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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.

Why Counting Calories Doesn’t Cut It

Not all calories are created equal. Some will leave you starving, while others will fill you up. Some will make you hungry again in a couple of hours, while others will give you appetite staying-power.

Why Counting Calories Doesn’t Cut It

Let’s say you are one of those amazing people who painstakingly enter each and every food, serving size, and condiment to count calories on your smartphone app. This task can take as long as eating your meal, sometimes, and so our hat goes off to you. Eventually, you might find yourself eating the same foods over and over again, so that logging them is a bit easier. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with recording foods and counting calories - in fact, just this one habit can mean you will lose more weight than if you didn’t record your foods - if you are only monitoring your calories, it’s important to remember that there’s more to a calorie than meets the eye. Counting calories for weight loss sometimes just isn’t enough.

Most of us have heard the age-old calories in vs. calories out mantra. The problem is this - counting calories can work, but we can’t keep doing it forever. And sometimes, just knowing we are consuming fewer calories makes us even hungrier! So what’s in a calorie anyway?

We all know that fat, carbohydrates, and protein provide calories in foods. Alcohol does too. If you took one gram of each of these - you would wind up with different amounts of calories to count.

Protein and carbohydrates are calorically ‘equal’ but one has far more appetite-appeasing power than the other. A single gram of protein provides 4 kcals (or calories, if you are looking at food label) and a single gram of carbohydrate also gives you 4 kcals. However, when it comes to satiety - or the feeling of fullness - protein has the ability to keep you more satisfied, for longer.

For example, if you had a 4 oz piece of lean chicken that theoretically had no fat and contained 30 grams of protein, counting calories would mean it registers in at 120 kcals. Compare this to a side serving of carbohydrates, like 2/3 cup of cooked white rice - which has about 30 grams of carbohydrate and contains 120 calories for you to count. However, the chicken will undoubtedly keep you fuller, for longer, than the small bit of white rice will. Also, the protein will help maintain your muscle tissue, which is your best ally when it comes to maintaining or increasing your metabolic rate.

Protein trumps carbohydrates when it comes to satiety and metabolism, however it is important to consume both, as carbohydrates provide valuable fiber and other nutrients you need. The key is include both food types, in the right portion size, for every meal. It’s much, much more likely you will be served a double portion of rice than a double portion of chicken at a restaurant, which is especially important to remember when you are counting calories.

What about counting calories in fat? If fats in food were like ounces of gold, you would be very careful to measure and weigh every gram. Well, when it comes to counting calories in food, fat is truly a gold mine. That’s because single gram of fat gives you 9 kcals - or more than double the calories of protein or carbs - for the exact same amount. One tablespoon of olive oil contains 15grams of fat, but a whopping 135 kcals. Compare that to your piece of chicken or your serving of white rice which were only 120 calories, and that’s a huge difference!

Many people are convinced that fat is the most filling food, but research has shown it’s not - actually protein is the best at filling you up. So you could consume an 8 oz chicken breast or 2 tablespoons of olive for approximately the same calories. Which do you think would fill you up more? Fat is absolutely an essential part of a healthy diet, and so your best sources are going to be foods like avocados, flax seeds, nuts, and chia seeds, which contain fiber right alongside that fat. This will help you feel fuller, and provide additional nutrients outside of just healthy fats.

Anytime you are counting calories, don’t forget to count the alcohol! A single gram of alcohol will give you 7 kcals. Most alcoholic beverages contain 15 grams of alcohol for a standard drink serving, which would be a 12 ounce beer with 5% alcohol content, or 5 ounces of wine with 12% alcohol content. Hard liquor that is 80-proof (or 40% alcohol) is typically measured in ‘shots’ which is 1.5 ounces - or one jigger, for you bartenders - per serving. Each of these drinks contains about the same amount of alcohol, or 15g which give you just over 100 kcals. But alcohol isn’t the only component of these drinks. Beer and wine contain malt and sugars which give you additional calories, and liquor is often sugary-sweet or combined with other sugary beverages. So when you are counting calories, make sure you don’t forget to count the alcohol, and what’s included with them.

The worst part about counting calories from alcohol? You can count on eating more calories after that first drink.  Alcohol typically lowers your inhibitions and increases blood flow, both of which can cause you to consume more calories than if you didn’t have a drink. So drinking is definitely a double-whammy when it comes to counting calories, because it makes ordering dessert just a little be easier.

While tallying up your daily calories is a great way to discover foods that are calorie bombs - it’s even better to count nutrients, instead of calories. For example, 1 cup of strawberries and 2 sugar-free cookies have approximately the same number of calories - about 50 kcals. And yet the strawberries are going to provide more nutrients, like vitamins and healthy phytochemicals, than the cookies, making it the right choice when you are counting nutrients instead of calories.

Sydney Lappe's Photo
Written By Sydney Lappe, MS, RDN. Published on September 04, 2015. Updated on September 04, 2015.


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