• James Heath

Is calorie counting a useful tool for fat loss?

Calorie counting is a method for counting or approximating the calories contained within food.

Energy in, energy out

A calorie is a unit of energy derived from heat. More specifically it is the amount of energy required to raise 1kg of water by 1 degree celsius. We rely on the potential energy (calories) stored with food and drink. Once consumed, the energy is metabolised or stored in the body. When we are in a caloric deficit our bodies will use the fat stored in our bodies for energy. Those stores are there for that very reason, to keep us alive when energy in food is sparse.

You can see how the energy in energy out relationship is essential for weight gain, weight maintenance or weight loss below:

Calorie cutting is not so simple

Simply reducing calories to lower body fat is not always straightforward, because making changes to one component of the equation can alter another. For example, eating less food consistently over a prolonged period of time will actually decrease (how much you move) non-exercise-activity-thermogenesis (N.E.A.T) or going for a really long run, increasing the thermal effect of activity, may cause you to collapse on the sofa for rest of the day, decreasing N.E.A.T. (Levine, 2002).

Furthermore cutting calories can have a big impact on your daily routine. It can impact the time you have available for other responsibilities and negatively or positively effect exercise and work performance. It may even negatively or positively effect your motivation, emotions and behaviors. It is important to be aware that food perceptions are not always altered for the better as calorie cutting can create obsessional and antisocial behaviors increase, thus decreasing happiness.

It is for these reasons the people today find the energy in energy out equation is so difficult to administer consistently on a daily basis. Leveraging the ideal amount of calorie cutting is not straightforward at all and perhaps why some people ought to seek the advice of a trained professional.

On the flip side some people find the process very easy and can easily drop body fat over a given time frame. It's important to remember people are very different and there is no one size fits all approach when come to calorie restriction. People respond well to different approaches. Some people will simply do better focusing on maintaining healthy habits and not worrying about units of measure.

However it's important to understand that fundamentally all nutritional approaches will inherently focus on calorie control whether it actively counts calories or not. This is because you cannot alter the fact calories is the unit of measure for the energy contained within food.

Counting calories not an exact science

There are a few issues to be aware of if counting calories as an approach to lose fat. Firstly your body uses between 10%-19% of the energy stored within the food to digest it, known as the thermal effect of food (Barr & Wright 2010). Evidence has shown this can range by up to 50% depending on how raw or processed that food is when consumed. You will burn more calories digesting whole unprocessed food which is more desirable when fat loss is concerned.

Additionally calories labelled on food labels are only approximations collected from a small set of samples of that food (FDA 1998). The same food can differ in response to soil, growing conditions, readiness to eat when cropped, diets of the animal, preparation and storing/ transportation methods. Furthermore it is impossible to determine precisely the thermic effect of activity between individuals and their capacity for different types of activity. NEAT also varies greatly within individuals based upon gender, age, body weight, genetics, occupation and behaviour (Levine, 2002).

Why bother counting calories?

Without understanding a rough measurement for the energy stored in food it is very easy to consume more energy without realising, feeling fuller or have anything else change that day.

For example 100g of sirloin steak may contain 200kcals and a 100g rib-eye steak may have as much as 500kcals. You may not feel any difference.

Calorie counting is best treated as a pragmatic method that is not guaranteed to be perfect but when administered and interpreted correctly a powerful tool for fat loss goals. These may include the following:

  • Providing targets for clients and coaches to aim for

  • Increase knowledge and understanding of different foods and their approximate energy content

  • Understanding behavioral mechanisms around food consumption such as binge patterns and periods of fasting

  • Increasing awareness of satiety/ hunger and blood sugar

  • Managing food portions

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Levine, JA, 2002, 'Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)', Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, volume 16, issue 4, Pages 679-702

Barr, SB, and Wright, JC, 2010 postprandial energy expenditure in whole-food and processed-food meals: implications for daily energy expenditure. Food Nutrition Research. 2;54. doi: 10.3402/fnr.v54i0.5144.

US Food and Drug Administration, 1998, Guidance for Industry: Nutrition Labeling Manual, viewed 10,08,2018 www.fda.gov