flickr | amanda korte

flickr | amanda korte

There are cracks in the system of counting calories. You're saying "but TD, I thought this was the tried and true method of food/nutrition accounting?" It was but as this excellent long form article uncovers, counting calories has its shortcomings. Here are my takeaways from that lengthy updated look at counting calories:

apples to apples

Not all calories are created equal but counting calories assumes this. Counting calories 1 for 1 assumes that 1 calorie from a donut is the same as 1 calorie from a carrot. Clearly calories from different foods perform differently in the body.

Source matters

To take that point a step further, counting calories turns a blind eye to the fact that 2 of the same food item can have very different nutrient profiles. In other words, calories from the beef of a humanely raised cow allowed to eat grass are ultimately different than those from a cow that never saw grass in its life and was pumped with antibiotics/corn/grain. The calories may add up the same but what happens in the body when the calories are consumed isn't the same. Counting calories doesn't account for this. 

burning question

Putting a number on calories burned or calories turned into energy is ultimately the reason for counting calories. Think about it, what's the point of counting calories if you're not at some point going to compare that to how many calories you've burned? That being said, the article being discussed pointed out that scientists calculate energy used or calories burned by measuring carbon dioxide exhaled during certain activities. My question around this equation is: are the scientists accounting for the fact that not all calories are burned equally?

Burning sugar for energy results in more CO2 byproduct than burning fat for fuel does. It's unclear to me from this article if this difference is considered when calories-burned estimations are made. You may be saying "who cares what fuel source produces more CO2 when burned as long as you capture the total CO2 burned?" At face value this is a good point BUT failure to take this into consideration ignores the fact that more CO2 leftovers means more acid at the cellular level. This means that sugar calories are a less efficient/effective fuel source when compared to fat calories. It's another example of how all calories are not created equal and should not be treated as equals. 

Take a deeper look at what happens when you turn calories from sugar into energy vs. calories from healthy fats.

math vs. feelings

Food is fuel but ultimately its job is to nourish. When your primary accounting method of food consumption is counting calories, you are focused on math versus appreciating how different foods nourish you or make you feel. Ignoring how different foods nourish you promotes a shallow relationship with food that is hardly sustainable or healthy in the long run.

blind faith

The methods used to estimate number of calories in a food item or number of calories burned during certain activities are exactly that: an estimation. These estimations are based off of methods, calculations and equations that are from as far back as the 1800's. Folks have a blind faith in calorie estimations that these numbers are accurate and exact. The assumption is that because science and technology has advanced so rapidly in the last 20 years, so has the way in which we tabulate calories. As the article pointed out, this isn't the case.

Even if values for calories in certain foods or calories burned during specific activities were accurate (they're not) this doesn't account for other flaws. How about serving sizes? Determining serving sizes is highly subjective and susceptible to variations or error - this can drastically change or mangle calorie values. Finally, there's the fact that calories-burned estimations assume that the body is going to extract every single calorie - it doesn't. Ask any statistician or analytics pro what happens when tiny errors are multiplied out over time. The answer is worthless results or even worse, disaster. Stop assuming that the numbers in your food tracking app or your fitness tracking app are on point.

RELATED: Smartphone fitness apps inaccurate and unreliable

take home

If counting calories works for you, then go with what works. Keep in mind that by "works for you," I mean that counting calories has helped you to more than temporarily become a fat burning, muscle building, high performing machine with minimal aches/pains and a sense of endless energy. Some version of that is the goal, right? If counting calories has helped you to do that, then stick with it.

If counting calories has felt like a hassle and been relatively fruitless in the long-run, then don't beat yourself up - you're not alone...the system is flawed. Consider tracking foods and feelings instead of calories. Use the time that it takes to count calories instead on documenting or noting how certain foods make you feel and/or how you perform after you eat them. Your body will tell you if you are on the right track or not if you listen to it. This will help you to forge a much more healthy, sustainable and productive relationship with the food that's there to nourish you. 


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Tim DiFrancesco, PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS is the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and founder of TD Athletes Edge.  He is nationally renowned for his evidence-based and scientific approach to fitness, training, nutrition, and recovery for athletes and fitness enthusiasts.

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