Counting Calories: Is this the most effective way to lose weight?

Counting calories is the most common diet method among the estimated millions of Americans who are on diets today. One of the greatest misconceptions about weight loss is that reducing caloric intake will permanently reduce body weight. Unfortunately, the calorie has become the weight loss measuring stick for the consumption of food and nutrition. You know the drill – people who count calories are constantly counting, reducing, restricting, and rearranging – all to achieve weight loss, better health and better well-being. But they are missing a critical component.

A calorie is a unit of energy. In the U.S., the popular use of the term calorie actually means the kilocalorie, sometimes called the kilogram calorie, or large Calorie (equal to 1,000 calories), in measuring the calorific, heating, or metabolizing value of foods. Thus, the “calories” counted for dietary reasons are in fact kilocalories. This unit of measurement is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water one degree Celsius (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2012). The amount of calories indicated for a given food expresses how much energy is supplied to the body in consuming it. Most health professionals and the general public associate calories with whatever they drink or eat. However, calories cannot be directly equated to levels of nutrition.

Conventional diet companies, books and health education are firmly based upon the concept of restricting calories as a sure way to lose weight. The problem with this is that calories cannot be measured in the body, only in a laboratory setting, because the human body cannot compute calories in a nutritional sense. The body can only use what’s available to function as efficiently as possible.

However, if calories were regarded as the most important form of measurement and all calories came from foods like cookies, candies, ice cream and sodas, these calories would have seriously detrimental effects on the body. Too many calories from these simple sugars contribute to obesity and diabetes, along with numerous other diseases.

If 1,200 calories a day were consumed from fruits and vegetables, versus 1,200 calories a day from cookies and candy, would there be a difference? Clearly, each diet consists of the same amount of calories by a basic measuring standpoint, but in the long run each would result in two very different outcomes for the body. Eating only sugars and carbohydrates would lead to poor health and looming obesity. It is the composition of the food that matters, not the calorie itself. So, instead of counting calories as a means to lose weight, the levels of nutrition should be measured.

From his book, The New American Diet, Stephen Perrine agrees that the emphasis on the counting of calories is not the way to go. “We have plenty of things that look like “health food,” low-fat cakes, low-carb cookies, juice boxes that claim their contents are made from “real fruit.” But they’re not actually food” (Perrine, 2010).  He says that these processed food products are packed with empty calories, not nutrients, and they do basically one thing: make you fat. For example, after you eat a big bowl of empty calories from a cardboard box, your body is still waiting for some actual nutrients. That’s why we eat again when we should be full (Perrine, 2010).

Perrine agrees with the basic premise that it is not the concept of calories that is most important, but it’s the nutrition in the calories we eat. We are overeating because our bodies are starved for real nutrition, meaning we eat more calories because our bodies are not satisfied with the amount of nutrition in the foods available in modern society. This implies that the focus should not be on the amount of calories consumed, but on the nutritional density of those foods.

In a perfect world, food would contain at a minimum the 51 nutrients that research has said we must have in order for the body to be nutritionally satisfied. That is the minimum. And of course, those nutrients would ideally be included in the fewest number of calories to sustain us.

According to Paul Stitt, “Calorie intake is only one part of good nutrition. Dieters especially are prone to the misconception that calories are all they need to count, so they fill their meager caloric allowance with foods that are high in processed carbohydrates and almost devoid of other essential nutrients, foods which can only aggravate their hunger, yet never give their bodies what they really need. At the same time, the empty calories they eat rob their bodies of what nutrients they have stored” (Stitt, 1982).

In this day and age, calories and nutrition are not one and the same. As nutrition becomes scarce in the calories that we consume, we need to concern ourselves with the absorption of the nutrients that exist in the foods we eat. Only by achieving a balance in the nutrients absorbed into the body can the body’s natural processes function normally and efficiently. Otherwise, we will continue to be overweight and undernourished.

According to some estimates there may be as many as 170 million Americans who are now overweight and nearly 34% of those are obese. The incidence of obesity in children under 14 doubles every six years and has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, and a pandemic worldwide (Ogden, C.; Carroll, M., 2010).

To combat this growing health crisis, it is critical that nutrition be a part of the process. People need to refocus away from calories, and look at balanced nutrition. Getting micro-nutrients such as vitamins and minerals into the body is the key to benefiting from what we eat.