Why you should stop counting calories – Part 2
This is part 2 of a 2 part series on why we should stop counting calories. In part one found here, we talked more about the history of the calorie and where it came from, and in part two we will discuss why counting calories as the primary means to guide you towards your health goals is misleading you.
Back in part one, we did a deep dive into the history of the calorie, and how this unit of measurement was born. Remember the Atwater system? This system of averages truly ignores the complexities of the human body – especially the human digestive process – and how this plays a HUGE role in actually how many calories you are actually digesting and utilizing from the food you eat.
The complex world of your digestive tract
YOU are unique, and no one else digests food quite like you. This is also known as your metabolic fingerprint – the way in which foods interact with your body is a complex process and is completely unique to you.
The part that is overlooked here is the amount of calories you actually burn when you are digesting the food you eat. This can be very significant! As much as you don’t realize it, you DO burn calories just by sitting at the dinner table. The process of digestion has an energy “cost” – the cost of chewing, swallowing, producing stomach acids and digestive enzymes to break the food down, and then shipping out all of the “metabolic waste” – this all has a metabolic cost and burns a lot of calories. This takes us into the concept of the thermic effect of food.
The Thermic Effect of Food
It actually costs calories to absorb calories. Understanding this will help you understand how much energy it takes your body to break down protein, carbs and fat. Here are the generally accepted amount of calories it takes to digest certain types of foods:
Protein: Protein takes the most energy to digest. With about 20-30 percent of the total calories in protein going straight to digesting it.
Carbohydrates: 5-10 percent of the total calories in carbohydrates goes into digesting it.
Fat: 0-3 percent of the total calories in fat goes into digesting it.
Example – You eat 100 calories of protein. 20-30 of those calories are used by your body just to digest the protein! So, in actuality, you are only receiving 70-80 calories of the 100 calories you just ate from protein. The reason proteins take ten to twenty times as much energy to digest than fats is because our digestive enzymes must unravel all the tightly wound strings of amino acids from which proteins are built.
Here’s the thing though, your food label isn’t telling you “Eat more protein, because your body will burn 20-30% more calories from it!!” You are just supposed to know this, right? Also, have you noticed why high protein diets tend to work best for fat loss? Well, now you have a better scientific understanding of why they do.
Whole foods versus processed foods – “You are what you eat!”
I think everybody’s mom said this at one time or another, especially when we weren’t making the “best” nutritional choice. It’s funny, even as children, we know what foods are good for us, and what foods are considered “treats.” What is important is even from a young age, we understand the difference. We get to eat dessert after dinner. This tradition has been ingrained into most of us for a very long time.
Well, there is a BIG difference in how we digest whole foods versus processed foods. In a recent study from the journal Food and Nutrition Research they set out to find the difference in calories absorbed from a meal of “whole foods” versus a meal of “processed foods” that contained the exact same amount of total calories. The researchers gave healthy test subjects sandwiches of either multi-grain bread and cheddar cheese (this was deemed whole food) or white bread and a processed cheese product (you know, like Velveeta that we grew up with!). The results they found were pretty shocking.
By the end of the study, they found that eating the processed food sandwich led to a 50% reduction in calorie burn after the meal compared to eating the whole food sandwich! Remember, the two different sandwiches were basically identical in the amount of protein, carbs, fat and total calories – it was merely the difference of the food being heavily processed or not that led to this dramatic difference in whether the calories were going to be stored in the body or burned. Just think about this study the next time you open a box, can, or bag of processed goodness – there is a reason it tastes so good, and that it is hard to eat “just one!” These processed foods have been proven to lessen your ability to utilize these calories to be burned and you will be more apt to storing these calories as fat.
The real takeaway here is that it’s the TYPE of food that you are eating that will have the biggest impact on the net gain of calories you end up burning more than anything else.
Your Gut Microbiome (“My gut what??!”)
This final piece of the puzzle on why you should not use counting calories to measure your progress is probably the most important one. Your gut bacteria, or microbiome may play the largest role in how many calories you are actually extracting and getting out of your food. Did you know – every human being has between 1-2 pounds of microbes living in their stomach! Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal and we would not be alive without them.
There was an amazing study by the Weizmann Institute of Science that confirmed there are specific gut bacteria that are more prevalent in people who are overweight. When they planted these human “fat bacteria” into mice it caused the mice to gain weight, have increased blood sugar, and higher levels of body fat (as well as a big craving for Cheetos – JK!). In all seriousness though, this is important stuff since the type of gut bacteria you have can make you more or less susceptible to weight gain.
A study published in the International Journal of Obesity showed also that the higher diversity of gut bacteria is directly correlated with less weight gain and improved energy metabolism independent of calorie intake and other factors. This is another perfect example, like above, of how two different people can consume the same amount of calories and how one person gains weight while the other person does not. If you are wondering how to increase your diversity of gut bacteria, look no further than increasing your food diversity.
Ending the calorie confusion
I am hopeful that all of this evidence above will serve you well in not having to focus solely on the amount of calories you are eating as a guide for fat loss. We don’t want you to think that calories have zero significance – it still is a system that offers us some guidance – we just don’t want it to be the only way, because it is far from the only thing that matters. The main takeaway here is that your body and its digestive process is so unique and complex that you will never truly know for sure how many calories you are eating or absorbing from a certain food.
In addition to everything we already covered above, your ability to utilize the calories you eat is also influenced by the response of your immune system towards different types of foods (which requires different levels of energy), how much muscle mass you have (because increased muscle mass increases your overall caloric burn – yeah for strength training!).
Maybe now you can see that counting calories is more overrated than the entire Fast and Furious franchise (no disrespect for The Rock and Vin Diesel, of course).
Want to learn more about the way we help our Rockstar members with nutrition, with the emphasis on the quality of food over counting calories? Check out our 30 Day VIP Experience below!
- Weizmann Institute of Science. Gut microbes contribute to recurrent ‘yo-yo’obesity https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.115.019645
- International Journal of Obesity. “Gut microbiome diversity and high-fibre intake are related to lower long-term weight gain” https://www.nature.com/articles/ijo201766
- Food & Nutrition Research. “Postprandial energy expenditure in whole-food and processed-food meals: implications for daily energy expenditure” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20613890/