3 Problems With Counting Calories

By Don

March 2, 2023


Reading Time: 5 minutes

The Convoluted Maze of Nutrition


To me, nutrition is extraordinarily convoluted. Cited studies contradict each other, trends and fads regularly enter and exit acceptance, and everyone has their own opinion when it comes to the foods they either will or won’t eat. 

I always recommend that you do your own research, and/or consult your doctor or nutritionist. 

Recently I’ve been trying to educate myself in this space, and one of the resources I’ve turned to is “Beyond Labels” by Joel Salatin and Dr. Sina McCullough. 

(This and some of the following links are affiliate links. As an Amazon associate, I earn on qualifying purchases. But I can’t recommend the Beyond Labels book enough… it’s been my go-to resource lately!!)

One of the chapters in the book covers calories, and challenges conventional thinking about whether or not we should count calories. Some of the insights blew my mind. 

After reading this chapter and doing some of my own research on it, I want to share three considerations you should make when counting calories. 


First, some definitions and context – 

A calorie is a unit of energy. It’s the total energy required to raise the temperature of a gram of water one degree Celsius.

Caloric count in food was originally measured this way through the use of a bomb calorimeter. Food was burned, and the rise in water temperature in the bomb calorimeter was measured to estimate how many calories are in food.

Here are three things you need to keep in mind when you count calories. 


#1 – The Efficiency of Your Digestive System Changes


Your body might harness 300 calories from a meal one week, but only 230 calories from that same meal the following week. 

How is this possible? 

Your digestive system is incredibly complex, and is impacted by several factors. In Beyond Labels, Dr. Sina McCullough shares this list of internal and external factors impacting digestive system efficiency: 

  • Stress level
  • Nutrient deficient status
  • Ability to make enough acid and digestive enzymes
  • Composition of microflora (bacteria/organisms in your body)
  • Timing of your previous meal
  • How the food was prepared
  • How the foods in your meal interact with each other
  • How many times you chew each bite

When we measure calorie count, we are not considering all of these other factors. We are assuming that our bodies take the same amount of energy each time from each meal. 

This is a very robotic and mechanical way to view our bodies. God has created us far more complex than that (Psalm 139:14).


#2 – Calories On Food Labels are Not Exact


The FDA requires caloric measurement on food labels… but it’s not as precise as you might think. In fact, the calorie count can be off by 20% and still be in compliance with the FDA.

This means you have a 40% range of error; that 500 calorie meal could actually be 400 calories, or it could be 600 calories, but the 500 calorie label would be considered “in compliance”.

This makes it challenging to measure how many calories you are actually consuming. Layer on the sliding efficiency of your digestive system (point 1), and counting calories with exactness and precision is almost impossible. 

#3 – Calories Might be Equal, but all Foods are Not Equal 


12 oz Coke as 150 calories in it, which is about the same calorie count as two large eggs.

From a calorie perspective, both foods are the same. But they are vastly different in composition.

We know this intuitively. But when we are hyper-focusing on counting calories, we need to remember food quality, and the countless ways the food you eat interacts with all of your body’s systems. 

Soda is pure sugar. There’s no fiber, minerals, or vitamins. Your blood sugar elevates after consuming soda, which causes insulin to be released by your pancreas. High insulin increases inflammation, raises blood pressure, and can increase the storage of belly fat. 

Eggs are a nutrient dense food, with vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants. They increase HDL (“good” cholesterol), have the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin which can help with eye health, and they have choline which helps with neuron activity.

On paper, calorie count is deceptive. There is more going on than just energy. 


So… what now?


The point of all this is that counting calories is not as exact as we might think, and food quality is a far more important consideration than calorie count. 

When reading all this, the question I kept thinking about was weight loss. It’s commonly accepted that operating at a calorie deficiency (calories out > calories in) will lead to weight loss. 

But is that true? 

In short, based on the research I’ve read (just examples – 1, 23), I think it’s true. 

Here’s where we really enter the nutritional maze.

If consuming less calories than you burn leads to weight loss, but measuring calories is not as precise as we think it is, and food quality is actually more important, how in the world can we pursue weight loss with precision? 

And interestingly enough, I think you already know the answer.


Eat Organic Whole Foods.  


Even if experts and nutritionists disagree about counting calories (and they do!), all will likely agree that eating more organic whole foods will cultivate a healthier you. 

In Beyond Labels, Joel and Sina share a simple definition for organic whole foods:

  • Foods that are sourced from the ground or the animal
  • Contain no additives, and have undergone minimal or no processing
  • Some examples: fruits and vegetables in their native state, eggs, and whole pieces of meat (i.e. chicken breast with the bone/skin still attached)

So, is the answer to count calories of organic whole foods that you eat? 

You could. But interestingly enough, you might not need to. 

Dr. Sina shares a fascinating study from 2019. The adult participants were split into two groups; one group ate an ultra-processed diet for 14 days, then switched to an unprocessed diet for 14 days. The other group started with the unprocessed diet for 14 days, then switched to the ultra-processed diet for 14 days. 

Both groups were told to eat as much or as little as they wanted.

The result?

Both groups consumed an average of 500 calories more when eating an ultra-processed diet, and consequently gained an average of 2 pounds. And both groups consumed an average of 500 calories less when eating an unprocessed diet, and consequently dropped an average of 2 pounds. 

Here’s the point – when we eat more unprocessed food (organic & whole), our body will do a better job regulating the actual amount of food that we need.


Again, from Beyond Labels, when we start eating organic whole foods: 

  • You stop over-eating because you are no longer blocking the hormonal signal that tells your body you are full
  • You stop craving sugar because you are no longer triggering the pleasure-based reward center in your brain that drives you to seek out and devour the sweetest foods
  • You stop storing belly fat because you are no longer spiking your insulin levels
  • You feel more emotionally stable because you are no longer on the roller coaster of sugar highs followed by that inevitable afternoon crash

Like I said before, do your own research in this space.

But in that research, try exploring the world of organic, whole foods through changing what’s on your plate, and see what happens.

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