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  • Dan Connors

Five reasons that counting calories is trickier than it seems.

Updated: Apr 17, 2022

The first thing that many of us do when beginning to start a diet is to count calories. All foods have caloric loads, and those with the higher number are bad while those low in calories are good by this theory. If you keep your total for the day below a set number, say 2000 calories, you are guaranteed to lose weight. This turns out to be not exactly correct.

As an accountant by profession, I can testify to the power of data. Keeping track of things like money and time are valuable tools in avoiding waste and fraud. If there was no accounting system, banks wouldn't exist and we'd all be bartering apples and oranges. So weighing yourself and logging those numbers are helpful in seeing where you are in relation to your goals. Keeping track of the calories that you consume (and work off) is helpful in that it helps you pinpoint dangerous foods and situations that blow up your diet.

But relying only on low-calorie or low-fat foods is a bad way to diet, and probably unsustainable. Only a dogged few of us are able to keep records day after day, even with the help of apps on our smart phones. And once you miss a few days, or get confused about what constitutes a "serving", the data becomes less and less accurate or useful.

Here are the top five ways that calorie counting doesn't capture the big picture.

1- Calories aren't fungible. That is to say, 100 calories of carrots are not identical to 100 calories of potato chips. Different foods produce vastly different reactions in your gut and intestines that can affect what you digest, absorb, and excrete. 100 Calorie packs of junk food are NOT healthy. They're better than 500 calories more typically found in a bag of chips, but cannot be considered healthy food. The big villains of processed food- salt, sugar and fats, can ruin your diet if your diet becomes unbalanced. A balanced, nutritious diet is key no matter how many calories you consume.

2- WHEN you eat is just as important as how many calories you eat. Eating late at night is always a bad idea as it keeps you from getting a good night sleep. You are more tired at night and your will-power is at its lowest, so you are more likely to overeat. Plus some studies show that late night snacks don't get burned off as well when your body is at rest.

More problematically, constant snacking raises the sugar and insulin levels in your bloodstream all day long, which can cause your body to gain weight. A much better strategy is to eat two or three meals daily, with all of your calories limited to those times.

3- Diet soda and other sweetened foods may have zero calories, but they still affect your weight. Artificial sweeteners can cause spikes in blood insulin levels, which causes increased insulin resistance and higher blood sugar levels. The sweet taste of zero calorie drinks also fools your body and some believe can provoke more hunger for other foods. Some studies have shown that diet drinks are linked to type 2 diabetes as well as obesity, even though they can truthfully claim to have "zero" calories.

4- Another deceptive zero calorie food is salt. Salt has no calories, but its affect on your body have been tied to obesity. Not only does salt increase the dangers of high blood pressure, it also makes your body retain more water and fat. Excessive salt can disrupt the body's chemistry and overwork the liver, which causes hunger. Plus salty foods can be very addictive and make it harder to stop after just one serving.

5- Counting calories requires you to recognize serving sizes, which are often unreliable or unreasonable. Did you ever try to read the nutrition information on a package of junk food to figure out how many calories it has? Junk food companies will claim a bag of chips is two servings when practically everybody will eat it all at once. This gets around your aversion to high numbers on packages. The other problem with serving sizes is how bad we are at estimating them. How much is 6 ounces or 2 tablespoons? How much is a serving of popcorn? Most people trying to count calories get these wrong unless they religiously use scales and measuring cups. And by getting them wrong, I mean they go on the low end to make their meals seem not as bad.

Nutrition information is confusing, and calorie information is one of the most helpful ways to evaluate foods. One little-known part of the Affordable Care Act required chain restaurants to post calorie numbers on all their dishes, and studies have shown that this is helping. Restaurant foods are notoriously higher in calories than home-cooked food, in part because restaurants know that great taste is what brings customers back. High calorie foods generally taste unnaturally sweet and delicious, but it's important we all realize that fact and plan our lives accordingly.

Go ahead and count the calories if that helps keep you on track. Just be aware that they don't reflect the entire picture of what you're putting into your body. Focus on eating healthy portions of healthy foods, and hopefully at some point you will look and feel great without resorting to crunching the numbers.

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