Calorie Counting Myths: Not all Calories are Equal

Calorie counting and calorie cutting are some of the biggest practices I witness when people are trying to lose weight, build muscle, and/or get physically healthier. However you don’t need to count calories to lose weight and be healthy. Now there’s nothing wrong with knowing how many calories you’re consuming, because they do matter to some degree; but when it comes down to it, it’s all about the quality of those calories your consuming. The biggest issue I have with the constant focus on calorie counting is the fact that not all calories are equal, this ideology doesn’t focus on what and when you eat. There are many things one must know if they’re going to count calories for this method to truly be effective; because it can do more harm than good if you solely focus on the calories and don’t focus on the food itself. This method is a large component for people’s goals of losing fat and getting healthier, but the focus and approach still remain skewed from the reality of food and nutrition. But where does the entire counting calorie idea come from?

It all starts with the ‘calories in’ versus ‘calories out’ theory. The ‘calories in’ represents the food we eat. The ‘calories out’ comes from how much energy it takes to break down food, daily physiological functions like respiration, pumping blood, organ upkeep etc, but the amount of exercise/activity we do in a day. There has been a resurgence of the importance of exercise lately, but the stressed point misleads many people when it just focuses solely on activity and not both activity and nutrition. This idea of doing more exercise got very big in the 70’s and continues to hold strong through today. Now many of us get to a point of investing tons of time and energy towards working out, but notice zero to little change in our bodies. The main culprit of that scenario is nutrition, because no matter how much we exercise, it won’t matter if we fuel our bodies with junk. Exercise is indeed important to being healthy, but it’s not the main factor at all, the most important is eating quality food. When we nourish our bodies with good foods, a calorie isn’t just a calorie, because your body doesn’t treat all calories the same. Every food is broken down and digested differently. The calories you get from fast food, junk food, and soda are nowhere near the quality of calories/nutritional value you would get from say ginger, almonds, or carrots. Eating good food will not only boost our workout efforts, but will help you maintain a regular weight, and can even help us burn extra calories due to the chemical makeup of each food. Restricting the amount of calories we consume won’t change our bodies unless we know the pros and cons of each food we eat.

We’ve all seen plenty of the ‘3,500 calories= 1 pound of fat so cutting calories will burn fat’ or the more popular ‘eat 1200 calories a day and you’ll for sure get slim’ type of information out there, and to those I say: they’re wrong. For example, if two people go on the same diet to lose weight limiting themselves to 1200 calories a day, their results will be different because we are all different. Say one’s a thinner person has a 10 pound target and the other is a larger person with a 50 pound target. After the first week, the thin person might lose 1/2 a pound, which will be primarily from muscle. Now the larger person may lose more than 3 pounds, but from mostly fat and some water. The key point is that they won’t lose the same amount of fat even with the same calorie consumption. Our bodies run on chemical reactions, and are far more complex than a static number that applies to all people. We’re all different and require different levels of vitamins and minerals, but our bodies, like life, run on a law of cause and effect.  These calorie myths bring up the point of where counting calories can hurt you; because weight loss and fat loss isn’t the same thing.

When you’re consuming fewer calories than you’re expending, your metabolic rate (metabolism) will decrease- contrary to popular belief. This factor makes burning off fat even more difficult and really hurts us in retaining muscle the lower our weight becomes. This is because muscle tissue takes more energy to maintain than fat, so we need more energy in order to keep the muscle we already have. If you’re a person who is already close to their natural weight, your body will literally sacrifice muscle tissue and hold onto our fat if you don’t provide it with the proper fuel/food. Which is due to our body’s natural biology, it’s the body’s response to avoid starvation since we are drastically limiting the amount of food we eat when going on these fads. And the faster you try to lose weight by means of eating less, the more muscle you’ll end up losing. Another example comes when you’re only eating two meals a day; our bodies will decrease our metabolic rate even more throughout the day, making losing fat even more difficult since both methods slow our metabolic rate down.  When we drastically cut the calories we eat, we often gain the weight back quicker than we lost it, this goes for people overweight, thin, and those in between. This is because we are overloading our bodies which are stuck in starvation mode and simply can’t keep up with the sudden intake of a lot of food and resort to storing it as fat due to the constant fluctuation in eating habits. The true way to approach the calories in ideology is that calories in affects calories out. It’s not necessary to cut calories; eating good foods is the sure-fire way to losing fat while building and maintaining muscle. But what counts as good food?

Good food and eating right is all about consuming whole foods, defined as: food that has been processed or refined as little as possible, free from additives or other artificial substances. These types of foods come in the form of leafy greens, broccoli, nuts (like almonds and peanuts), multi grains, whole-grain foods (whole wheat, whole oats, etc), mushrooms, avocados, and vegetables in general are all whole/good foods. These whole foods are so beneficial because they provide our bodies with many of our nutritional needs in their most natural forms. Since they’re in the most natural form they also burn calories while digesting them. You still get their nutritional value to nourish your body but get the added benefit of burning energy, which is stored as fat. Whole foods are a lot more efficient and beneficial in that matter, compared to processed foods which harm the body. The biggest benefit is the fact that all the various vegetables produce natural remedies for many health problems, which isn’t surprising because medicine is all derived from plants. When designing a recipe, I always am sure to cover my body’s nutritional needs. Your body requires a steady intake of: carbohydrates (carbs), protein, and fat; which all provide us with various vitamins and minerals, along with water to optimally function. Every time I plan meals for the week I’m always sure to incorporate all of those needs by using various whole foods. To ensure I don’t eat any junk food, I maintain my dietary discipline by making healthy snack bags from scratch, and not buying junk food or eating it even if it’s available like at work or a social event. When we become conscious about what we’re eating, it comes to a point where counting calories isn’t necessary. Eating whole foods are digested differently than processed foods.

Processed foods are white breads/pastas, junk food (chips, candy, soda, flavored nuts etc), breakfast cereals, processed meats, cheese, pre-packaged foods (microwaveable/ready meals), soda/diet soda, instant ramen, microwaveable popcorn,  the list could go on for a while so I’ll leave it at that, but you get the general idea. The first and most important contents that differentiate whole foods and processed foods are sugar and salt. The high amounts of sugar in the often seen form of high fructose corn syrup are empty calories that throw off our bodies. When we process these sugary foods, our body will break these down and store them directly into fat. The same result of blood sugar spikes and fat storage come from refined (i.e. processed) carbohydrates. Now there’s nothing wrong with carbs, but it’s the quality of those carbohydrates that matters; refined white breads are high in sugar and fats and break down in your body like sugar does mentioned earlier. Other ingredients in these foods come in the forms of salt. The high amount of salt not only dehydrates our bodies, but lead to circulatory issues in the long run. Not only does salt interfere with our bodies basic functioning, but it impacts our brain in what we define as ‘good’ food.

Processed foods play on the savory, sweet, salty, and fatty taste buds- which our bodies evolved to sense nutrients in food. Since they all contain such a high amount of them, they become hyper rewarding foods; which means that they send signals to our brain that we crave/need more. The makeup of these foods bypasses our brains defense circuits of letting us know we’re full and circuits for regulating energy. The results are us eating way more than we actually need and developing cravings and actual addictions to these foods. For foods that use artificial sugars, like diet soda and white chocolate, these effects are even worse. Our brain responds like its getting rewarding sugar, but our body never receives it. So there is a constant craving for these products, plus they also get stored as fats and other undesirable byproducts since our body can’t break them down properly. There are similar reactions when dealing with all the various artificial ingredients used for preserving and coloring the food. But the main points to take away from these processed foods are that they will lead to storing more fat and becoming addicted to these foods. No matter the calorie amount of processed foods, the bodily effects are far more detrimental than the energy you receive from them- so look into cutting out those processed foods and incorporating more whole foods into your diet.

The bottom line is simple: when you eat healthy foods, you don’t need to worry about counting calories. Eat as many vegetables as you want. Providing your body with healthy, whole foods is the ultimate form of energy, nutritional value per serving, and the best method in achieving your fat loss while obtaining your muscle-building goals. When using natural food, a natural growth and progression occurs leading you to the path of unlocking your body’s true potential. When we eliminate those unnecessary fatty and dangerous processed foods, we limit the damage and decrease the risk for diseases like addiction, circulatory problems, diabetes, and obesity. Our brain, body, and mind are left feeling refreshed, energized, and well maintained. As long as you’re keeping yourself disciplined by eating the right foods, your body will do the rest and the results will show.

Below is my use of the dietary intake and my rough use of the calorie counting method:

I’m 5’10 (177.8 cm) and about 177-180lbs (~80.29-81.7 kg), I exercise 5-6 times a week (so an active lifestyle) and write a lot (keeping my brain working, focused, and active 10-12 hours 5-6 days a week). In theory, I have to consume roughly around 3,200-3,700 calories a day in order to maintain my current weight, but do I keep track? The answer is no. You can use a calorie counter to gain a better ball park estimate for your own daily caloric intake, but it isn’t necessary. My eating habits consist of whole foods with the occasional processed foods (1-2 times a month). I always ensure that everything going into my body is good for me. I eat healthy and I don’t worry, even if I don’t work out, unless I eat a ton of cheese and ice cream I don’t fluctuate in weight.

For example, I get some fats and a lot of protein from the peanuts, almonds, grains, beans, leafy greens, and the occasional avocado and egg I eat. I also get my carbohydrate requirement with foods like bread, rice, seitan, beans, and other grains. Due to my vegetarian diet, I don’t get much fat besides nuts and grains, so I stay relatively thin naturally- that is the biggest take away one could make from a plant-based diet. I try to limit my dairy (cheese and ice cream) intake, because if I do eat it more than once a week I instantly notice it in terms of appearance and energy levels.  Even though I do eat a lot more carbs than most would assume for my size, those carbs are always multi grain. This allows me to burn calories while digesting them and give me the proper nutrition while allowing my body to use them for energy since my body fat amount is low. All my other intakes of carbohydrates and protein counter act the low-fat levels. I have gotten my blood work done and always am sure to do it at least twice a year. Since my vegetarian and plant-based lifestyle began I’ve been healthier than ever before in my entire life. Eating healthy, whole foods is the main key in that accomplishment.

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