8: Calorie counting: a thing of the past?

Apr 10, 2023

Calorie counting has been the basis of many weight loss programs for decades now and shows no signs of disappearing any time soon. Whether it’s fasting, setting a certain calorie limit each day, or using an app to track ‘calories in vs calories out’, these calorie controlled methods of losing weight have shot up in popularity. 

Due to it making up such a large part of our current diet culture, our take on calorie counting may surprise you or even feel a tad controversial. However, it’s worth reminding ourselves that despite there being a sea of contradictory messages out there on this topic, you are always the authority on yourself. You are the one who should be looking internally to decide what does or doesn’t work for you. If calorie counting is something you love and that's what you decide to implement, that is your choice. We’re simply here to share some of the insight into what we see through our coaching and offer some alternative thoughts.

The War on Calories

Most of the information we have about calories stems from Wilbur Atwater’s work in the late 1880s. Atwater spent his career trying to work out the proportion of different foods that humans could digest. In order to measure the calories in food, he set up an experiment using a ‘bomb calorimeter’ - a highly pressurized sealed container filled with pure oxygen to burn food to a crisp. The heat given off during this process was used to calculate a food’s calorie content, also known as its heat of combustion.

In Atwater’s experiment, he fed different foods to human volunteers and then measured the heat of combustion of their feces. Through calculating the difference in the heat of combustion between the food and the feces, he was able to estimate the calories absorbed by the volunteers.

Following a lot of burnt poop, Atwater presented his calculations to the world in 1900: we absorb 9 kcal per gram of fat, 4 kcal per gram of carbohydrates and 4 kcal per gram of protein. Even today, over 120 years on, this still remains the basis for how we derive calorie counts on all food packaging.

The U.S. Food Administration familiarized the public with this calorie counting model during World War I, rationing certain foods for shipping to allies and encouraging people to look for alternative foods with similar nutritional content. Restaurants even started adding calories to their menus so customers could keep track of their mealtime calories during the war.

Although rationing stopped after the war, calorie counting lived on. As a result, dieting and diet culture became extremely common. Diet and Health, the first diet book published in the U.S., sold 2 million copies and remained in print for 21 years.

The question is, should we still be using this method in 2023?

Over the years, there have been many imperfections identified with the calorie counting model due to the fact it doesn’t consider important factors such as the gut microbiome, metabolic adaptation, hunger hormone regulation, or even the fact that two people could eat exactly the same food and absorb a different amount of calories. If that is all new information for you and you’re becoming more interested in why it might be time to step away from this model, here are three core reasons why we avoid it as a starting place at the Rentea Metabolic Clinic. 

Key Flaws with Calorie Counting

  1. It doesn't take into account you listening to your body.

You could be weighing and measuring food to adhere to this number that someone external to you has provided but at no point does it take into account your quality of life, if you’re waiting for hunger, or stopping when you’ve had enough. This means you end up in a scenario where you are constantly having to manage external circumstances and not ever listening to yourself. This makes it extremely rare that somebody can stick with it in the long run. People can always do intense things for X amount of time, but we need to start thinking about whether we can do it in 5+ years’ time or not.

Generally, people find it to be too consuming and they've never actually learned how to listen to themselves. They become scared of so many scenarios like eating out or holidays and have no confidence in being able to handle those situations where there’s no calorie information. So it becomes a constant stress response because they're used to using something outside of themselves instead of listening to themselves. 

  1. It doesn't consider your starting place. 

If you are someone that has chronically dieted, it’s likely that you might need much less food to begin with because your metabolism has been negatively impacted and so you may need to slowly eat more. In the diet industry, they call that reverse dieting, but the problem is that if you use a conventional calorie counting calculator, it might end up telling you to eat more than you've eaten at that moment, resulting in you gaining weight very quickly. 

If we listened to your hunger hormones instead, we would just very gradually be honoring what your body's telling you anyway, and slowly get you to where you need to go, whilst helping out your metabolism. 

If you’re used to consuming 3000 calories a day and suddenly you're popping this number in a calculator and it's telling you how many calories you need based on how quickly you want to lose weight, you can end up in a scenario where you put your body in starvation mode. Usually after a few months of that, your body is so shocked that it just shuts down. It can be much more helpful to listen to your hunger hormones and understand what is going on inside your body, rather than trying to hit this arbitrary number.  

  1. It creates a lot of obsession and disordered eating. 

This isn’t necessarily about restriction because a lot of the time, people try to game the system by eating a large amount of low calorie foods. They're constantly trying to figure out how to get the most for that small amount because they're hungry often from grossly undereating. 

A lot of the times when you put the number that low, if someone is able to stick with it, it will become very obsessive for them what they have to do to manage it. Within the School of Sustainable Weight Loss, we might recommend some dietary changes, but it's in the name of getting the hunger hormones regulated so that you're less hungry, you know when you're hungry, and you know when you've had enough. There's a logic behind it. And if someone isn't ready to move toward more of an unprocessed diet, then we have very gentle ways that they can support themselves. 

To find out more about the pitfalls of calorie counting and discover some of the things we should be focusing on to support our health and our bodies, check out the this weeks podcast episode.