Consuming foods that supply calories is essential for supplying the body with energy to perform the basic functions of life such as keeping a heart beating and everything up to and including running a marathon. After all, a calorie is a unit of energy. Calorie tracking in an app like MyFitnessPal is a useful tool for becoming more aware of dietary habits, staying accountable, and having a record of changes being made.
However, calories in versus calories out is a complex equation and should be used as a guideline along with other metrics to assess the quality of eating habits and especially as a tool for weight change.
Here are three things to know about calorie counting:
As accurate as you try to be by weighing food and measuring calorie burn in exercise, it’s not going to be perfect. Consider the bite you leave behind but don’t adjust your log for or the cereal milk you didn’t drink, or how temperature, clothing choice and altitude affect exercise output more than your tracker accounts for, the daily stress levels affect your metabolic rate, or the spices you cook with can alter caloric absorption. Eating, digesting and utilizing calories is a very intricate process.
Another big factor is bioavailability and the thermic effect of food. These refer to the amount of calories in a food that is accessible to be absorbed internally and the amount of energy it takes to digest and process those calories. The more processed the food is, the easier it is to input it (thanks to labels), and the easier it is for you to absorb those calories. Whole and homemade meals, on the other hand, take more work to breakdown. Therefore the less processed food on your plate, the more energy you will output to digest it and the fewer calories that will be absorbed from that food.
Just like health is not indicated by the number on the scale alone, the caloric value should also be thought of as a small part of a large health equation. One hundred calories from kale and 100 calories from donuts are very different things. These foods affect mood, satiety, digestion, habits, metabolism and hormones very differently. Consistently choosing calories from energy-dense and less nutritive sources promotes weight gain more than consistently consuming the same calories from foods that are of higher nutritive quality. Exercise is the same — different workouts can result in the same caloric burn, but they do not have the same overall effect on health.
This matters for long-term weight loss as workouts that stimulate more internal adaptations, regardless of calorie burn, create a generally stronger and more metabolically active body over time. When choosing foods to eat and workouts to do, aim to think of the long-term implications on overall health over the immediate caloric value.
The Food and Drug Administration allows nutrition fact labels up to 20% ‘wiggle room.’ This means that a serving of macaroni and cheese labeled as having 400 calories might actually have anywhere from 320–480 calories. While research shows the majority of labels on packaged snack food is 90% accurate, some items fall surprisingly outside that range. For example, a 2012 Rossen Report found a popular diet ice cream to have 46% more calories than reported on the label, while another similar variety had 16% more calories than reported. One of those is FDA legal, one is not, but both lead to frustration of stalled weight progress by contributing more calories than you are counting.
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