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.