Why Counting Calories Doesn’t Work

Is counting calories to guide our daily food intake fun?  It probably isn’t.  Does counting calories on a daily basis come natural?  Probably not.  Does solely focusing on calories regardless of what nutrients a food does or doesn’t have even make sense?  No- not really.  Does seeing a food simply for what number it correlates to make it so that we are avoiding some of the foods that could be very beneficial for us?  Probably so.  Doesn’t counting calories seem like it is even too rigid and too limiting of a plan to really work long-term?  I would say yes.  Yet, even taking into account all of these points, countless weight loss programs and health practitioners still focus on calories.  Putting food into categories of numbers diminishes our own intuitive drive to eat particular beneficial items, which confuses our minds and decreases the health of our bodies.

A point that I always think of when I think of how much counting calories just doesn’t make sense is the mere example of using coconut oil.  Coconut oil is mostly a saturated fat, which just like any fat has a high caloric value.  Coconut oil, however, although high in calories, works with the thyroid gland to in turn increase your metabolic rate.  Coconut oil is also not a fat that is able to add any fat to the human body- the energy supplied by it, bypasses some steps in the digestive process as compared to fats from other oils, and goes directly to the liver to be used as energy. (1)  Coconut oil is indeed an anomaly as compared to other oils and their ability to stay true to the caloric number placed on them, however, there are other foods which also increase the metabolic rate and thus allow you to burn up some of the calories consumed from them.

Some foods that have been said to play a role in boosting the metabolism or at the least- satisfying our hunger so that we are not eating as much throughout the day include hot peppers, green tea, a certain fat found in grass-fed dairy products or grass-fed beef, avocado, grapefruit, cacoa, some types of fish, lemons and limes, some nut butters, whole grains, garlic, certain other fruits and vegetables and various herbs/spices.  The way that each of these foods increases the metabolism and satiety varies.  To list a few examples, the way whole grains boost the metabolism is different than the way that grass-fed meats and dairy products do.  When grains are in their ‘whole’ form, it takes more effort for the body to break them down (utilizing more calories) such as whole rolled oats as compared to flour.  The fat found in grass-fed dairy and meats is an omega-3 fat which helps decrease inflammation in the body and therefore aids in potential weight loss.  The other said benefit to the fat in dairy products is the fat called CLA, which is supposed to increase fatty acid breakdown and suppress fat storage. (2)  Raw cacao contains ample amounts of minerals as well as a satisfying, healthy fat and naturally occurring ‘feel good’ chemicals.  The element in green tea that is known to increase the breakdown of fatty acids in the body is EGCG, which is a form of an antioxidant and works through body systems that help to control appetite and body weight. (3)

My point in listing these previously mentioned examples is to show how different elements of food can in turn affect the way the food is metabolized by the body and how various ‘whole’ food items may aid in some type of weight loss regardless of their caloric content.  Classifying food groups based on numbers seems like an ideal way to break down what should be eaten when, but doesn’t really work that simply inside of the human body.  Just as some foods can cause an increase in fat metabolism through more indirect methods such as decreasing inflammation in the example of grass-fed meats, other food groups can take more energy for the body to break down, such as in the example of eating real whole grains.  Even with how there are certain patterns in how specific foods and herbs affect the metabolic rate and fat burning process, there still remains the fact that everyone’s body is different.  Everyone metabolizes nutrition differently based on various factors, which also throws in more unpredictability to the caloric counting of foods, making another reason calorie counting may even be unreliable.

The other aspect that plays into calorie counting is that proteins, fats, and carbohydrates all take different amounts of energy for the body to break them down.  When it comes to protein, 20-35 percent of the total energy from it is used just to digest it.  This is compared to carbohydrate and fat, burning up 5-15 percent of the total energy from it.  Even on a basic level, the main food groups don’t supply the same amount of calories per gram.  Protein and carbohydrate supply 4 calories per gram, whereas fat supplies 9 calories per gram. (4)  Another point is that usually people who count calories have a weight loss goal in mind- meaning an ultimate goal of losing body fat.  With a fat loss goal in mind, one has to take into account that not all foods end up making us feel the same or satiating us to the same extent.  You could eat snack #1: two large hard boiled eggs (being about 75 calories a piece, for a total of 150 calories) or snack #2:  ¾ cup of Honey-Nut Cheerios cereal with a half cup of skim milk to equal approximately the same amount of calories.  Which choice do you think would satisfy your hunger more in the long-run and keep your blood sugar balanced so that you’re not feeling hungry again in 10 minutes?

When we consume carbohydrates we are working within our blood sugar range, which triggers the ‘carb cycle’.  When you eat a bowl of refined grain that has added sugar to it such as Honey Nut Cheerios and then add a product such as skim milk, you are receiving too much of one food group- being the carbohydrate food group.  The ingredients in Honey Nut Cheerios consist mainly of carbohydrates, which are similar to the breakdown of skim milk- it is high in carbs as well.  It’s not just the fact that snack #2 is higher in carbohydrate, it’s that the form of this carbohydrate is very simple and processed (it’s broken down into a fine flour).  The cereal also lacks the correct intact form of fiber to slow down the absorption of the carbohydrate; and the skim milk lacks the fat to do the same.  All in all, when consuming a processed cereal with skim milk, we will see a spike in our blood sugar, which in a short amount of time will create another carb craving to once again balance the blood sugar.

To avoid misbalancing the blood sugar in the first place and all the symptoms that go along with that- including feeling hungry for more carbs soon after, snack #1 would have been a better choice, and in fact, a great choice.  The quality protein in the white of the egg, along with the healthy fat in the yolk both work together to satiate and control hunger through controlling blood sugar balance.  A great addition to snack #1 would have been some kind of fiber containing food such as a type of raw veggie sticks- like carrots, celery, or cucumber and a homemade healthy dip.  The moment you add quality fiber into the equation, you then have all three components needed to balance blood sugar and skip out of having to go through the blood sugar cycle perils.

My reasoning for touching upon fats, proteins, and carbohydrates now is so you can see that the amount of calories a food contains does not determine the way in which that food will end up affecting the body, especially in terms of weight loss.  Certain foods satisfy us- creating less of a constant need for food and cravings throughout the day, while others do the opposite- creating a never-ending cycle of needing the same type of food group over and over again- being carbohydrates.  It should be said that whenever there is too much sugar circulating around in the body, the body is not burning fat- this has absolutely nothing to do with the amount of calories a food has.  The true goal of it all is to focus on whole, real food that fulfills our nutrition needs, not just focusing on fulfilling our caloric requirements.


1.)  Fife, B. (2003, January 1). Article 10612-Coconut Oil and Medium-Chain Triglicerides. Retrieved February 23, 2015, from http://www.coconutresearchcenter.org/article10612.htm

2.) Nikkola, T. (2012, September 29). Dairy and Weight Loss – Articles – LifeTime WeightLoss. Retrieved February 26, 2015, from http://www.lifetime-weightloss.com/blog/2012/9/29/dairy-and-weight-loss.html

3.) Hoffman, R. (n.d.). EGCG: Potent extract of green tea. Retrieved February 27, 2015, from http://drhoffman.com/article/egcg-potent-extract-of-green-tea-2/

4.) Nikkola, T. (2012). Protein: Managing Hunger, Metabolism and Muscle Mass. In Eat well. Live well. A Healthy way of Life Nutrition Manual (pp. 23-27). Lifetime The Healthy Way of Life Company.


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