink a specially altered (and very expensive) water that can be tracked as it passes through your body. Equally, it's almost impossible to assess exactly how many calories we eat on a daily basis - we're bound to forget things and can't weigh and measure all the foods we eat when we're out and about.
- One of the strongest arguments against calorie counting must be that humankind has successfully managed its weight over millennia without food labels and MyFitnessPal to help. The question is of course, how have we done this? There are a few simple things we can focus on which can help us to maintain or lose weight...
1) Learn to listen to your body - the Jedi power of tuning in to what your body is telling you is accessible to all, but its one that appears to be getting forgotten. Spending some time assessing how you feel before you eat may make a bigger difference than you'd think - are you hungry, or are you thirsty, tired, stressed, angry, upset, happy or bored? All of these and more can lead to us reach for food when that's not actually what we need.
2) Make better choices - whilst it's not impossible, it's much harder to gain weight on a diet low in processed foods. Natural foods are higher in fibre and water and so fill us up more quickly.
3) Be active - moving on a daily basis through exercise but also just daily life activities like walking and housework all helps to use calories and balance the scales. You don't have to go back to washing clothes by hand in the local river and then running them through a mangle, but using stairs, making your work commute active, getting out on lunch breaks, making family time active and even standing instead of sitting will over time have a big impact.
That's it for our balanced view on whether to count calories. The choice of course is, as always, yours to make and should be based on what works best for you.
Have a question? Want to know how to estimate your daily calorie needs or how to know how many calories you're burning? Post it on here and I'll be happy to help.