Back to Fitness: Why Counting Calories Simply Doesn’t Work

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By John Andersen

If you’re trying to lose weight, counting calories seems like a good idea.  But are calories all equal?  Is 100 calories of broccoli the same as 100 calories of candy when it comes to weight gain/loss? And what about burning calories when we exercise? Is burning 500 calories in an intense cardio workout the same as burning 500 calories on a long, easy hike? The answer to these questions is “no,” and that’s why counting calories alone is not an effective weight loss strategy.

First, what is a calorie?  A calorie is a measure of energy, and specifically it is the amount of energy required to raise 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius at sea level. When we say your Greek yogurt has 130 calories, we are simply talking about how much energy that food will give us. Are people overweight simply because their calorie intake is greater than their calorie expenditure? Seems straightforward, right?  Like most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Let’s look at the different energy sources we eat:  carbohydrates, protein, and fat.  Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram, protein has 4 C/g, and fat has 9 C/g.  Looking at this simply, one would think that if you want to lose weight, you should eat a low-fat, high-carb/protein diet. However, this assumes a calorie is a calorie, regardless of source. This thinking is the main reason why you can find only fat-free yogurt in the store.

Let’s look at what happens when we actually consume carbs, protein, and fat.

Carbohydrates:  Carbs are broken down into very small sugars like glucose and fructose in the gut and absorbed into the bloodstream. Glucose has one of three main destinations:  1) Some of it travels around in the bloodstream and is used by cells and tissues that currently need energy, 2) some of it is stored in the liver for use later, and 3) excess glucose is stored as fat.  So when we eat our bread and pasta and the incredible amounts of sugar we consume, we get a lot of glucose released into the bloodstream at once that raises our insulin levels. These elevated insulin levels help the glucose get into the muscle or brain cells, etc. where it is needed.  However insulin also promotes fat storage, shuts off your ability to break down fat, and also shuts off your satiety center. Essentially, when you drink that soda, much of it turns right into fat.

Protein:  Much of the protein we eat is broken down into amino acids, which are used as the building blocks of new proteins, hormones, and other bodily upkeep.   Our bodies can break down protein for energy too, but prefers to use carbs or fat first.

Fat:  When we eat fat, it is broken down into fatty acids, which circulate in the bloodstream and do about a million things. They provide energy for our cells, they help to maintain our cell membranes, they battle inflammation, and help in the absorption of certain vitamins and proteins. Excess fatty acids will be stored as fat.  However, fat does not spike insulin like sugar does. Fats provide a slow, steady burn of energy in our body and keep you feeling full and satiated longer.

Let’s take a look at what happens when we eat our “healthy” Chobani yogurt, which is fat-free and has 130 calories. As stated, there is zero fat in this food, but there are 19 grams of carbs (15g sugar!) and 12g of protein.  Those 19g of carbs are broken down into simple sugars, which are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream.  Thus, your insulin spikes, and whatever sugar is not used right away by the body is stored as fat.  Further, the insulin has turned off your fat-burning enzymes, so as soon as your blood sugar starts to drop back down, you quickly become hungry again because your body is not burning fats anymore.

So how in the world did that fat-free yogurt do you any good?  It literally made you more fat. It’s amazing, but when you go to the grocery store, it seems everything is low-fat or fat-free. Guess how they make these foods taste good since all the delicious fat is removed? Yep, they add sugar. Don’t take my word for it; check the labels yourself.

Now for one more spin on things, let’s talk about how our body uses energy when exercising.  When you are exercising at a lower intensity—walking, running easy, biking at a relaxed speed—your muscles preferentially use fat as an energy source.  Yep, that same fat around your belly that you’re trying to get rid of is getting burned with low-intensity exercise.

When you are exercising at a higher intensity—running/cycling at a more intense pace, intense “cardio” workouts—your body preferentially uses sugar as an energy source. That fat around your belly stays put. Your body needs a quicker energy source.  When we look at our Fitbit and it tells us we burned 1,000 calories, well, how much was fat and how much was carb?  And how about if we eat a snack right before exercise?  You likely just spiked your insulin, which has now reduced your ability to burn fat during your exercising.

Don’t count calories. Eat moderate portions. Avoid sugar like the plague. Minimize bread and pasta consumption. Avoid “fake healthy” foods—low-fat or fat-free foods—these are often loaded with sugar to make them palatable and will actually make you fat.  Look at the sugar content and keep it to an absolute minimum.  When you start reading food labels, you’re going to find this difficult, but this is the path to weight loss. Add exercise as a regular part of your lifestyle.  Mostly keep the intensity low but the duration long. Do what you need to do to keep it fun.

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