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Get excited about nutrition, and learn as you go with these information-packed resources on a wide variety of nutrition-centric topics! Our bistroMD experts review the importance of the macronutrients protein, fat, and carbohydrates, as well as how to make them work most efficiently for you.

Do I Need to Count Calories?

Nutrition experts explain the need, or lack thereof, regarding calorie counting and why focusing on overall nutrient content is vital to weight loss and health.

Do I Need to Count Calories?

So there you glancing at the Nutrition Facts label on a bag of nuts in the middle of an aisle. "Almost 200 calories per small ounce!?" you shriek to yourself and resort to the 100-calorie pack of chocolate chip cookies.

Should you only consider the calorie content, though? Here is what you need to know about calorie counting in regard to weight loss and health.

What Is a Calorie?

A calorie, or kilocalorie, is a unit of energy. More specifically, a calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water 1° Celsius.

Calories were first measured in a bomb calorimeter. The apparatus measures the heat created by a sample burned under an oxygen atmosphere in a closed vessel (bomb). It is surrounded by water under controlled conditions.

Fast forward to assigning calories on Nutrition Facts labels, food scientists determine the amount of each macronutrient in the food (i.e. carbohydrate, protein, and fat) and total the amounts of energy for each component. Specifically, both protein and carbohydrate contain 4 calories per gram (cals/g) and fat supplies 9 cals/g. Although not considered a macronutrient, alcohol supplies 7 cals/g.

In a nutshell, calories are important for supplying the body energy it needs to carry out physiological processes to sustain life. And when it comes to weight loss, and as the old saying goes, "calories out must exceed calories in." Right?

Kind of.

If the diet is not balanced with carb, protein, and fat, there are a bounty of health concerns. These include muscle breakdown and nutritional deficiencies that lead to greater problems.

Do I Need to Count Calories?

First and foremost, counting calories can be a useful tool for tracking food intake. However, fixating on a set number of calories can miss the mark for successful weight loss and true health. Here are just a few reasons why:

1. The body's natural metabolism is not a bomb calorimeter.

While the bomb calorimeter is valuable to measure calories, the body does not work equal to one.

For instance, the nitrogen content in protein is not oxidized in the body and rather eliminated via the urine or sweat. Therefore, the caloric equivalent of protein metabolism is estimated to be 26 percent less than in a bomb calorimeter.

2. Calories are not created the same.

A calorie is a calorie… Correct?

Well, sort of. Unfortunately, the way the body metabolizes and uses energy from different sources is not as simple as hoped or thought.

Think of this scenario: Side-by-side and ounce-per-ounce, potato chips and almonds contain comparable amounts of calories. But chips might be laden in trans fat, a fat warranted to be avoided based on its link to heart disease. Unlike chips, almonds are naturally rich in unsaturated fats, which may lower heart disease risk and inflammation in the body.

Relying on that carb and protein are 4 kcals/g partially insinuates 100 grams of chicken and brown rice are equivalent. This is not the case.

Chicken is a pure protein source while brown rice is ample in fiber. When most foods are consumed, they are digested and absorbed for energy. However, dietary fiber is a plant component that is unable to be digested by the body. This automatically tells 100 grams of protein and 100 grams of brown rice are not metabolized in the same fashion.

3. Counting calories can be daunting.

Calorie counters have made tracking daily calorie intake simpler. Counting them also gives you a tangible, numerical way to measure food intake. But becoming so preoccupied with tracking them can be mentally destructive and even reduce the enjoyment of food.

If homemade foods out with friends are devoid of calories, you might start to feel anxious and overwhelmed. Counting calories in food can take away from the experience of a shared meal with loved ones.

4. Dramatic and long-term caloric restriction is harmful.

Calorie restriction can facilitate weight loss. But doing so drastically and for the long-term can be extremely harmful and stressful to the body.

First off, the budge in the scale is not indicative of true fat loss and is primarily from initial water loss. In time, the body is likely to go into starvation mode, in which muscle stores are used for energy use. Metabolism starts to slow down, too.

And with calorie counting, you may opt for more foods devoid of nutritional value. The body can then be deprived of essential nutrients.

Ultimately, too, it is imperative to remember successful weight loss results from consistency.

Tips for Successful Weight Loss

While calories do play a role in weight loss, they should not be the primary determinant.

Decreasing calories to below what your body needs on a daily basis is important. However, the nutrient composition of them is critically as important.

Control calories, optimize nutritional content, and lose weight by:

• Adding various wholesome foods in the diet: Adding more whole foods into a balanced diet naturally increases nutrient content. It controls serving sizes and lowers the risk of filling up on highly processed products, too.

Incorporate more whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, lean and plant-based proteins, and healthy fats sources. Also, offer variety to ensure you are acquiring nutrients from all food sources.

• Noticing and appreciating how food makes you feel: A brownie can taste good at the moment and still be enjoyed. However, you will likely notice energy levels may plummet shortly after eating it.

On the other hand, a plate of chicken, brown rice, and roasted veggies is nourishing and supports a healthy, strong body. The more you start recognizing how nourishing foods make you feel, you will likely start to appreciate more wholesome foods.

• Increasing water intake: Although water is primarily devoid of nutrients, it is critical for both weight loss and overall health. Water assists the body in using nutrients from consumed foods and supports a healthy metabolism. It helps induce satiety and is naturally free of calories, too.

If desiring further assistance in calorie control and successful weight loss, bistroMD is here to help. It also takes the guesswork out of good nutrition!

Every meal provides a scientific balance of fiber, lean protein, healthy fat for safe and successful weight loss. Offering 200 recipes and a customizable menu, you are sure to find something to satisfy personal taste buds and meet goals.

Sarah Asay's Photo
Written By Sarah Asay, RDN. Published on November 07, 2012. Updated on July 17, 2019.


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