Home Friday 5 Friday 5: 5 Reasons Why Calorie Counting Is Flawed, and One Huge Reason To Do It Anyway

Friday 5: 5 Reasons Why Calorie Counting Is Flawed, and One Huge Reason To Do It Anyway

by Erika Nicole Kendall

As I’ve said on the blog before – you know, in my five-part series on calorie counting? – I am an advocate for calorie counting. That isn’t to say that calorie counting is an infallible resource. It’s not, and I’ve known that for a long time. I mean, above all else, it’s a pain. The thought of being that person in the grocery store, clogging up the aisles, trying to flip over the back of every single package they pick up, inspecting it closely, doing rough estimations in their heads? I’m not going to lie. I hated being that person. Grocery shopping used to take two hours because I was so busy trying to find something with ingredients that didn’t sound like a lab experiment, or I was struggling to do long division trying to figure out how many calories per gram or how many grams per slice or how many calories per how ever much I actually eat. But beyond that very simple complaint, calorie counting is flawed. Wanna know why?

Consider today’s Friday 5, the five flaws that exist with calorie counting:

1) If you’re still buying processed food, which you shouldn’t be, the calorie counts on nutrition labels are wrong by almost 30% in some cases. To quote Jeff Rossen’s report for The Today Show regarding the inaccuracy of processed food calorie and fat content labeling,

So we bought meals from the top diet brands: Lean Cuisine, Weight Watchers’ Smart Ones and Healthy Choice. We took the meals out of the packaging and put them into specially marked baggies, then sent them here to ESL, a top food laboratory. Scientists tested each sample for fat and calories. Would the numbers really match the labels? We found it was all over the map. Some were actually lower. Healthy Choice Roasted Beef Merlot, 17 percent less fat compared to the label. Lean Cuisine’s Grilled Chicken Primavera, 19 percent fewer calories than the label. And the rosemary Chicken, 60 percent less fat. But don’t start binging yet. Our tests showed many meals were packaged with higher numbers. Smart Ones Shrimp Marinara had ten percent more calories than the label. Healthy Choice Lobster Cheese Ravioli, 17 percent more fat than the label. And that Lean Cuisine Chicken Primavera? Twenty percent more fat. But the biggest gut busted of all? Smart Ones Sweet and Sour Chicken. It advertises 210 calories and two grams of fat. We found it really had 11 percent more calories and the whopping 350 percent more fat. While the company was “skeptical” at our results, they’ve now launched an internal audit.

You may be outraged by this, but the government isn’t. In many cases, under the law it’s perfectly OK. Believe it or not, FDA regulations allow food companies to be as much as 20 percent off on their labels.

2) Cooking items can change their caloric value. (UPDATE: This isn’t entirely accurate; see below.) When you take a raw carrot, dice it up and eat it, it’s caloric value may be around 40 calories. But… if you take that same raw carrot and bake it, it becomes sweeter. The same could be said for broccoli, but y’all don’t hear me, though.

To briefly quote Harold McGee, who essentially wrote The Bible Of All Things Cheffin’, the reason why cooking produces changes in food (think caramelization) is because applying heat to an item changes its molecular structure, thereby creating flavors that couldn’t exist without that heat. So not only do you, essentially, change some of a food’s molecular structure but you also change its caloric content, and that content is adjusted by how much you cooked it or how far into the process you’ve gone. You caramelize an entire onion, I can assure you it’s no longer 40 calories. It’s more like 200 now. Yes. It multiplied by five.

UPDATE: I’m realizing that this makes an argument that doesn’t really make sense—you can’t make calories appear out of nowhere just through cooking. Does cooking make things sweeter? Yes. Does it change it’s molecular structure in order to do so? Yes. But does that mean more calories are appearing out of thin air? NO. What does happen, however, is some of the tools we use to cook—like butter, cooking oils, and certain kinds of pastes and sauces—are rarely included in our calorie counting, and that is what often creates the discrepancy between what numbers we see in our calculations and the results we see on our scales.

3) Calorie counting can be cumbersome: to get accurate numbers, you need to learn measurement sizes and, in some cases, you need to have a scale. To know how many calories are in your daily serving of agave or honey, you have to know how many teaspoons – or tablespoons – of it you used. Are you going to use measuring cups and spoons forever? When calorie information is listed on a label, if gives you the estimated serving size – 1 tablespoon – but it also gives you a weight, like 20 grams, that is a far more accurate estimate. A slice of bread isn’t 50 grams, no matter how hard the manufacturers try to convince you. Are you about to spend $30 on a scale? Remember… I’m cheap. I’m not ’bout that life.

4) Count calories all you want – they’re still not all created equal. If you think that a body that subsists on majority carbs will look the same as a body that subsists on an equal and sensible balance of carbs, protein and fats… you’re sadly mistaken. Simply counting to make sure you’re in your calorie range might helps with the pounds, but if your goals are more specific, you’ll need to do a little more of the hard work.

5) Serving sizes and servings per package are a joke. Are you really only using one tablespoon of your favorite salad dressing? Serving sizes give you an inaccurate assurance that a product is “low calorie,” knowing full well you may find yourself using more of it than what’s listed on the serving size. My favorite example of serving size tomfoolery? You ever looked at the nutritional information for a Marie Callendar’s pot pie? Who splits a pot pie?

Even considering these obvious issues – some more “important” that others – I’m still a supporter of calorie counting. Why? Because, just as I learned all those things about what makes calorie counting an insurmountable challenge, it made me realize that almost all of these problems could be avoided by giving up processed food. If I was eating processed food, I wouldn’t really know what I was eating – couldn’t discern the ingredients from a chem lab final, couldn’t determine whether or not I received accurate weight products like loaves of bread, couldn’t ensure that I was getting the same calorie amounts – and this weighed heavily in favor of produce.

Regardless of what happened to it while I was cooking it, produce was still the lowest in calories and the highest in nutrients. If I decided to use something that wasn’t produce, like cream or butter, I can eyeball how many calories I put into something and, while I may not turn a dish down, I can better understand how much of it I want to eat. I know what 200 calories of mashed potatoes looks like, and I can adequately decide whether or not I want to add butter – and if I wanna add butter, I know what 100 calories of butter looks like – orrrr, if I want to skip the mashed potatoes altogether in favor of some veggies, since I’d be able to eat more of them.

In fact, this reminds me of my birthday in 2010. I said to myself, “I’ve lost all this weight, I work hard… I’m getting a cheesecake for my big day!” I pulled up a delicious sounding recipe, saved my money, and hit the grocery store. I purchased the eggs, the cream cheese, the sour cream, the heavy cream, the butter, the lemons, the ginger snaps for the crust… all that. I was going to make my ding dang cheesecake.

Got everything home, right? Got my mise en place all set up. Ingredients, utensils, pans, mixing bowls… everything. Then, it came time for the recipe.

Four eggs. Boom. Cracked ’em one by one.

A cup of sour cream? Okay…

A cup of heavy cream? Wow, okay..

Four bricks of cream cheese? Holy sh– wait…

2 cups of sugar? That is where I draw the damn line!

It made me look back and think about all the cheesecakes I’ve ever eaten…did they all have this much sugar and that much cream and fat? Now, that 960 calorie slice of cheesecake at the Cheesecake Factory started to make sense.

Knowing what all was in it, and how many calories went into making this one little thing I wanted for my birthday… well, quite frankly, it turned me off from cheesecake completely. I haven’t had any since.

Awareness is invaluable, and even with all its problems, calorie counting has made me far more able to make wiser decisions than I’ve ever been in my entire life. I’ve said before that this can make a person a wiser intuitive eater (especially ridding oneself of the processed food), but that’d mean making the conversion from calorie counting into intuition.. which means you’d have to do the dirty work, first. Either way, the process has made me a better person and, even with all its issues, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

See, as a calorie counter, I’ve evolved. The goal stopped being about accuracy, and became more about being informed enough to make wiser decisions.

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PttSophisticate July 20, 2012 - 2:27 PM

Glad to have read this. It was affirming in the best way. I decided one day two months ago to try counting/logging calories. Made great progress (10 lbs so far) without being hungry. i was so excited i told other friends concerned anout weight. Oh the comments i heard! And although what they may have to say might be true (it’s obsessive, won’t work, unhealthy) for me it is about brain retraining.

Greg Kuhn July 21, 2012 - 12:47 PM

I love the Brian Regan jokes about serving sizes: Two Fig Newtons? A tiny bowl of ice cream? Please! Fig Newtons are made to be eaten like a wood-chipper!

LBrooke July 21, 2012 - 6:29 PM

Wait, how did the onion go from 40 cals to 200 cals from caramelizing? I hope you mean that because someone would have to use oil, or butter, or something! Say it’s not just from cooking!! =(

Erika Nicole Kendall July 21, 2012 - 10:36 PM

Part of i is oil, but part of it is definitely cooking.

LBrooke July 25, 2012 - 4:27 PM

That’s crazy, but interesting. I didn’t know that about food… gonna have to go buy some books! haha.

Laurena July 31, 2012 - 4:22 PM

Yes, some of it is just the cooking that makes the calorie value go up.

A calorie is a science term for energy. When we talk about food calories, we’re talking about the energy you get when you break down the chemical bonds in your food. Some of that becomes heat energy to keep you 98.6, and some of it becomes kinetic energy to move your fine self. Some of it becomes stored energy: muscle, fat, other tissues.

The heat that you cook with is also energy. When you cook food, you break things and make things. That delicious browned crust is a specific reaction that produces an impressive array of chemicals (Yes, chemicals, but not necessarily the scary man-invented kind) that makes things delicious.

Pulled-pork or other slow-roasted meats are cooked until they literally fall apart. You’ve roasted some of what holds it together, breaking those bonds until the meat slides right apart, tender.

Raw foodists do what they do because cooking breaks some nutritional molecules apart, too. Raw veggies are almost always going to be healthier for this reason, but don’t let it get you down: sautee or steam preserves a bunch of the nutrition for you. My mother over-microwaved veggies to death, or boiled them forever. I thought I hated veggies growing up! It turns out I hate the dead corpses of overcooked veggies.

Oh, but you weren’t worried about what breaks. You want to know what’s cooking. Some of that heat energy makes new bonds instead of breaking them. Carbohydrates are the big culprit I know about. I grill peaches soaked in melted butter, brown sugar, your typical apple/pumpkin pie spices, and spiced rum. The heat caramelizes the natural sugars in the peach, making it sweeter on the inside, and the brown sugar does the same, glazing the outside. If you get the peaches you can smell across the store, the ones you have to fight fruit flies for, you can make grown men cry with charcoal-smoked glazed cinnamon rum peaches.

And fat? Olive oil is YUM. Your body thinks so, too. It’s one of those nice, open, loose fats that your body can easily reform into what it needs. Good cholesterol, good fat, good stuff. Now heat it up. Whoops! it loses some hydrogen, forms some extra bonds in the middle, and your body gets a lot more energy from it. Those dense, “saturated” fats are more easy to store than to use. BAD cholesterol!

That said? Honey, cook. Take your meat, your veggies, your fats, your recognizable real food of choice, and make something delicious. It’s ok if you want to go raw food. It’s great if that gives you energy and light and happiness. But if you want to sautee some shrimp, zucchini, butter or olive oil, onion, and red pepper and make your mouth and your family go “ooooh, ahhhh!”, then you’ve just controlled every substance, every nutrient you’ve fed your bodies. You’ve delighted the palate, and given yourself good fuel.

Yes, cooking adds calories. This is how it happens. I’m a fan!

diamondgirl July 22, 2012 - 10:28 PM

That’s my struggle, counting calories. I am terrible at logging.

Divinely Naptural July 22, 2012 - 10:54 PM

Calorie counting has helped me greatly to lose 32 lbs this year. The biggest benefit of calorie counting is PORTION CONTROL, which was a BIG issue for me in the fat battle. I would put away large quantities of food thinking that if I made them “clean” I would be OK…. well NOT if you are eating 700 – 1,000 a serving! LOL Counting calories also allows for me to have a treat once in a while and not feeling guilty knowing the calorie content. I am RELIGIOUS about calorie counting now and I use sites like myfitnesspal to help me. If I cannot estimate its calorie content or know a ball park figure I am NOT eating it.

soulsentwined July 24, 2012 - 3:32 PM

I started calorie counting this spring after reading about it on your site. I’ve lost 10 lbs (1/2 lb a week). It also made me more aware of serving sizes and just how many calories are in certain foods. Many fruit juices are 200 calories a cup, well if you buy a bottled “single serving” juice that is 2 cups so we talking 400 calories in one bottle, that is a meal. This information is enough to make me have a smaller serving or not eat it at all.

Lynaya July 25, 2012 - 7:34 AM

Is calorie counting necessary when eating clean?

Erika Nicole Kendall July 25, 2012 - 9:26 AM

Absolutely, especially when you get down to those final pounds.

Dominique July 27, 2012 - 11:20 AM

I Love this post. I found you today via the BlogHer Health Minder Day lineup and so glad I did. You wrote, “it made me realize that almost all of these problems could be avoided by giving up processed food.” YES! I so agree. It’s made my life so much easier, but no less challenging. I’m still in the mourning stage of giving up all the crap food that I love – still, like a year later.

I look forward to seeing you at BlogHer.


Tes July 27, 2012 - 11:30 AM

Wow is all I can say!!!. I can’t believe how ignorant I am to food! I have so much to learn that it’s unbelievable, and I thought I knew alot! lol! NOT. I have commited to better nutrition and articles like this one shed so much light as to why I can’t keep the weight off after I have lost it. I know I will be successful this time because the blinders about thruthful and clean eating are OFF! Thanks Erika for this blog and for helping me realize my goal of being a normal and healthy weight w/out demonizing food in the process. 🙂 #EDUCATE

Lauren Lever July 29, 2012 - 12:12 PM

Hah! I had a similar experience when making alfredo and pasta. The amount of cream, cheese, and butter (1 stick!) even with splitting with another person was ridiculous and looking back to all of those times I used the stuff at the grocery store (this was of course, pre-calorie counting) really turned me off of creating this.

I think ultimately it is just about using your own judgement, but having that caloric estimate as a guideline just in case, you start to gain weight, you can gage what you need to fix as far as your diet. Very good read!

Juli July 31, 2012 - 10:23 AM

I did a cheek swab once (I can find the testing company if you’re interested) that checked the genes my body uses to gain and lose weight. It’s good to know and explained why I plateaued so quickly when I exercised but not when I ate right. Point being the test basically said I would lose weight best on a natural low-fat diet because my body basically takes fat and clings to it like a shy child clinging to their mother the first day of daycare. The end result was that I had to count fat and keep it below certain levels but could go to town on protein and carbs (mind you, non-vegetable carbs have a good deal of fat in them so I was essentially on a low carb diet).

I used a calorie counting app (because they’re free) that would show percentages for how much fat, carbs and protein I had ingested. So, yeah, all calories are not created equal but dear god, I wish they were.

tatum August 17, 2012 - 6:21 PM

Love this. I like to think I know a lot about food and you have taught me a few things here, so have some of your readers. Loved hearing you speak at BlogHer, you were one of my favourite panelists on healthminder day. So pleased to have found your blog. Tatum x

Erika Nicole Kendall August 19, 2012 - 3:46 PM

Thank you so much for that!!! 🙂

Safiya August 17, 2012 - 7:01 PM

I am in full support of calorie counting, and I take it one step further as I do have a little kitchen scale which is handy as I can put a bowl on it and weigh as I add. I am not very good at eyeballing anything, so it allows me to keep good portion control, but more importantly, it prevents me from cooking way too much food (since I am only cooking for myself). I only cook enough for the number of portions I am making (if I am planning to refrigerate some for the following day or even freeze some) and I portion it out while I am sharing my food, so the result is a controlled portion size and no “seconds” especially since it takes about 10 minutes after I have finished eating before I feel satisfied. The scale wasn’t expensive, (it didn’t even cost the 30 dollars you mentioned above) and its lasted me a few years, so I think it was a good purchase.
I also had the same experience you had with the cheesecake. I actually made it and then couldn’t bring myself to eat a single bite…

J. Wilson August 17, 2012 - 7:50 PM

Calorie counting may be a pain but it is important. Sometimes, we think we know the amount we are ingesting. I’ve been using http://www.myfitnesspal.com to keep a log of what I eat each day for the past week. I also write it down in my own notebook where I keep my health goals, quotes (many from this blog) and observations about the types of foods I am eating, exercise and my emotional/mental state. The site allows you to also log in your exercise (cardio and strength training).
In addition, the 2,000 calorie diet isn’t necessarily for everyone which Erika pointed out in another post. Even though I am north of 250lbs (shucks, I’m north of 275lbs, LOL!), I only need around 1500 calories per day if I want to lose at least 2lbs per week. This means in order to get the best bang for the buck in terms of caloric intake that “real” food such as fruits and vegetables along with whole grains (I like old fashioned Quaker Oats) need to be incorporated. I ate pretty well today but had 5 cookies that didn’t do anything but add 175 empty calories.
What I do need to check myself on is obsessing over the least amount of calories I can “legally” (as in over 1,200) ingest in order to lose the most weight. Two days ago, when I was plugging in food and thought that I was finished for the day, I pressed the “complete this entry button” which prompted a warning from the site that at under 1,200 calories (I didn’t do it on purpose) that day, consuming such a low amount of calories on a regular basis would defeat my weight loss because my body would go into starvation mode. I’ve lost 6lbs this past week with lots of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, old fashioned oatmeal and drinking an average of 10 cups of water per day. I’ve also walked on the treadmill for 45 minutes each day. The problem is that I started thinking about how at this rate I could lose about 90lbs by Christmas which would be crazy, right?
The site only allows you to set a maximum goal of 2lbs per week (I’ve set a 10lb per month weight loss goal for myself) but based on what you consume each day, a projection is given of what you will weigh in 5 weeks. As I logged in different foods, at one point, I saw that if I ate similar to what I had planned for that day everyday, then I would be 15lbs down within 5 weeks. And then, I started logging in foods that would give me a lower caloric intake just to see whether I could lose even more and caught myself because I do not want to get started on the road to anorexia.
Slow and steady. Anyway, calorie counting is great but don’t become obsessive.

dee August 17, 2012 - 10:56 PM

Hey guhs! If u hav a smart phne then download myfitnesspal app. its lik an electronic food diary. it has most foods an the calories too. its not 100% accurate but it gives u a general idea of things. check it out. i love it!

Kami October 12, 2012 - 8:28 AM

I am trying to figure out how many calories I should be eating. My goal is to go down from 152 to 129. I also work out 5 days a week now. This consists of bikram yoga, muy thai boxing, and swimming. Please let me know how many calories should I eat ?

Erika Nicole Kendall October 12, 2012 - 12:02 PM
J Wilson October 12, 2012 - 7:58 PM

Hey Kami,
I think you’ll need to go to a site such as myfitnesspal.com to have an estimate of what your daily caloric intake should be. Your sex, age, weight, and activity level are factored in to give you this number in addition to whether you wish to lose 1 or 2lbs per week. I hope that’s helpful.

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