Lesson 12 - The Calorie Debate: Should I Count Calories?

Should I count calories? Can I eat whatever I want as long as I’m eating the right calories? Should I totally disregard them?

These are some common questions and often times the answers to these questions are simply wrong. Many health “experts” will say that eating too many calories will make you fat, eating too few calories will cause weight loss, and eating somewhere in the middle will help you maintain your current weight. While there is certainly some amount of truth to this, it’s not as simple as that.

As a quick summary, calories are important, but they are not the only thing that matter. Let’s learn more about calories to determine whether or not you should count them as a part of your healthy eating plan.

What Are Calories?

A calorie is simply a way to measure energy. The term “calorie” means one unit of energy. This energy can either be static, stored, or expended. Calories in food are static. Think about an apple hanging from a tree. The calories in that apple are static. Once the food is eaten those calories are transformed by the body and are either used as energy (expended), or are stored (either as glycogen or fat).

Calories are needed by the human body to survive. The body uses calories to perform is normal daily functions, such as eating, walking, or even just breathing. The macronutrients that we learned about all contain calories; that is why they are essential and are needed in large amounts.

Here is a breakdown of how many calories are in each macronutrient group:
  • Carbohydrates = 4 calories per gram
  • Protein = 4 calories per gram
  • Fat = 9 calories per gram

If we consume the number of calories that our body needs in any given day, we will likely enjoy good health. If we eat too many or too few calories, we might experience health complications. But, that’s not all there is to it. Have you ever heard the advice “it doesn’t matter what you eat as long as you’re eating the right amount of calories?” That advice is completely bogus.

Do Calories Really Matter?

Yes and no. When it comes to reaching your health goals, whether it be losing weight, gaining weight, or merely maintaining the weight you have, the amount you eat certainly matters. Eating too many calories causes weight gain, eating few calories causes weight loss, and eating somewhere in the middle will help you to maintain weight.

But that’s not the whole story. Not all calories are created equally.

If you take a 1000 calorie glass of soda and 1000 calories worth of broccoli, do they have the same effect on your body? Are they equal in nutritional value? Of course not.

In that same sense, calories from different foods have different effects on the body. Some provide you with long-lasting energy and a feeling a satiety (the feeling of being full or satisfied after eating). Others, however, contain the energy (calories) without the nutritional value, which causes high spikes in blood sugar levels and then leaves you crashing. These calories often don’t fill you up for very long either, so you’re likely to be hungry again soon after you’ve eaten.

Let’s continue on using the example of soda and broccoli to determine how the calories are used differently within the body.

Take a look at the nutrition label on a 12 ounce can of coke (1 serving of coke):

In just 1 can of coca cola there are 140 calories and a whopping 39 grams of sugar (way over the recommended daily value of 25 grams). Along with the calories and sugar you can see that there are virtually no beneficial nutrients in this can of coke (no fiber, no vitamins, no minerals). This is known as empty calories – calories derived from a food source that contains no nutritional value.

Because of the lack of fiber in soda, when it is ingested the body readily absorbs the sugar, causing a rapid spike in blood sugar levels, followed by the release of the hormone insulin. The high release of insulin increases fat storage in the body. Further, the insulin blocks the hormone leptin, which helps to control appetite. Thus, eating calories that contain a lot of sugar with no other nutrients causes you to store more of those calories as fat and it increases your appetite, causing more hunger and cravings.

Broccoli on the other hand, is composed primarily of carbohydrates, along with essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals and fiber. Because of the complex nature of fiber, these calories are digested more slowly by the body. It does not spike blood sugar levels and instead creates a slow release of energy that your body can use throughout the day. It won’t readily get stored as fat, like the coke, because there is no release of insulin, due to the low sugar content.

Further, broccoli has a much lower calorie content than soda does. That means you can eat a lot more broccoli to get the same amount of calories.

Let’s take a look at the nutritional value of broccoli:

1 serving of broccoli (1 cup) contains only 30 calories. That means you would need to eat nearly 5 cups of broccoli in order to reach 140 calories. That is surely going to fill you up much better than 1 can of soda (most people don’t even consider soda as a part of their meal). Even if you did eat 140 calories worth of broccoli, it wouldn’t have the same affect on blood sugar levels as the coke. Thus, it’s a much better source of energy and satiety.

These examples clearly show that not all calories are created equally. Never listen to the advice “you can eat whatever you want as long as you’re watching your calories.”

So Then, How Do I Ensure I Don’t Overeat?

It is very important to pay attention to the amount of food you are eating. But I am much more a fan or watching portion sizes (which we will get to next) and paying attention to food choices, over counting calories.

A clean eating plan stresses both what you are eating and how much you are eating.

Further, it is about listening to your body; eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are satisfied. Thus, a clean eating plan allows you to eat the right amounts of food without the added stress and work of paying attention to every. single. calorie.

As a side note, I’m not against counting calories. Tracking calories in conjunction with eating a clean diet can be beneficial for some people, in particular beginners and people who aren’t familiar with portion sizes.

However, tracking calories, even when beneficial, is usually a short-term method. This clean eating plan is all about creating a lifestyle that you can follow for the long-term. And who wants to count calories forever? Thus, we will learn how to control the amount of food we are eating without numbers!

So, we’ve learned that a calorie is not just a calorie. While it’s important to pay attention to how much you are eating, eating the right foods is even more important. In the next lesson you will learn how to eat the proper portion sizes without having to count calories.

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