So, you thought you were controlling your calorie intake? Think again. Numerous researches show that this practice is unreliable. 

It seems quite an invidious reservation that we cannot rely on the calorie count that we keep in check nearly every day. The whole calorie counting is a completely trial/error method. You might be of the view that you’re taking let’s say 40gm of proteins, but in actuality, you’ll be consuming more or less than this. 

It’s not only limited to proteins but fats and carbohydrates, too, have different energy contents in reality than the ones perceived. 

Calorie count is inaccurate 

To understand this, we’d have to roll back in time to 1896 when Wilbur O. Atwater—the pioneer of calorie count—gathered hundreds of food samples from the World’s Fair. He took them to his lab and used bomb calorimeter to calculate all the calories. Eventually, he created the Atwater system, thus, laying the first brick of the science of nutrition. 

Yes, all the calories were calculated, and the system is still widely used (even if it is some 100 years old) by every food company. But sensing the ambiguity in all of this, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations years later said in a statement that foods are biological components. They all have different compositions, so any system or database cannot accurately predict or state the compositions of energy in any food sample.  


Energy content varies

Remember I said something about the variable energy content of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates above? We have widely accepted that one gram of proteins yield 4kcals of energy, one gram of fat has 9 kcals of energy, and one gram of carbohydrates possess the same kcals of energy as proteins. 

However, the story’s different. For example, carbs rich in fiber have different kcals of energy, and that amount even depends on the type of fiber plus how many bacteria your gut is carrying. 

There are more complications as well and to resolve them a new method of measuring per gram calories was developed by Livesey. According to it, per gram protein has 3.2 kcals, per gram fat has 8.9 kcals, and cabs have 3.8 kcals (fermented ones have 1.9 kcals). 

Sources: 1, 2, 3

We too make mistakes 

We also add to the ambiguities in calorie count. You might know a thing or two about human error, right? That applies here. How many times have you taken the exact one tablespoon of butter that would yield the exact calories? Let me guess, only a few times. The chances for you and me and everyone else to consume more or less than the stipulated calories are high. 

This is something very observable.

The story continues

Here are some more facts:

  1. Food labels can be up to 25% wrong.
  2. We don’t absorb all the calories that we eat (for example, if we have some illness).
  3. How we prepare our food changes its calorie load (considering the addition of oil, sugar, and seasoning material).
  4. We are unique individuals and our environment change drastically how we digest and absorb calories from food (people in colder regions have higher metabolic rates).

If this is not enough, we can now look at the other side of the equation: counting how many calories we use. We can find the same or even more inaccuracy.

  1. We can go 40% wrong in estimating the calories expenditure for each activity.
  2. The formula that we use to estimate our BMR can be up to 20% wrong.
  3. Consumer fitness trackers can be off by 30%. Reality check, they are not always right. 
  4. Our past dieting experiences, body composition, environment, physiology, etc. can drastically change our metabolism and our ability to absorb food (imagine someone from a colder region migrate to a warmer one. His/her metabolic rate would change in decades if he/she lives there for a longer time. It may not even change).
  5. What and how much you eat influences how much you’ll burn.
  6. The ratio of macronutrients (Proteins, carbs and fats) in your food changes how much energy you’ll use for digestion, allowing up to 20% error.
  7. There are so many things to focus on before checking calories like eating whole foods, sleeping, managing stress, and exercising regularly. 

You can see how putting all this together, counting calories “IN” and calories “OUT” is not the best way to go when it comes to trying to lose weight or gain muscles.

And most importantly,

Even if counting calories was actually highly accurate and we somehow could know exactly how many calories we need and how many calories we eat, we are still missing an important point:

Calories are just a unit of measurement (like grams or liters). 

It doesn’t tell us what we are eating or the quality of the food.
For example, let’s say you need 2600kal a day based on your fitness goal. 5 muffins would give you those exact calories. Does that mean that you can be healthy and fit eating 5 muffins a day? Of course not. With that amount of energy, you’ll also consumer what we dread the most – sugar. 

What to do? Shift your focus

There are so many other things we should focus on instead of getting obsessed with trying to figure out the exact calories. In fact, your first approach towards losing weight, gaining muscles, or keeping fit should not be counting calories.

Because calorie counting is all about trying, monitoring and adjusting,  it needs a strong lifestyle foundation, first. So, first focus on the fundamentals to lay the foundation of that, and then go for the calorie count if you may.

Don’t forget to pay attention to what really matters: 

Are you recovering enough? 

Do you drink enough water? 

Is your environment suitable?

Are you managing stress?

Are your eating healthy and good quality food?

Do you exercise enough?

Do you rest well? 8 hours a day?

And most important, Are you consistent in all of the above?

Start with the basics of a healthy and balance lifestyle. Be consistence and you will see amazing results without counting any calories.

Thanks for reading my article! Please feel free to contact me if you have any feedback, questions, suggestions for future articles or you need support with your fitness and wellbeing journey.

Coach Gabriel
Gabriel Ripamonti

About Gabriel Ripamonti