What Are Calories and why the Heck are we Counting Them?!

Everyone has heard of calories, although not everyone has a real understanding of what they actually are and as a result some people nonsensically place emphasis on how many calories they are consuming in their diet.  It is common to hear people say things such as, “I’m going to the gym to burn some calories.” or, “I’m cutting down on my calories to lose weight.”

In reality reducing our caloric intake may not help us lose weight at all and counting calories in general is a complete waste of our time. Calories counts provide no information about the nutritional content of our food nor do they accurately predict how much energy we will gain from eating that food. On top of this calorie counts may be completely inaccurate because they are derived from averages meaning that food labelers never actually take measurements to determine calorie counts.

I always thought I knew what calories were. It’s no big mystery right? They’re in food and we burn them at the gym when we’re sweating it out on the treadmill! This was my belief for a long time and I never really thought about it very much. Before I become interested in health and nutrition I never counted my calories or paid much attention to them, but I didn’t really pay much attention to what I was putting onto my body at all!

Somewhere along the way in my journey of re-examining my previously held beliefs about nutrition, I decided to look into calories and what I found was really surprising. Calories aren’t even a physical thing, they are just a measurement! The more I learned about calories the more I realized how many people in modern society were like me. Many people today have a completely upside down view of what calories are, and it’s no shame on them, because our whole society has accepted some pretty whacked out views about calories in general.

What Calories Actually are and how They are Technically Calculated.

Many years ago calories counts were determined in a much different way than they are today. Food was placed in a sealed container surrounded by water known as a “Bomb Calorimeter”. The water was then heated by electrically charging the container until all of the food was completely “burned up”. The resulting increase in water temperature would indicate the amount of calories contained in the food. [1] So a calorie isn’t a physical thing, it’s simply a measure of the potential heat energy contained in a food item. As an example, let’s say that we place a big juicy cheeseburger in the bomb calorimeter and turn it on. If the temperature of the water rises by one degrees celsius as a result, this would mean the burger contains 1 Calorie.

But hold on, aren’t burgers supposed to contain a lot more calories than that? The answer is yes and the reason reason for this is that the calories we see on food labels are actually kcals (kilocalories), which means 1000 kcals = 1 Calorie. So now we know that by burning that delicious 1000 calorie (actually 1000 kcal) cheeseburger, the temperature of one kilogram of water would rise by one degrees celsius. [2] So how does this information serve us? The answer is that it doesn’t, it’s almost completely useless, and here are the top six reasons why:

#1 Calorie Counts Have Almost Nothing to do With the Nutritional Content of our Food.

Let’s look at zero calorie sodas as an example. These drinks legally contain no calories, however they contain artificial sweeteners, which have been linked to diabetes among a long list of other negative health effects. [3] [4] What we should be asking ourselves are questions such as, what minerals are contained in the food? Are there vitamins in the food? Are there any toxic chemicals or preservatives in the food which could potentially harm our bodies? The calorie count listed on the food label will not answer any of these questions, which is why much less emphasis should be placed on them. This labeling of calories on food packaging distracts us from the only part of the label that actually matters; the ingredients section.

#2 Calories are not an Accurate Metric for the Amount of Energy Food Provides to our Body.

Let’s go back to the example of the 1000 calorie cheeseburger. How would most people feel after eating that cheeseburger? Would they be ready to go straight to the gym? Of course not! They would most likely be laying on the couch and experience a big dip in their energy level. So something containing a lot of potential heat energy, expressed as 1000 calories, doesn’t necessarily give our body more immediate energy. At the same time, less calories do not convert to the food providing less immediate energy, as can be seen when a child drinks a zero calorie sugary drink and is bouncing off the walls on a sugar high. Plain and simple, the correlation between calories and the amount of energy garnered from food, is quite low.

#3 Eating the Daily Recommended Value for Calories Does not Mean we Will be Healthy.

So is there some kind of middle ground, an optimal level of calories such as the general guideline of eating around 2,000 calories per day? The answer is no because it depends where those calories are coming from. If all or most of those 2,000 calories are coming from processed foods or refined sugars, there will definitely be negative long term health consequences, even though we are eating the recommended amount of calories. There are many different types of fats, carbs and proteins, some of which have health benefits and some of which are harmful to our bodies. Calorie counts do not take this information into account.

#4 Eating Less Calories Does not Necessarily Help us Lose Weight.

Calories counts do not give us any useful information about the effects the food will have on our body. Calories are simply a measure of the potential energy, in terms of heat, contained in the food. Again, it all depends on the source of the calories and there is no optimal level of calories. There are foods which work for our body, and there are foods that do not. By choosing foods that our body wants and needs we will lose weight–if that is our intention–regardless of how many calories we are consuming. Always remember that everyone’s body is different. The diet that works for one person may not work for for someone else. There is no “cookie cutter” approach to health or to losing weight, especially when it comes to something like calories.

#5 Calorie Counts May be Completely Inaccurate.

Calorie counts are no longer determined by burning food in a bomb calorimeter as this would be too expensive and time consuming for food companies. Food companies now use averages to calculate the calories. Here is how it works:

1 gram of fat= 9 kcal

1 gram of protein= 4 kcal

1 gram of carbohydrates= 4 kcal

So if a food contains for example, 5g of fat, 8g of protein and 9g of carbohydrates, the amount of calories listed on the label would be calculated as follows:

Calories from fat: 5g X 9 kcal= 45 kcal

Calories from protein: 8g X 4 kcal= 32 kcal

Calories from carbs: 9g X 4 kcal= 36 kcal

Total calories: 45 kcal + 32 kcal + 36 kcal = 113 kcal

So the calorie count of the food is never actually measured, it’s derived from averages and does not even take into account the fact that there are a vast array of different proteins, carbs and fats, all of which have different levels of calories! [2]

#6 There is Really no Such Thing as “Burning Calories”.

We can’t burn something that does not physically exist! Since a calorie is not a physical substance, saying we are burning calories makes no sense. What’s actually happening is that our body is breaking down proteins, carbs and fats into very small pieces so that those substances can be absorbed into the bloodstream and used by our cells for energy. Different substances require different amounts of energy for our body to break them down. There is a very low correlation between how many calories something contains and how much energy our body needs to break that substance down into a usable form. For example, there are many different types of proteins and each of these different types require different digestive processes in the body meaning that they require different amounts of energy. Calorie counts on food labels usually simply list “Protein”, and do not take into account the sources of those proteins.

Changing Our Beliefs can be Difficult but is Rewarding.

Discovering that counting calories is pointless might be hard to accept for some people. We have been so conditioned by society to believe a lot of myths and nonsensical ideas about health and nutrition. When I first became interested in cultivating a healthier lifestyle I hardly knew anything about the topic. I used to eat 20 medjool dates at a time–which are about the size of a lemon–and thought I was being healthy because I was eating natural sugars.

This lack of knowledge however ended up being my greatest strength. I was able to admit to myself, “I want to be healthy, but I have no idea how to go about it.” I was able to set my pride aside and as a result I learned very quickly by keeping an open mind and ruthlessly challenging my previously held beliefs. Once we admit to ourselves that we don’t know something, beautiful opportunities for learning and growth can emerge.

Especially if we have been counting calories, admitting that doing so is not really benefiting our health might be difficult. The human mind does not like to be wrong. Some people will actually continue doing something that is clearly not benefitting them–alcoholics are a great example of this–because of their sense of pride. By stopping a behavior we are basically saying to ourselves, “I was wrong” and some people will avoid this admission of being wrong at all costs.

By eating a diet containing whole and natural foods we will lose weight and have more energy guaranteed. As long as we’re not overeating, there’s no need to worry about how many calories we’re consuming. Plain and simple, counting calories is just silly. Instead, we should focus on identifying foods containing vitamins and minerals that our body needs. It is definitely important to be aware of how much we are eating, but a better way to measure this is by listening to the subtle signals our body sends us relating to hunger, as opposed to counting and measuring our caloric intake. Forgetting about calories and looking into the actual ingredients contained in the foods we’re consuming is a much better use of our time and energy.

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