Is Counting Calories Important?

Aug 29, 2020
Riley Pearce
counting calories: measuring tape beside a bowl of strawberries

Counting calories is a weight management strategy that requires a lot of work and attention to detail. You have likely heard the phrase “calories in, calories out” as it relates to weight loss/weight gain. It brings the seemingly complicated process of managing weight down to a math equation. If you consume more calories than you burn, then you gain weight. If you consume fewer calories than you burn, then you’ll lose weight. Sounds pretty easy?

But is it as simple as that?

With apps like Lose It and MyFitnessPal that track your meals based on calories and macronutrients, making counting calories easier than ever. Now that we have wearable tech, we can also get a rough estimation of our caloric output, or the calories we are burning every day.

So if we are diligent about inputting our food properly, and we have our tech tracking us accurately, it becomes very easy to do this simple calories in vs. calories out math equations. Again we ask – is it as simple as that?

What Contributes to Calories Out?

How we burn fuel, either from food or fat stores in the body, depends on 2 things: how much energy we use to simply exist, and how much energy we use to move and exercise.

The first type of energy expenditure is called Resting Energy Expenditure, or REE. This accounts for 60-70% of our daily energy expenditure and is the energy we require to keep our hearts beating, and our brain’s thinking. REE varies greatly from one person to the next as factors like height, weight, and even organ size can contribute to how much energy we require to stay alive. Lean body mass is also critical here. Muscles require more energy to maintain their mass, so the more lean mass on the body, the higher this energy expenditure will be.

The second way we can burn calories is by hitting the gym and breaking a sweat! 

Actually, in reality, all forms of physical activity will burn additional calories, but they will do so in different quantities. For example, pushing a grocery cart around the grocery store will burn calories, but not nearly as many as pushing a weighted prowler down a track of turf at max effort. The same is true of walking vs. running, or walking uphill vs. walking on a flat surface. Each of these count as physical activity because they require more energy than when you are at rest, but different activities will require more energy than others. 

Physical activity is also very different from one person to the next. This is due to fitness level. For an athlete who already trains multiple times per week, the type of physical activity that would burn many calories would be very different from a mostly sedentary retiree. For the athlete they’d need something very intense to elicit additional calorie burn, whereas our sedentary retiree could go for a leisurely walk to increase their calorie burn.

There is a third way that we burn calories, called the Thermal Effect of Food, or TEF. It accounts for the slight raise in body temperature that occurs due to the metabolism of certain foods. THis makes up about 10% of total caloric expenditure and depends on the macronutrient profile of the food being consumed. Proteins have the greater thermal effect, while fats have the lowest thermal effect.

Is a Calorie Just A Calorie?

Some people believe that not all calories are created equally. Some people cite ancestral preferences as a way to predict how certain macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins) will affect them, some medical conditions change the way the body metabolizes macronutrients, and some people think that they can eat whatever food they want, as long as they reach their calorie goal.

So who is right?

is a calorie just a calorie? comparing 46g of almond to 46g of kit kat chocolate - the kit kat has 239 Calories, and the almonds have 266 Calories.

Let’s look at the almonds vs. the chocolate bar argument. In one 46g Kit Kat bar there are 239 Calories. 46g of almonds yields 266 Calories. If we were to only base decisions on calories, choosing the Kit Kat would be the “smart” choice because it has fewer calories, yet we know that the almonds are the better choice for our bodies.

So no, not all calories are created equally

We can see this in recent research that suggests that certain foods can promote inflammation, and even cancer! Too much carbohydrates can exhaust the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas and lead to type 2 diabetes. 

Calories Concluded

We now know that not all calories are created equally. We do also know that the calories in vs. calories out equation is slightly more complicated than we originally thought. 

Keeping all of this in mind, counting calories can actually be a useful tool for those who want to understand their food and their diet better. You may think you are consuming good portion sizes and a healthy balance of nutrients, but when you track them you discover you’re low on important vitamins and minerals and your macronutrients are way out of balance.

Counting calories is a good idea to get a better sense of their calorie consumption, and can help you make the necessary changes to your diet this new year. Should you obsess over whether your calories in is greater than the caloric output you fitness tracker is telling you you’ve burned – definitely not. Simply use it as just another tool to educate yourself on your food and your lifestyle.

Author: Riley Pearce
Director of Social Media

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