It's snack time, and I'm staring at the apple on my desk, trying to work out whether or not I should eat it. According to MyFitnessPal, I should be eating 1750 kcal for the day, so I'm scrolling through my endless calorie options to log my snack. Every "medium apple" (whatever "medium" means) has a different calorie value. My first option is the uninspired but oddly specific sounding "three-inch diameter and 182g" apple at 95 kcal, but then I spot a 154 g Cameo apple at 80kcal. No, wait! There is a Spartan apple at 50 kcal. Unfortunately, it doesn't tell me how many grams it is (not like I was going to weigh it anyways). Regardless, I click on the Spartan apple because I want to ensure I "save" as many calories to eat later as I can.
And thus goes the majority of people who use calorie counters to lose weight. Does this sound problematic for anyone else or just me?
Calorie counting has been in vogue for many years, thanks to characters like Lulu Hunt Peters, a tireless suffragette, war supporter, doctor, and, in an odd twist, a patriotic fat-shamer, who in 1918 wrote a book entitled "Diet & Health: With Key to the Calories."
According to Peters, "hereafter you will eat calories of food. So instead of saying one slice of bread, or a piece of pie, you will say 100 Calories of bread, 350 Calories of pie." After reading this strongly worded quote from her book, I struggled not to shout "aye-aye Captain!".
Also read: Three great tips for a healthy body and mind
Understanding how calories work is, even today, important for weight loss. Food is comprised of energy, which is measured in calorie form. We consume the calories through our food and burn them up through our daily activity. If we eat more calories than we burn, it stores fat in our bodies. If we burn more than we consume, we may lose.
However, what we know today about weight loss and calories was novel in her time, so her insistence on educating women to view food as exclusively calories to measure, wrangle, and deny, rather than nourishment, was as novel to them as it was militant.
But if countless people worldwide are using calorie-tracking apps and still not seeing weight loss, it begs the question: does it always work, or is there more to this story than meets the eye.
Let's start with the calorie counting conundrum. It's not only the humble apple that suffers from this calorie misidentification. A cup of carrots can range from 37 kcal to 61 kcal. A "large" sweet potato can go from 231 kcal up to a staggering 705 kcal. Are they all wrong? No, in fact, when the grandfather of calorie measurement, Atwater, set out to measure the calories in a variety of food, the discrepancy was so much that the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations released a statement. "Foods, being biological materials, exhibit variations in composition; therefore, a database cannot accurately predict the composition of any given single sample of food."
Foods with nutrition labels aren't more precise. According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines, the manufacturer's responsibility is to test and record the calories and nutrients found on the label. However, there are multiple systems that companies can use, all of which can produce varied results. Because of this, the FDA has a discrepancy allowance of 20% on food labels. This means if you consume food containing 150 kcal, it can range from 130-180 kcal.
To make matters worse, not all of the calories listed for each food absorb into our bodies for use. How we process and cook our food impacts how many calories we absorb into our bodies. According to studies conducted in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, cooking increases the energy gained from carbohydrate and protein-rich foods.
We also have individual rates of absorption built into our guts. According to John Berardi, PhD, from Precision Nutrition, people with a higher proportion of Firmicutes bacteria may absorb, on average, 150 more calories than those with a higher proportion of Bacteriodetes.
While simply counting calories to lose weight is incredibly interesting in theory, it's out of our control. If weight loss is our goal, we want to take ownership of as many decisions as possible to influence the outcome.
So what is in our control?
First of all, not all calories are made equal. What is more nourishing, 100 kcal from an apple or 100 kcal worth of soda? What has more nutrients, 400 kcal of fats in your morning coffee or a breakfast of scrambled eggs, whole-wheat toast, and fruit? The choice is yours. You can choose to fuel your body with optimal nutrition or feel less satisfied with less healthy options.
Secondly, humans are notoriously bad at accurately eyeballing their portion sizes. Simply scooping more than 1 tbsp of nut butter could result in an additional 94 kcal that the dieter wasn't accounting for. A miscalculated portion of spaghetti, resulting in another 1/2 cup being unaccounted for, could be 110 kcal. A measly one ounce of cheese would add another 113 kcal.
Learning how to identify portion sizes accurately is an invaluable skill. Imagine that your portion sizes are based on the size of your hand. I use this method with great results with my clients, and it builds their awareness and confidence in making the right choices for their bodies. For example, a portion of protein is the size of your palm, carbohydrates are a cupped hand, vegetables are the size of your fist, and fats are the size of your thumb. It's not precise, but it's better than travelling with a food scale.
And finally, we need to tune into our bodies and listen to what they tell us. If you can listen to your physical cues of when to eat and how much to eat, you can eat intuitively, for your body and for your goals.
Jen Thomas is a woman's weight loss coach based out of Chennai, India