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Should you count calories?

Since this topic is fiercely debated, we got two writers to make arguments for and against calorie counting to help you read and decide for yourself

Pariksha Rao & Shashank Mehta
7 min read • 
1 October 2022

Food and calories appear increasingly inseparable. On restaurant menus, food-delivery apps (the “healthy” section), packaged food labels, smartwatches, and everyday fitness conversations — calories are everywhere.

At its most basic, a calorie is a unit of energy, originally used to measure steam engine efficiency. Germans started food energy calculation in the 1860s. An American agricultural chemist took it forward in the 1890s: Wilbur Atwater — the father of modern food science — designed a large machine to measure energy provided by food and worked out the caloric value of all known foods, roughly ~4000 items.

At that time, there was no understanding of vitamins or minerals, so all higher energy offerings meant higher quality food: calorie-rich alcohol was deemed superior to nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables. (Not making this up.)

That was then. Our understanding of the human body has significantly improved over the last century. Everyone agrees food is not just about calories: they do not reflect quality (nutrition matters), they do not account for food absorption, and the caloric measurement itself has problems.

The idea of calories is fiercely debated. Especially so when it comes to weight loss. There are people who say nothing else matters and those who call it fraud — The Economist calls it the “world’s most misleading measure”. At the centre of it is the ‘energy balance’ concept: if you consistently consume fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight; the opposite will lead to gains. This is the CICO model: ‘calories in, calories out’. And it features in the great nutrition wars:

So yeah, there is much to talk about in the world of calories. In today’s newsletter, we are focusing on one specific aspect: calorie counting.

Should you track your food and count calories?

Is that needed for reaching fitness goals?

Why do some swear by it while others run away?

As in so many questions about food and fitness, the answer is whatever works for you.

So we got two writers to make arguments for and against calorie counting. Pariksha Rao, a clinical nutritionist with nearly two decades of experience, says it does more harm than good. Shashank Mehta, the founder of The Whole Truth, argues it’s the best thing that ever happened to him. Both make compelling points. Read and decide for yourself

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Stop Counting

by Pariksha Rao

I understand why some people count calories: patients diagnosed with heart disease or diabetes, athletes training for a sport, and those starting a new diet (keto, gluten-free etc.) — all want to understand the food they are consuming, the composition of nutrients, and its overall effect on health. So they count. 

Most do it through tracker apps which come with pre-filled meal options. For example, on Healthify me, one ‘katori’ dal tadka is assigned 127 calories, and one ‘cup’ oatmeal is 300 calories. 

The execution, however, fails the intention. Calorie counting doesn’t work because it can’t be done accurately. Here is why.  

First, no two meals are the same 

You can prepare dal tadka in so many ways. I might prefer adding a simple tempering of jeera, ginger, and green or red chillies. You might add a few other ingredients: onions, tomato, coriander, and garlic. One caesar salad is drizzled with olive oil, other is loaded with mayonnaise. 

You see what I am saying? Until you enter every ingredient, your measurement is most likely wrong: the calorie counting apps do not factor in the variability in ingredients. 

Second, portion size matters 

Chapati size can vary. A lot. One small roti in a Rajasthani thali gives only 70kcal, the one we make at home — the one that fits in both palms — would be ~140kcal, and the huge and thick dhaba tandoori roti can cross 210kcal. Variability. Again. 

Third, method of preparation 

You love crispy chicken strips but want to watch caloric intake? Switch to baked chicken. Ignore the deep-fried one. Now say pav bhaji: make it at home, use less oil, and add more veggies. This one will have much fewer calories than the market variant loaded with extra butter. How you prepare the food dictates the caloric count. Variability. Again. 

Fourth, packaged foods 

Data for all items on the store shelf is not available on tracking apps. So some end up not tracking those foods. Just a behaviour thing. And that messes up the numbers. 

The simplistic calorie-tracking apps don’t account for these factors. They predict calories based on standard measurements — the average — which does not help. 

Now, of course, you can say these are fixable. The problem is known. So work around it. Factor in these problems. Track effectively. I get that. But the truth is people find it hard. I have seen my clients struggling. And the data doesn’t matter if it’s wrong. 

That’s the practical aspect. 

And then you have the psychological impact. Tracking can offer some satisfaction in the short term. But it can lead to an unhealthy obsession in the long run as people become anxious about the food they eat. Some start avoiding certain foods completely. 

I conducted a small study in my practice. I split a group of 40 patients into two. One group of 20 followed a diet and counted calories. The other 20 didn’t — they used the “healthy plate method.” 

Patients in both groups lost weight. But know what? Results were better in the group that did not count calories: in addition to the reduction in body mass, they saw improved immunity and a greater sense of well-being. Those tracking calories were far more stressed during the program duration. They obsessively counted every calorie. And how it’d impact their weight loss journey and overall health.

This mindless fixation can either lead to a high sense of satisfaction (for the few who succeed) or extremely low self-esteem and negative emotions (for those who can’t hit their goals), eventually leading to falling off their fitness journeys. Basic body cues of hunger and fullness are ignored — crucial to build a healthy relationship with food. 

And then last, the science

All calories are not the same. There are healthy calories, and there are junk calories. A 200-calorie salad bowl will be more filling and bigger in portion size than a 200-calorie serving of chips. They don’t have the same effect on our bodies. Food absorption also changes: a thousand calories from junk is metabolized very differently than a thousand from unprocessed or whole foods. This distinction is often lost if you are singularly obsessed with the calorie count and ignore the holistic multi-dimensional picture of food. 

So what should you do?

Yes, calories matter, but here is the thing: you don’t need to count calories to control your intake. Alternatives are available. Data is not always needed.

The alternative I prefer is the “exchange system”. It was developed by the American Diabetic Association. It helps people learn how to eat a balanced and nutritious diet while providing a wide variety of foods. 

How does it work?

1. Scientists take standard amounts of foods and analyse their caloric and nutritional profile. Foods with largely similar numbers are placed in a food exchange group.

2. The word ‘exchange’ simply means each item on the list with the given portion size can be interchanged with any other item on the same list. You can substitute. This offers more flexibility in designing a diet. 

3. The number of servings from a given group is calculated depending on the nutrition needs of the day, including total calories and other nutrients.

This gives a clearer picture and understanding of nutrient intake instead of calories alone. Healthier choices with a diverse diet are possible while using the exchange system — which is not always the case when we are stringently watching only our calories.

I have been able to send many ardent “calorie trackers” home with a better understanding of food and its relationship with health. It is gratifying to see people look at food as a source of nourishment and adopt habits where they are more mindful of what goes into their system and not restrict themselves to looking at their food as mere calories.

Related on Truth Be Told:

You can’t be ‘healthy’, if you don’t know what it means

Count Them

by Shashank Mehta

Calorie counting gets a lot of flak in the health and fitness world.

Some see it as unnecessary hard work (because not all calories are created equal). Some see it as an unhealthy obsession (pulling out your phone and tracking every morsel you ate). And some say that it takes something as beautiful and emotional as food and reduces it to mere numbers.

I understand. And yet, I’ll stick my neck out and say that calorie-counting was the best thing that ever happened to me and my relationship with food. Here’s why.

First, it offers a reality check

Yes, calorie counting is hard. The same daal can be made differently by different people. ‘One katori’ or ‘one roti’ can mean very different things in your or my household. And, of course, a hundred calories coming from a salad would be very different from those in a can of juice.

But that’s no excuse not to track. Any tracking is better than no tracking, especially if your current baseline is “I eat whatever I want until I’m full” — calorie counting, even if it is 50% off the mark, will open your eyes. 

Why? Because we invariably undercount our calories. We convince ourselves that this was a ‘small roti’ and that was a ‘light daal’. 

When I started my first weight-loss cycle, I found that even after such blatant undercounting, I was massively overeating. And in the face of such hard data, I could no longer lie to myself. 

For example, one of the biggest reasons I used to overeat was midday and midnight snacks. That evening samosa, that late-night pantry raid — you know what I’m talking about. And I’d always give in because there was no reason to say no. 

Not to mention, it was so easy to say yes. All I had to do was tell myself that I had a light lunch (‘I had just one roti’) or that I’ll have a light dinner (‘I’ll just eat a salad’), and voila, I created space for that samosa.

But now, with that app telling me I had already consumed 1300 out of my 1600-calorie quota, I had a reason to walk away. And more often than not, I did.

Second, calorie counting makes you conscious about the food you eat

I became conscious about what I was putting inside my body only after I started calorie counting.

It forced me to know my food. I thought about the size of rotis in our house and realised that salads and juices couldn’t be treated equally. Then, I eventually started cooking for myself. 

It’s tough to know the calories in a homemade pizza, so I found out the ingredients and entered them individually. While entering the calories of my dal, I learnt that what I’d been having as my primary source of protein was primarily a carb. And in an attempt to teach my cook how to cook chicken breast with just 1tsp oil, I fell in love with cooking.

Also, let me ask you this. Do you remember (exactly) what all you ate yesterday? Or did you have to think a few seconds to recall parts of it? You know why — because we’re all so distracted when we eat.

It is said that the best way to eat is by engaging all five senses. Touch and smell the food. See its colours. Hear the crunch. And then taste it. Try it once. Switch off the TV, keep aside the phone, and just eat for 10 minutes. It’ll be the best meal you have ever had. And calorie counting forces you to do this. Especially if you’re focusing on getting it right.

Third, calorie deficit matters 

Nay-sayers say “a calorie isn’t a calorie” — this is true. The source of your calories matters a lot. But what’s also true is that you won’t lose weight if you eat 4000 calories of soup and salad. Calorie deficit, in my experience, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for weight loss. And if that’s true, there is no way around calorie counting.

Fourth, habit and eyeballing 

The good news is that you get so good at it over time that you can lose the app. 20% of ingredients make up 80% of our food. Once we know the macronutrient and calorie profile of these, we can pretty much calculate calories for any food without pulling out the phone. 

It took me about 18 months to get there. But by the time I did — eating consciously, eating controlled portions, and not eating when I don’t need to — all had become second nature. All habits that have stayed with me forever.

I’m an engineer by education, so maybe I’m a bit left-brained and respond well to numbers and metrics. I understand that some other folks might not. But the only way to find out is to try.

PS: Maybe it’s just me, but portion-controlled food tastes much better. When I know I can only have two slices of that pizza (and not the entire thing), or just one katori rajma (which I absolutely love), or just one square of chocolate post-dinner, I find I relish it a lot more. So, funnily, calorie counting actually enhances my experience of food — it doesn’t reduce it to mere numbers.

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