Beach season is done (at least in the Midwest), but it still seems that everyone and their mother is looking to drop a few pounds, or, not to leave the bros out, looking to chisel out that six-pack.
Regardless of the time of year, there’s always someone out there looking to trim up or get “shredded.”
And what do they do?
They hit the gym, or try to run themselves skinny, and then they start watching their diet, specifically their calorie intake.
What’s wrong with this?
Well, while energy balance (calories in vs. calories out) is a huge determining factor if you’re looking to gain or lose weight, for most people, focusing on calorie consumption is putting the cart before the horse.
You see, before you can concern yourself with calorie intake, you need to establish habits of eating the right types of foods, eliminate nutrient deficiencies, and improve metabolic function through improved sleep and stress management.
If you’re a weight loss client and you go to a coach or trainer with poor eating habits and nutrient deficiencies, they will only be doing you a disservice by immediately focusing on reducing your caloric intake.
Often time they will compound this with having you do the tedious work of counting your calories.
Now, in this short series of articles, I am going to cover how to properly create the correct energy balance in order to gain or lose weight. However, before we get into that I want to tackle this topic of calorie counting.
In my sometimes not-so-humble opinion, I firmly believe that calorie-counting should be a last-resort. Unless you are a hardcore bodybuilder or figure athletes preparing for a competition, calorie counting is simply unnecessary and can be quite unreliable.
To be blunt, it is a waste of your time.
Why is counting calories a waste of time?
Since I’ve opened Pandora’s box by allowing myself to write on this topic, I’m going to try my best to keep this short.
- It sucks
Let’s be honest with ourselves for a minute. Not many people like to do math.
Because clinical studies show that math absolutely sucks.
Now, I’m sure there are the select few who are giddy at the idea of dusting off their old TI-89 calculator to crunch those numbers. However, I’m fairly confident a vast majority of you are growing nauseous at the thought.
Counting calories is tedious, time-consuming work, requiring you to measure serving sizes, look up certain food items on less than reliable apps and databases, deal with constant eye-rolling of friends and family, and then add everything up at the end of the day.
On top of that your going to either have to pay for a test to find your resting metabolic rate (how many calories you burn at rest), or use one of many equations that, more often than not, have huge margins for error.
In addition, if you choose to go the route of the test or use an equation that doesn’t factor in activity level, then you are going to need to count your energy exposure as well.
When all is said and done, this is probably just going to be more stress added to your daily routine with, what will be for most, very little return on investment where results are concerned.
- Variables for measuring “calories in”
In case you want me to provide a bit more information than, “it sucks,” it’s worth noting that there are many variables that skew measurements for calorie consumption. Some would say the margin for error is even as large as 20-25%.
For starters, there’s human error.
Are you truly measuring out every serving? Are you using scales to weigh your food? Are you leveling-off every measurement?
You get the idea.
In addition, there’s also the fact that both nutrient and caloric density of food can vary significantly based on how they are grown. Growing methods used, soil quality, and other variables all factor in.
Finally, there’s the FDA.
If you’ve read many of my articles, you may know by now how much I love the information put out by government run and funded organizations…
In all honesty though, this is a matter of widespread unreliability of calorie totals on food labels and restaurant-provided nutrition information.
To give you an idea of what you’re dealing with, it’s well worth noting that research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has shown that calorie totals of nearly 20% of tested menu items at chain-restaurants were underestimated by more than 100 calories.
On top of that, our good old friends at the FDA consider it acceptable for some foods, specifically frozen foods, to be under-estimated by up to 20%.
There you have it, The Food and Drug Administration: “Protecting and Promoting Your Health.”
Yeah… about that….
- Variables for measuring “calories out”
No government organizations to bash here. There are just lots of variables that affect the accuracy of measuring caloric expenditure or “calorie burn.”
So, what exactly contributes to energy expenditure?
Literally everything you do.
First off, there is your resting metabolic rate, which I mentioned earlier. However, even with an accurate estimate received through proper testing, this number can vary regularly through the influence of hormone balance, ambient temperature, and other factors.
There’s also something called the thermic effect of food (TEF), which I discussed in my article on protein. TEF includes the energy it takes to digest, absorb, metabolize, and store the food you consume. Or, in other words, the amount of energy it takes for your body to process the food you eat. This number, itself, varies depending on the types and quantity of food consumed.
Of course, let’s also not forget physical activity.
This category not only includes your training session, but also your walks to the bathroom, the trips up and down the stairs, the restless leg syndrome you have sitting at your desk, and all the other small physical activities we engage in throughout the day.
Nowadays, there are many tools available to us that give us estimates of these numbers. However, I hate to break it to you, while your heart rate monitors and FitBits are great and helpful tools, there are simply just too many variables for them to accurately calculate energy expenditure.
Considering these and other variables that go into energy expenditure, it’s hard to make an argument that calculating energy expenditure, especially on a regular basis, is going to be time well-spent for most people.
- Calories are not created equal
A calorie is not a calorie is not a calorie. Not every calorie consumed by the body is as useful as the next, nor is it treated the same.
Q: Are 2000 calories of donuts going to be promote function and performance to same degree as 2000 calories of a balanced diet?
As much as I loathe this expression, at the end of the day, calorie intake doesn’t matter until certain habits are established.
Over-fed or under-fed, a nutrient deficiency is still a nutrient deficiency. Worrying about creating a caloric deficit for weight loss or caloric surplus for weight gain, for all intents and purposes, in senseless if it cannot be done properly.
So, while quantity absolutely does matter, worrying about it will only get you so far without quality.
So, keep your cart in front of the horse. Then, keep your eyes open for my next two posts as we will discuss how to manage energy balance in order to create weight loss or weight gain.