Calories calories calories. The big/tiny issue we all are constantly worried about. Having said that, it is more than a math problem. Despite the popular adage, fueling our bodies is not exactly like filling a gas tank. I wish it were that simple. But reality is a little more complicated than that. If you want to look at it in a shallow matter, or in the law of thermodynamics, it goes as the following: take in more calories than you expend, you gain weight. Take in fewer calories than you expend, you lose weight. But reality is rather a guess-timate game. Some research states that there is a 20% inaccuracy percentage in the calories listed on packages.
Calories on food labels use generic factors and cannot be generalized. You can’t really trust that the numbers found on applications or food packages because they are just an average taken from a wide range of foods. The way they’re calculatedis surprisingly imprecise; they are perhaps within the correct range but fact is -once the food is cooked, or chopped, or blended, the amount of energy available for digestion and absorption changes due the change in its status and form. Then there’s what happens once that food enters your body… that is a whole different story.
That’s why, today, I will share some problems with calorie counting as a method to monitor your weight:
1 || Calories are imprecise
The calorie counts on food labels and in databases are averages. Research shows that the true calorie content of what you’re eating is often higher or lower than what it appears on the food labels. Foods are biological materials and they vary in composition. This is due to many factors from soil and growing conditions, ripeness at time of harvest to the animals’ diets and storage length. Different batches of both natural and processed foods can vary in their exact contents depending on these factors and much more. So it is wise and legit to state that one test can’t accurately predict all different foods.
2 || Even if they were precise, we do not really absorb all the calories we consume.
Did you know that some calories pass through our bodies undigested? This depends on the nature of the actual foods we are consuming. For an example, Carbohydrates and proteins have the same caloric count per gram (4KCAL per gram). Carbohydrates are naturally high in fiber; but also the fiber differs in texture and the bacteria or microbiota content from one carbohydrate food to the other (for an example – sweet potato or white bread). It has also been proven that energy absorption from proteins vary from a piece of steak to eggs. So when you try and count your calories that you got from your lunch that should contain some carbs and some protein, it will not be the correct number you are hoping it would be.
3 || How you prepare food changes its calorie load
Caloric values shown on the food labels for are often given for the raw or uncooked food. However, cooking a food can significantly alter its nutritional profile and the number of calories present in the same quantity by its weight. You might wonder why, even when foods are cooked without additional fat, their caloric values per 100g increases slightly. One of the obvious reasons is that the water present in the raw food is often lost during cooking, and this increases the density or concentration and eventually the caloric value of the cooked food. For an example, 100g of raw chicken contains 75.8g of water and 21.2g of protein. When the chicken is grilled or roasted, water is drained so that there is 65.3g of water and 30g of protein present in every 100g of roasted meat.
4 || Calorie absorption differs between people
Each individual digests food differently, this all goes back to the type and abundance of bacteria in their gut. For an example, individuals with high fat percent may have an abundance of certain types of gut bacteria, making them more efficient at absorbing calories. Another example of that is individuals with lactose intolerance, insulin resistance or Type 2 diabetes can also absorb calories and nutrients differently or less efficiently – depending on their situation and their ability to utilize these calories efficiently.
Zein Nimri is an AFPA certified sports nutritionist, NESTA kids nutritionist, long distance runner, cyclist and traveller with big dreams. Follow her on Instagram @Zeinutritionist