Posted on 30 August, 2016

Is Calorie Counting Good or Bad?

By Jacob Andreae in Nutrition, Health, Personal Is Calorie Counting Good or Bad?

[Image source: Mike Mozart]

The idea of counting calories has been around for a long time. It became popular around the turn of the 20th century when a scientist by the name of Wilbur Atwater noticed that the energy of food could be measured when you burned it. He discovered that you could measure how much energy was in food by measuring the ash and heat left over after burning it.

I’ve tried counting calories on several occasions in my life. Once in high school, again at university, and later when apps emerged that claimed to make calorie counting easier. On each occasion, I painstakingly recorded the calories in the foods I was eating. It didn’t last long.

I remember on one occasion when I was at university, studying a nutrition course for a sport and exercise science degree; I was using some program to enter the amount of calories in my food. I remember getting pretty excited when the food item was pre-recorded in the system and it meant I could simply enter the product name, instead of all the macronutrient details. It saved so much time, but it really made me think.

I never really understood calorie counting and I hated it. I regularly wondered why we even needed to do this. How on earth did people survive 5,000 years ago? Were the Pharaohs counting calories? Were the Indigenous people of Australia worrying about how many calories their food contained 10,000 years ago? It drove me mad and each time I counted calories, I gave up after just a few days. It was so time consuming.

I justified giving up calorie counting with the belief that if we didn’t need to do it 10,000 years ago, then why should we have to do it now. Every time, I came up with the same answer. Packaged food. Since civilisation, humans have had to feed an increasing population. As civilisation evolved, people became more and more busy and food supply was one of the first responsibilities to be outsourced.

When the industrial revolution took off, humans began treating themselves like machines and food started to be seen as nothing more than fuel. Food was considered to be energy we needed to keep going, just like a car. It still is today to a high extent; however, as we learn more about food, we learn that food is much more than just energy.

Food is in fact information. Food tells your genes when to activate and deactivate, it tells your endocrine system what hormones to release and when to release those hormones, it tells your digestive system what macronutrients to hold onto, and food even influences the way you feel.

The problem with calorie counting is that it only takes into account the energy of food. It doesn’t consider the information that food is giving your body. Carbohydrates and protein for example, have 4 calories per gram each, while fats have 9 calories per gram. Fat became the enemy out of Atwater’s discovery and Ancel Keys made sure of this in the fierce sugar vs fat debate of the 1970’s. Read my blog about what sugar does to your body for more information.

Fats are actually good for you. When you ingest fat, your body readily uses it as a preferred source of energy. Those 9 calories per gram help to make you feel full. Eating fat from natural sources such as avocado, fish, full fat cheese, full fat butter, full fat yoghurt, dark chocolate, whole eggs, nuts, chia seeds, extra virgin olive oil, coconuts and coconut oil, also provide your body with a range of other nutrients. These nutrients include vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, which are essential for health.

If you eat an omelette for breakfast with whole eggs, full fat cheese, full fat cream, spinach, capsicum, mushrooms, spring onion and garlic, you would almost easily consume over half of your day’s calorie allotment. In fact, you would have provided your body with almost all of the vitamins and minerals it requires, including powerful antioxidants that protect your eyes, choline which is a brain nutrient and omega 3 which is good for your heart, blood vessels, brain and eyes.

Carbohydrates don’t need to come from packaged food as we’re so often led to believe. Carbs aren’t only in pasta, cereal, rice and bread. Fruits and vegetables are stacked full of carbohydrates. The difference though, just as with fats, is that obtaining your carbs from fruits and vegetables provides you with a range of other nutrients. These nutrients are necessary for the proper functioning of your body. I’ve certainly noticed this myself. After a bowl of cereal or four slices of toast for breakfast, I’m starving just two hours later. However, after an omelette, while I do eat just a couple hours later, I don’t need to. I top up by eating a small and healthy morning tea like a cucumber, carrot, banana, nuts or sultanas.

I believe counting calories is a waste of time. Further to this, I think it can be dangerous. Your body is made to eat real foods, found naturally in the environment. That doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy something man-made and sweet every now and again, but a diet full of natural fats, proteins, and carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables, is essential for best health. Forget about counting calories - move more and eat natural. It’s filling and gives your body everything it needs.

What has your experience been with counting calories?

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About Jacob Andreae

About Jacob Andreae

I write and speak about Fitness, Nutrition and Mindset. 

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Is Calorie Counting Good or Bad?A quick start guide to losing weight and staying on track. Learn the strategies I use to eat and move for optimal health. Includes worksheets to enhance your motivation, commitment and discipline, along with a sample eating plan and exercise program.