Calorie Counting for Weight Loss - Can You Trust It?

Counting beads on an Abacus
Photo Courtesy of Crissy Jarvis

Many weight loss regimes require calorie counting and generally, with good reason. After all, more calories in than used does lead to weight gain, it’s inescapable.

But what is a calorie and are all calories equal?

First, let’s clear up big C, little C and kcal. Big C refers to a kcal (kilocalorie), which is what usually appears on food packaging. Small C refers to a unit calorie, but the distinction is being lost by common usage, so small C and big C are, in modern domestic settings the same. In this blog, I will use big C Calorie to mean kcal. 

What is a Calorie?

A Calorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water through 1 degree Celsius. I bet you were just itching to know that weren’t you?


So how does that relate to food I hear you ask? Well, to calculate how many Calories in a specific food, a known quantity of food was placed in a sealed container filled with pure oxygen that was in turn placed in a tank of water. The food was then ignited by an electric spark and burned to extinction. The resultant rise in the water’s temperature was then measured and the calorific content of that food calculated.

The Problem with This.

The problem with this is that all food, being organic and therefore original and unique, varies in its content and energy output. So averages were used and still are today. To further simplify it, a rule of thumb was introduced, so the average values for all proteins is 4 Calories per gram, 4 Calories per gram for carbohydrates, 9 Calories per gram for fat and 7 Calories per gram for alcohol.

The Problem Doesn't Stop There.

This availability is affected by a few things.

  • How it is prepared: Chopping, dicing, or blending food can increase the amount available.
  • How it is eaten: Cooking food generally makes Calories more available for absorption and food labelling may not always take this into account

And There's More.

How our bodies actually absorb nutrients. We have individual and unique microbiota and flora in our gut which determine how we as individuals absorb and utilise our food content. But even so, there are also differences according to food types.

For example, typical absorption of animal protein has been found to be higher than the original experiments and assumptions of 4 Calories per gram and lower for most vegetable protein. Also, not all calories are converted to energy. Protein may be utilised for body maintenance such as growing new cells, e.g. skin, hair, nails, etc.

Carbohydrates high in fibre are another example, because the fibre passes through without absorption by our digestive tract.

Our bodies absorb fewer Calories from nuts and seeds, but more from certain vegetables like tomatoes, cabbage and kale, or fruits like oranges and mangoes.

And Finally.

Yes, one more caveat to go. When we are serving up portions of food, how accurate do you think our eye judgement is, or do you actually weigh each portion? This becomes an obvious waste of time in view of the above facts, but even if each corrective factor were applied to each portion, how accurate would the Calorie content be. How big is a slice of bread and how thick the layer of margarine/butter/spread on it? How thick that slice of cheese, or cake, or pie?

Summing Up.

You can see now why Calorie counting is not going to give you a definitive weight-loss tool, although it still serves as a rough guide. Far better to look at a healthy, well balanced diet and to remember that the quality of the Calories is more important than just the number of them.

If you are serious about losing weight and would like some help, especially if comfort eating is a problem, hypnotherapy can be really useful and effective, especially if married with nutritional therapy.

Why not check out my Weight Loss page for more information

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