By Zach Columbia BS, NASM
Shortly after becoming a personal trainer, I remember reading a statistic that only 4% of people who start a fitness program, actually achieve the results they were looking for. Of course, there are all kinds of reasons why people don’t reach their health and fitness goals, but I believe a huge problem exists among fitness professionals that not only allows people to fail, but causes them to. What is it? – Misconceptions about counting calories and inappropriate use of calorie deficits.
First things first, what is a calorie? A calorie is simply a unit of energy. 1 calorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. The amount of energy or calories in a given food is determined by using a device called a Bomb Calorimeter. Inside the Bomb Calorimeter, a unit of food is placed into a small oxygen rich chamber. Water surrounds the small chamber inside a tank. The unit of food is then burned, which in turn raises the temperature of the water. Based on the rise in temperature of the water, the number of calories, or the proposed energy contained in that unit of food is determined. There are several major flaws with this system itself and when comparing how the human body produces energy.
The bomb calorimeter only takes into consideration the Law of Thermodynamics, and does not allow for the biological processes of the body. According to Dr. Barry Groves, this is the first obvious flaw with counting calories. He states, “Our digestive process is quite inefficient. The chemical process whereby blood sugar is oxidized to provide energy produces carbon dioxide. About half is exhaled as carbon dioxide, the other half is excreted in sweat, urine and feces as energy-containing molecules, the energy values of which must be deducted from the original food intake. All of these vary.” (Do Calories Count, 2005) For example, a high fat diet forms ketones, which can be found in urine. The value of a gram of ketones derived from fat is roughly 4 calories. According to common belief, there are 9 calories in a gram of fat, so in this case, nearly half the energy from the fat is lost.
Another major flaw with counting calories is that a calorie is a unit of energy, but much of what we eat is not actually used for energy. In fact carbohydrates are the only nutrient that’s primary purpose is to produce energy. For example, the primary function for dietary proteins is body cell manufacture and repair. As Dr. Groves explains, “The amount of protein needed for this purpose is generally accepted to be about one gram per kilogram of lean body weight. As meats contain approximately 23 grams of protein per 100 grams, a person weighing, say, 70 kg (155lbs) needs to eat about 300g of meat, or its equivalent, every day just to supply his basic protein needs. Even eating this volume of lean chicken would provide some 465 calories. These calories are not used to supply energy, they contribute nothing to the body’s calorie needs and so must be deducted if you are counting calories.” (Do Calories Count, 2005). In addition, a great deal of the fat we consume is not used for energy, but for the manufacture of bile acids and hormones, essential fatty acids for the brain and nervous system, etc… If we’re going to accurately count calories, these must be deducted from our daily caloric intake as well. A major problem is that no two people digest and absorb these nutrients in the same way, nor do they have the same protein and fat needs. Therefore, there is no accurate way to account for what percentage of fat or protein is used for energy and which is required to meet other physiological demands.
You can see why there are some issues when comparing the Bomb Calorimeter to the human body. Now let’s take a look at how this system is flawed when determining the calories contained in food. In the Bomb Calorimeter, 1 gram of protein produces 4 calories, 1 gram of carbohydrates produces 4 calories, and 1 gram of fat produces 9 calories. However, these figures are rounded off and approximate. Take carbohydrates for example: sugars have 4.0 – 4.2 calories; starches have 4.44 calories; and fiber is said to have 0 calories, but that’s insoluble fiber; soluble fiber has 2 calories. Depending on the type of fat, the difference in calories can be even larger, ranging from 5.5 calories-9.1 calories.
Another related issue is that there are a number of variables that directly affect foods caloric value. These include: soil and growing conditions, animals diet, length of storage, preparation and cooking, and ripeness. For instance, a green banana is made up of mostly starches, but a fully ripe banana contains more simple sugar. Your body does not convert a green banana into energy the same way that it converts a yellow banana. Both are considered the same food, but produce different hormonal responses throughout the digestive system. If we take this one step further and go by the Bomb Calorimeter, a green banana would contain 4.44 calories and a yellow banana would only contain 4. Use the recommended 2000 daily calorie intake you see on practically every product at the grocery store and it would take 500 yellow bananas to reach 2000 calories, but only 450 green. That’s a 10% difference in calories by eating the same exact food. Imagine the fluctuation in calories when your diet contains a variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, and nuts.
Taking into account these factors, I have to ask – Is it even possible to accurately count calories? Fitness Trainer Mike Clancy sums it up like this, “With all these factors taken into consideration, the energy and nutrients listed on food labels or in nutrient databases can have an error margin of +/- 25%… measuring a persons Caloric output is just as inaccurate. Because movement is always different and varies daily, there can never be an exact measurement of Calories spent. Even if you try your best to measure your Calorie intake precisely, you could be off by 20% or more (Why You Can’t Count, 2012).
Fitness coaches walk a very fine line, when it comes to getting clients results. Take too long and the client might become discouraged and quit. Putting our clients on a low calorie diet seems to be the solution in our industry, because it provides short-term weight loss results. However, the common goal of the fitness industry is to get clients to look and feel better, while safely administering an exercise program. The first thing we do when someone comes to see us, is put them on a meal plan that reduces their calorie intake, and then increase their nutritional needs with an exercise program. This type of thinking does not result in safely administering a weight loss program. It results in hormonal imbalances and a decelerated metabolism; both of which hurt our clients and can prevent our clients from reaching the goal they initially set out for. It’s not only impossible to accurately account for calories consumed, it’s impossible to determine individual nutritional requirements that come from proteins and fats. Therefore, the fitness industry needs to change its thinking on counting calories and place its focus on the quality of food being consumed and its hormonal response in the body, not on the quantity.
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Clancy, Mike. Why You Cannot Count Calories. (2012) Web: http://mikeclancytraining.com/2012/09/why-you-cannot-count-calories/
Groves MD, Barry. Do Calories Really Count? (2005) Web: http://www.second-opinions.co.uk/do-calories-really-count.html#.Vhff4_lViko
Feinman RD, Fine EJ. Thermodynamics and Metabolic Advantage of Weight Loss Diets. Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders 2003; 1: 209-219.
Kekwick A. The metabolism of fat. J R Coll Gen Pract. 1967; 13 (Suppl 7): 95.