Calories in vs calories out – if only it were that simple!

I’m sometimes faced with the question of why I invest so much time getting individuals to focus on changing the foods they eat rather than calorie counting when they are trying to lose weight. A calorie is a calorie, right? WRONG

The best explanation I’ve heard of this came from Dr Giles Yeo when he gave the example of 100kcal of sweetcorn vs 100kcal of corn tortillas. The back of both packets will read 100kcal but once you eat it, it’s not the case at all. Imagine you eat the sweetcorn, you chew it, your body breaks it down and extracts what it needs but when you next go to the toilet there’s always some sweetcorn coming out the other end. Now 100kcal of corn tortillas – the corn has already been processed and mushed into shape. You eat it but there is very little else for your body to do and it’s all digested very quickly. So, you can see 100kcal of one is not equal to 100kcal of the other due to caloric availability. It is a simplistic way of looking at it, but you get the picture!

With this in mind, we can then move on to understand why I try to move clients away from calorie counting. You now understand that a calorie from sugar for example, is not the same as a calorie from an apple.

A calorie is merely a measurement of energy and how your body breaks the food down is entirely different. Add to this the fact that carbohydrate, fat and protein take different times to be digested so each impact satiety differently. Protein takes longer to digest so we feel fuller for longer (which is the basis of the Atkins Diet, but this comes with its own set of problems best discussed in another post!)

Are all calories created equally? The method of preparation, the individual differences in how our bodies process the food, add to this the increasing amount of research around the importance of when we eat, means that calories are not equal and accurate calorie counts just don’t really exist.

So instead of this, suppose that you started to listen to your body – that you ate more slowly so you had time to recognise when you are feeling full rather than having a number of calories in mind and eating the whole plate of food blindly, because you can. “I have 400kcals for lunch, so I will eat 400kcals”

How about improving the quality of what you are eating? More fibre rich and nutrient dense foods mean you can eat more but consume less calories and subconsciously over time you retrain your brain not to crave those ultra-processed foods anymore because you are enjoying eating tasty, satisfying foods on a regular basis.

The more highly processed your food is, the more calories you will extract from it. So, could you lose weight consuming just jam doughnuts? Yes of course, if you ate less calories than you used during the day, but would you feel well, happy and satisfied? I don’t think so.

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