Calorie Counting? Think Again!

by Jeanne Rhodes


Calorie counting can actually sabotage success at weight loss. Without full knowledge of how calories work, a daily total calorie intake can be very misleading.

Let’s look at what a calorie is. In the laboratory, one calorie is the amount of energy required to raise one kilogram of water one degree Celsius. In the laboratory, calories act the same and it makes no difference what the time of day or what the source. But in the body, it makes a big difference! Let’s look at some of the differences.

First - every time you eat, extra calories are burned to fuel the process of digestion. If you eat 3 meals and 2 snacks (5 feedings) you burn extra calories 5 times a day. If you eat 3 meals you burn extra calories only 3 times a day. This means that 1500 calories spread over smaller more frequent feedings will deliver fewer calories than the same 1500 calories eaten at 2 or 3 larger feedings.

Second - the time of day you eat will impact calories. The “thermic” effect of food (“heating up” effect after eating) is highest at breakfast and lowest at dinner. You actually burn 45% more calories at breakfast than at dinner. If you’re eating most of your caloric intake at dinner and few or none for breakfast, the calorie count will have a greater impact than if you are eating a good breakfast and lunch followed by a lighter dinner. Strange but true - eating only 1200 calories a day will increase body fat if most of these calories are eaten at dinner, but will decrease body fat if most of them are eaten earlier in the day!

Third - the source of the calories you eat has a huge impact. When you eat 600 calories of fat, only 3% (18 calories) are used to digest that fat. If you eat 600 calories of protein, your body has to work harder to digest the protein, using almost 1/4 of those 600 calories (150) for the digestive process! And 600 calories of high fiber carbohydrate foods looks even better:

600 unrefined carbohydrate calories x 1/4 to fuel digestion = 150 calories “wasted” (you don’t get).

It gets even better! Suppose there are 20 grams of fiber in this carbohydrate food. Fiber goes straight through your system and out your back door! Your body does not absorb any of the calories from fiber! Every gram of fiber has 4 calories and this food with 20 grams of fiber makes a total of 80 calories you don’t absorb. Add these 80 to the 150 “wasted” calories (above) to total 230 calories (of the 600 you’ve eaten) that you don’t get! For this reason, high fiber (unrefined carbohydrates) foods help you lose weight and are also very healthy.

Therefore, 600 calories do not necessarily deliver 600 calories to your body. Why? Compare total calories you get from dietary fat with total calories you get from unrefined carbohydrates:

600 Calories (fat) - 18 calories to digest = 582 calories delivered to your body.

600 Calories (unrefined “carbs”)- 150 calories to digest = 450 calories - 80 calories (fiber) = 370 calories delivered to your body

The bottom line - all foods have calories - it’s the kind of food and how your body uses the calories that counts. To say that a calorie behaves the same under laboratory conditions as in the body is as ridiculous as suggesting that if one gallon of gasoline produces 32 miles in laboratory tests, it will produce 32 miles in any kind of vehicle which, like humans, may vary from a Mack truck to a Volkswagen “beetle”!

There is only one accurate way to use calorie counts, and that is on a food label to indicate how concentrated the food might be. If one serving of soup is listed as 400 calories, the soup is a calorie dense food (concentrated). Otherwise, using charts of calorie counts are very good for one purpose - the lining of the bottom of birdcages!

Rhodes, B.A., M.A., is a Nutritionist Wellness Lifestyle Strategist, Author and Director of Rhodes Preventive Health Institute in Hagerstown.