Putting the Kibosh on Calorie Counting

food scale and calculatorAh, 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 about joules. 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: http://www.bmi-calculator.net/bmr-calculator . ) Daily activity adds to that, of course. The Harris-Benedict equation 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.

slim girlIt 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.

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