Counting calories is hard. We are bad at eyeballing how much food we ate and we forget. But even if we measure and note down everything, calorie counting is very imprecise and not very useful over the long-term. Thankfully there’s a better way of maintaining weight and preventing overeating. And you’re going to learn about it right here.
You are bad at eyeballing food
Studies show that people mismeasure food by an average of 30 %. It’s not surprising, misjudge by just one tablespoon of olive oil and you have 130 kcal unaccounted for. And you’re not safe even if you’re eating in restaurants that have calorie counts on the menu. A study (1) shows that the reported calorie contents are imprecise, especially for low-calorie meals that dieters often go for.
Counting calories-in is inherently imprecise
Calorie measuring methods are not precise which is why companies are allowed inaccuracies on food labels up to 20%. So, a Snickers bar that contains 230 kcal according to the label actually contains anywhere between 192 and 276 kcal.
Scientist Wilbur O. Atwater estimated in a 1897 study that 1 g of protein contains 4 kcal, fat 9 kcal, and carbs 4 kcal and this “4-9-4 method” is still being used today! But it doesn’t work for all foods unfortunately. For example, a study from 2008 (2) found that whole almonds have about 20% less calories than the 4-9-4 method suggests. Also cooking and other food preparation methods can change the number of calories available for absorption. This is hard to calculate exactly and can result in significant errors. Just think about this – 100 g of boiled potatoes contain 87 kcal and 100 g of fries contain 316 kcal!
Modern foods are addictive
It might be better focus on what we eat rather than how much to find out why we overeat. Modern foods are very calorie dense. For example a big bowl of strawberries weighing 300 g contains 100 kcal and a little 20 g piece of regular milk chocolate contains the same 100 kcal! That’s 15x as many calories per gram for the chocolate bar. Most of our modern foods are very calorie dense compared to traditional wholesome foods. They are deceptively small and therefore make it easy for us to eat more of them than we need.
Another thing to consider is that foods that are all full of sugar, fat, and salt and have just the right texture – you know, like pizza, chocolate, cookies, ice cream, or chips – are very attractive and can be addictive (3). Your brain’s rewards centre lights up like a Christmas tree when you eat these highly palatable foods (4). This reward (the same you get for sex, alcohol, and drugs) makes us prefer those foods to others and changes our behaviour to want them more, even when we feel full (5).
Real foods for natural calorie restriction
Foods that are best at making us feel full and satiated contain a lot of protein, fibre, and water (6). That’s something that modern junk foods lack. Weight loss studies have shown that people who just cut calories tend to gain the weight back over the long-term (7). There’s convincing evidence that reducing palatability of your diet and focusing on satiating foods might be the key to natural calorie restriction and long-term results. So, instead of focusing on calorie math, surround yourself with real foods that are full of protein, fibre, minerals, and vitamins and they will keep you sated and help avoid over-eating.
1) Urban LE et al., ‘Accuracy of stated energy contents of restaurant foods.’, 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21771989
2) Richard D. Mattes et al., ‘Impact of Peanuts and Tree Nuts on Body Weight and Healthy Weight Loss in Adults’, 2008 American Society for Nutrition, http://jn.nutrition.org/content/138/9/1741S.long
3) Erica M. Schulte et al., ‘Which Foods May Be Addictive? The Roles of Processing, Fat Content, and Glycemic Load’, 2015, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0117959
4) Olszewski PK, Levine AS., ‘Central opioids and consumption of sweet tastants: when reward outweighs homeostasis.’, Physiol Behav. 2007, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17316713
5) Sørensen LB et al., ‘Effect of sensory perception of foods on appetite and food intake: a review of studies on humans.’, Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14513063
6) Holt SH et al., ‘A satiety index of common foods.’, Eur J Clin Nutr. 1995, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7498104
7) Mann, T. et al., ‘Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer.’, 2007, http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2007-04834-008