Putting the Kibosh on Calorie Counting
Ah, pity the poor maligned calorie
Rarely in history has a unit of energy been so vilified and misunderstood. You never hear people saying bad things
. Heck, famous authors have been named after
them. Remember Joules Verne?
So what is a calorie anyway, and why the bad rap?
In physics, a calorie is the amount of energy needed to heat one gram of water one degree Celsius (about 4.2 joules).
The “dietary calorie” (or “large” or “food” calorie) is 1000 times that amount, or the
amount of energy needed to heat one kilogram of water one degree Celsius. (Technically, the calorie is written with the
lowercase “c” while the dietary Calorie is written with the uppercase “C.” Totally clear, right?
Anyway, from here on, I’ll be referring to dietary calories every time I write “calories,” whether I
capitalize the first “c” or not.) On food labels from some metric system countries, calories are listed
as “kcals.” That wacky metric system!
I’m reminded of the food label for Slim Fast™ meal replacement shakes where after
listing the calories it adds, “(Energy)”. Yes, they apparently want people to believe that its calories are
somehow special. Of course, it may unintentionally lead some people to buy ice cream instead to get even
more “energy.” But I digress a little.
Anyway, calories are indeed a measure of energy, and without enough of them we starve. So, yay calories! Even the
couch potato burns calories all day as the body performs basic functions like pumping blood, digesting food, regulating
temperature, and thinking about getting off the darn couch. This minimum caloric requirement is your “basal metabolic
rate” (or BMR) and in a typical five-foot five-inch, 140 pound, 30-year old female is estimated to be about
1400 calories per day. (You can find BMR calculators online, like this one:
Daily activity adds to that, of course. The Harris-Benedict
attempts to estimate caloric needs based
on the BMR and activity level from sedentary to extremely active. A calorie-counting dieter tries to consume fewer calories
than this in the hope that the body will then start burning off its stored fat.
It sounds like a reasonable plan, and it will actually work, but it is fraught with peril and disappointment. Calorie
counting is not just a huge pain in the butt, it’s also unsustainable. No one is going to keep it up, day in and
day out, for the rest of their lives. And besides, there’s a lot more to the fat-loss story than just calories in
and calories out. So what else is going on? Hey, this is a newsletter, not a novel. But stick around and you can be sure
there will be more on the subject.
Meanwhile, don’t fall prey to the calorie obsession. For starters, eat good foods (you know what they are!) and
let the (potato) chips fall far, far away. If you’re really keen on counting, get a pedometer and start counting your daily
steps. (10,000 is a good goal.) And of course, don’t think that consuming more calories means you’ll
have more energy, even if the nutrition label says so. But if it lists joules ... oh never mind.
Be seeing you.