The Calorie myth began with Los Angeles, California physician, Lulu Hunt Peters, whose name you probably have never heard of. But in 1918 her method to lose weight – calorie counting – became all the rage. “Hereafter you are going to eat calories of food,” the physician instructed readers of her guide Diet and Health. “Instead of saying one slice of bread, or a piece of pie, you will say one hundred calories of bread, 350 calories of pie.” And today, when you squint at a Nutrition Facts label at the supermarket, you’re honoring Lulu Hunt Peters’ legacy.
Hundreds of weight-loss fads have come and gone since Diet and Health became a best-seller. And at the root of most of them is obsessively keeping track of calories to shed pounds. People are still tracking calories today. But calorie counting, as you will read, is an ineffective way to lose weight – at least in the long run. As a nutrition coach, Los Angeles, I tell clients they would be better off to judge portion sizes based on their hands (but more on that later).
What Precisely Is A Calorie?
Calories are the amount of energy that food gives your body, and, in addition, the energy your body consumes during the day as you walk, breathe, exercise or sleep.
More accurately, a calorie is a unit that measures energy. Originally, a calorie was defined as the amount of energy, or heat, needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius.
When it comes to calories, there are two types. A calorie on a food label is actually a kilocalorie. A kilocalorie equals a thousand calories. If a Hostess Twinkie says it contains 270 Calories, it’s really 270 kilocalories, or 270,000 calories.
Not All Calories are Created Equal
As a Los Angeles health coach, I advise clients that calories are not all the same. Simple carbohydrates or sugar give you different amounts of energy than you get from fats or protein. Your body uses energy differently with sugar and processed foods when compared to nutrient-rich foods.
Macronutrient Calories per Gram of Food
- Fat = 9 calories
- Protein = 4 calories
- Carbohydrates (sugar, grains) = 4 calories
- Alcohol = 7 calories
How about veggies? Most vegetables vary in their amounts of protein, carbs, and fats, so their calorie content also varies.
Vegetables with a high water content that are non-starchy, such as cucumbers or celery, contain around 20 calories per 100 grams. Vegetables with more starch, like sweet potatoes or corn, contain between 40 and 105 calories per 100 grams (roughly a half cup).
To compare, one celery stalk has only around seven calories, while a cup of steamed cauliflower has about 29 calories.
Fresh fruit contains sugar, so it has a higher calorie count, but similarly to vegetables, a portion of their calories comes from fiber, which means you absorb fewer calories. Half a cup of blueberries contains around 35 calories and a medium size tangerine is 45 calories.
While it’s true that whole foods and sugary processed foods could contain the same number of calories, whole foods contain valuable nutrients, such as minerals, vitamins, and fiber. Simple carbs turn into sugar immediately and your body processes them quickly, so it uses less energy than processing vegetables and whole grains. Yes, they may have the same calorie count, but whole, nutritious foods make you burn more calories.
How Can I Gain Weight Counting Calories?
Calorie counting is based on calculating how many calories you need each day based on your bodyweight. Women usually require around 2000 calories a day. In order to lose weight, you need to consume fewer calories than your body uses. Let’s say that’s about 1500 calories a day.
Simple calorie counting doesn’t take the type of calories you’re consuming into account. If you stay within your daily calorie allowance, you can, in effect, eat whatever you like, including processed food,pastries and sweets.
Actually, it’s simpler to count calories that are on boxed or frozen processed foods due to the nutrition labels. But calories from whole foods and veggies versus processed foods are not equal. In addition, sugary, empty carbs don’t fill you up like whole foods do, so chances are you’ll just end up eating more. Counting calories also makes you focus on food, which makes you continuously think about things you can eat or justify eating sweets and processed foods because they are within your calorie allowance.
If your main diet is processed foods, you’re likely not getting enough nutrients. Because your body lacks nutrients, you’ll find yourself craving foods, even when you’re not suffering hunger pangs. The hunger hormone, Leptin, sends a signal to your brain when you’re full and lets you know when to stop eating, but simple carbs and sugary foods can disrupt those brain signals and bring on an eating frenzy.
What Should I Do Instead of Calorie Counting?
Calorie counting isn’t necessary if you eat a diet composed primarily of whole grains, healthy fats, lean meat, fruit, and lots of fruits and veggies. Controlling your portions is a much smarter option. Choose a smaller plate and pile it up. Use your hand as a measuring device for your serving sizes. Here’s what you should be eating daily:
- 7-9 heaping handfuls of fruits and vegetables
- 1-2 palm-size portions of protein, like meat, poultry, fish, or a poached egg
- 1-2 handfuls of starch, that’s a single slice of whole-grain bread or a small potato
- 1-2 thumb size pieces of fat
If your body is accustomed to eating mainly processed foods, you may need time to adjust to more whole foods and balancing Leptin, so you feel full longer. Eating nutrition-rich foods instead of empty calories is the healthier option, and in the long run, a smarter plan for weight loss.
Health Coach, Manhattan Beach
If you are seeking:
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Derek Opperman of LifeUp Health Coaching offers competent, compassionate care. Whether you live outside of Los Angeles and are interested in online integrative health coaching or you live in the Hollywood, LA area and have been seeking a “health coach near me,” we invite you to reach out. Derek can help you to meet all of your personal wellness goals.