Does the calorie count matter or not? Better diets for better health

calorie count healthy food at workplace

Have you tried to gain or lose weight?

If yes, did you try to count your calories?

Do you still do it?

You are not the only person in this boat! Calorie counting and tracking are becoming more common practices for people seeking weight loss goals.

How important is calorie counting?

Is it the best way to great health?

Is it simple or complex?

Let’s answer some of these burning questions.

What are calories?

Calories are units for measuring energy or heat. One Kilocalorie (kcal) or food Calorie (Cal) is the heat required to increase the temperature of a kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. 

As human beings, we all need energy. We need the energy to think, move, work, and rest. Yes. Our bodies require energy, even when resting (Breathing and heart pumping are two such important functions. Doctors call them vitals for the same reason). 

All of this is great. But is measuring calories useful? What is the hype all about? 

To answer these questions, we need to understand calories in vs calories out and their relevance in today’s world. 

How to count my calories?

To answer this question better, let’s understand two key concepts: Calories In and Calories Out.

Calories in

This term refers to the calories we consume in the form of food. The concept is fairly easy. Five kinds of molecules provide us with energy. They are Carbohydrates, Proteins, Fats, Fibers, and alcohol. These are called Macromolecules and make up 95-99% of our food, excluding water. 1 gm of each of these molecules provides us with a certain amount of energy. 

To provide a quick example, let’s count the number of calories in 100g of apple.

100 g of Apple has approximately 0.2 g Fat, 2.4 g Fibre, 12.4 g Carbohydrate, and 0.3 g Protein.

The energy content in 100 grams of Apple = (0.2 g Fat)*(9 Cal/1 g of Fat) + (12.4 g Carbs)*(4 Cal/1 g of Carbs) + (0.3 g Protein)*(4 Cal/1 g of Protein) = 0.2*9 + 12.4*4 + 0.3*4 = 52.6 Cal

Now, it's important to understand that all this energy cannot be absorbed by the human body. For example, fibre is a key component of carbohydrates that humans cannot digest very well.

Calories out

Calories generally refer to the energy expended and excreted by the human body unused. Let’s understand a few terms here to understand the mechanics of energy expenditure in humans. 

Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)

Resting Metabolic Rate refers to the basic amount of energy required to keep us alive and well. We can also think of it as the energy our body would require in a day, even if we are asleep all day. This energy is mainly required for the basic maintenance of our bodies and running the vitals such as brain, heart, and breath, among others. This generally accounts for 60-75% of total energy expenditure in healthy humans.  

Thermogenic Effect of Food (TEF)

Thermogenic Effect of Food refers to the energy required to break down and digest the food we eat. This can vary widely depending on the macromolecule content of the food. For example, simple sugars are easily digested, hence less TEF compared to complex carbohydrates. Similarly, proteins and fibre need more energy (hence more TEF) to digest.  

Thermic Effect of Activity (TEA)

Thermic Effect of Activity refers to the energy expended during any work we perform. This includes all your daily activities as part of work and leisure when awake. As you would expect, this can vary widely depending on your physical attributes and genetic makeup, but most importantly, based on how active you are, whether at work or home.

A human's total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is the sum of all three components mentioned above.

TDEE = RMR + TEF + TEA

It is crucial to understand that there is no single formula that works for everyone when it comes to estimating energy expenditure. The most commonly used formula is based on the Mifflin-St Jeor equation. This equation uses a person's height, weight, age, gender, and physical activity level to estimate RMR and TDEE.

Advantages vs disadvantages of counting calories

Whether to count calories or not is a never-ending debate. So it would be easier to understand the advantages and disadvantages of counting calories. Let’s start with the advantages first.

Advantages

A simple and more obvious benefit to counting calories is that we have a fair estimate of calories in vs calories out. Even though this might not be perfect, this could give you rough guidance or self-realisation.

The practice of counting or tracking calories could help you avoid overeating or undereating, and match your calorie needs to your health goals.

Disadvantages

Calorie counting and food tracking could be a tedious process, often prone to a lot of errors, especially human errors in estimation.

Focusing on calories could often lead to missing the food's overall nutrition. For example, 100 calories of potato chips and fruit would have the same energy content. But it’s obvious that fruit is much more nutritionally rich and has a balanced distribution of macros. This is much more relevant today as most of our food is industrially processed (leading to low nutrition density). However, supplementing our diet with healthy alternatives and easy access to relevant Over The Counter (OTC) health products can help counter this.

advantages and disadvantages of calorie counting

Planning a better diet for health and well-being

After knowing all about counting calories and their relevance, we understand that calorie counting is important, but not adequate. So, the million-dollar question still remains. How can you plan a better diet for my health and well-being? How can you match your health goals with your energy and nutrition needs? How to know which foods are more nutritious than others?

I recommend three ways (for three budgets) to go about this. 

  • Leaving it to the experts - By now, you would have understood that this process takes a lot of time and effort. So outsource it to the Registered nutritionists (RN) and dietitians (RD) if you can afford them. Find a good RD/RN, and they will cater to your energy and nutrition needs. It could take some quality time (and money, of course) to find the right RD/RN, but it would be worth it in the long run. Many RD/RNs are practising online these days so that you can skip the stress of traffic and commute times.

  • Nutrition and Diet Apps - This could be the best solution if you are tech-savvy and cannot afford a personal RD/RN. A good app could actually provide unlimited meal options matching your needs without getting mad at you, unlike an actual human with time limits. There are some good companies out there that can plan meals and diet, matching your needs (physical and health attributes). You can do your research and choose an app that works best for you.

Caution: The apps can only help you based on the information you feed. Some apps might not be very good at personalising diet and nutrition. Do your homework and consult a professional before adapting to any plan. Apps are still no replacement for actual professionals (humans).

  • Follow thumb rules & conventional wisdom - National Institute of Nutrition has provided some thumb rules you can follow to plan your daily meals nutritiously. They have published Dietary Guidelines for Indians and planning your plate for the day, both of which are great free resources to plan your meals. You can adopt these thumb rules into your cooking process.  

In closing

The main takeaways from what we've discussed here are:

  • Counting calories is good but not adequate for planning a healthy diet.
  • A calorie from potato chips is not the same as a calorie from fresh fruit.
  • Planning nutrition and diet can be tedious. You can simplify the process by adopting thumb rules, using nutrition apps, or outsourcing the process to experts.
  • Nutrition planning is complex for health goals like weight loss or weight gain. Be cautious and rely on expertise in such activities.

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