Confused about whether or not counting calories is effective? You not alone, I can assure you. One school of thoughts hold the idea that counting calories for weight loss is vital since the concept of weight loss boils down to calories consumed vs calories lost.
Another school of thoughts believes that counting calories is outdated, leaves you heavier than you started and doesn’t work. Interesting, both sides seem to have some scientific evidence to prove their arguments, which makes everything even more confusing.
Today, we want to take a deeper look at the issue of calorie counting and whether or not it really works for weight loss.
How do our bodies Use Calories?
For starters, a calorie is a unit of measurement used to estimate the amount of energy one gets from what they eat or drink. You can also think of calories as the energy your body needs to do different tasks such as thinking, breathing and maintaining a heartbeat. In essence, calories are the amount of energy our bodies expend on different activities or get from foods.
So, how does your body use calories? As you already know by now, all your calories come from food, which your body needs to correctly function.
Your body digests the foods into small units that can be used to provide the energy or build body tissues.
How much energy each unit provides to your body depends on the source;
• Protein: 4 calories/gram • Carbs: 4 calories/gram • Fat: 9 calories/gram
• Alcohol: 7 calories/gram
The calories produced from the above sources are used to maintain a number of process in your body, which are basically how your body spends the calories –think of this as calories out. The three basic functions include;
• Digestion: This is the very first step that happens to any food or drinks you consume, and like any other physiological process, it requires energy. Your body uses some of the calories for food digestion and metabolism. This varies with the type of food eaten. For instance, you will require more energy to digest proteins compared to fat. Overall, your body will use about 10-16% of calories consumed to support digestion.
• Metabolism: your body requires a significant amount of calories to function and remain alive. The nervous system, lungs, kidneys, heart, and brain require calories to do basic functions. The energy required to keep your body functions going and keep you alive is known as basal metabolic rate (BMR).
• Physical Activity: the rest of the calories supplied to your body go towards fuelling physical activities. So all your everyday physical activities and exercise go into this category. With this in mind, you can begin to understand why the number of calories required or burned per day varies from person to person.
It still comes to calories in vs. calories out
Beyond the above three main areas of calorie expenditure, any excess calories generated from food is stored to be used in the future. A majority of it is stored in form of fat, but some of it may be stored in form of glycogen. It, therefore, makes sense that eating more than what is required by your body leads to weight gain, mostly fat weight (1).
On the flip side, if the number of calories you get from foods and drinks you consume is less than what is required to cover your energy needs, the body starts to use its stored energy to compensate for the deficit. This deficit is what causes your body to lose weight, mainly in form of body fat. The concept of calorie balance has been tested and held true for years, whether the source of calories is fat, protein or carbs.
Are all calories created equal?
Well, I am sure you’ve come across this one. But seriously, are calories from proteins, carbs and fat all the same? The answer depends on who you ask. But the basic truth is, a calorie, as we earlier mentioned, is a unit of measurement, just like grams and inches. So, 1 gram will remain 1 gram whether you’re weighing a pile of feathers or grains of sand.
Using the above analogy, 50 calories remain 50 calories whether they’re coming from a scone or an apple –and that is purely based on weight loss. However, tell that to a nutritionist and you will be told calories aren’t created the same, health-wise.
Now, this is where quality and quantity comes in –it’s possible for food of the same quantity of calories to have different nutritional quality. This is what brings about the varied health effect of the same amount of calories coming from different sources (2). Different foods will affect your hormone levels, metabolism, appetite, and hunger differently (3).
For instance, if you eat 50 calories worth of scones, you might not be as satisfied as if you ate 50 calories worth of apples. As a result, a scone may make you hungry later in the day and result in overeating, which will water down your weight loss efforts.
Now, here is why counting calories works
If you haven’t noticed it yet, counting calories is a very critical part of any weight loss plan. Numerous studies have revealed that tracking and managing your calorie intake and physical activity are surprising effective ways to shed extra pounds (4, 5, 6).
A more recent review study revealed that weight loss plans that included counting calorie resulted in up to 3.3 kg (7 pounds) more weight loss compared to those that didn’t. As it turns out, you get better results if you’re more consistent with your recordings. The study further reveals the individuals who monitored all that they ate within the 12 weeks lost 2x more weight compared to those who didn’t monitor as much. Surprising, those who didn’t do any monitoring actually ended up gaining weight (7).
Monitoring your calories can enable you to identify the eating habits you need to change and give you a baseline to compare to when trying to cut down your total calorie intake. Additionally, tracking what you consume makes you more accountable for your daily food choices and encourages you to work harder towards your weight loss goals.
The bottom-line of any weight loss program is to eat fewer calories than your body is burning. There’re indeed a few people who can achieve this without an actual calorie count. But for the rest of us, counting calories is the most effective and conscious way of creating and maintaining this calorie deficit.
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