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The Dos and Don'ts of Counting Calories

Experts explain the right way and wrong way of counting calories to lose or maintain weight.
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Calorie Countdown continued...

Why is calorie counting so popular? As Americans, we love easy sound bites, Bowden says. Counting calories (or fat grams) is far easier than actually understanding the complex effects food has on our bodies (and our waistlines). Calories do count, but they are far from the whole picture.

"Food produces hormonal effects in the body," he says. "Some hormones say 'store that fat'; others say 'release sugar'; others say 'build muscle.' Study after study shows that diets based on the same amount of calories, but different proportions of fat, protein and carbohydrates, result in different amounts of weight loss."

Why It's Hard to Keep Count

It is also extremely difficult to count calories accurately. Although 67% of Americans report taking calories into account when making food purchases, nearly nine out of 10 have no idea how many they actually need, a survey conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation reports. We tend to miscount what we eat, as well. Although the U.S. food supply produces 3,900 calories for each person per day, men claim to eat an average of 2,618 daily calories, while women report eating only 1,877.

Where do those missing calories go? Into our mouths and directly to our waistlines, for the most part. In fact, there's a lot working against us when it comes to staying slim and healthy. Big meals and large portions (think holiday feasts and most restaurant dinners) tend to undermine our calorie-counting efforts, studies show. And being overweight makes it even more likely that we'll underestimate the calories in our meal --a definite disadvantage when it comes to losing weight. In one study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers found that all people, no matter what their size, are more likely to be able to accurately guess the number of calories in small meals than in large ones. Overweight people tend to eat larger meals and larger portions, which explains why they tend to make mistakes counting calories, researchers say.

Even nutrition experts aren't exempt. When Young showed 200 dietitians five different meals actually served in restaurants (lasagna, Caesar salad with chicken, tuna salad sandwich, steak plate and a hamburger with onion rings), their estimates of the number of calories in each meal were woefully inadequate. Some meals contained double the calories that some nutrition professionals predicted they did.

So why do we keep counting calories? For the most part, because it's what we're used to doing -- that is, following a mathematical formula of body weight equals calories in -- calories out, says Steven Aldana, PhD, professor of lifestyle medicine at Brigham Young University, and author of The Culprit and The Cure and The Stop and Go Fast Food Nutrition Guide.

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Cholesterol Glossary

  • Dietary fiber - The parts of plants that your body can't digest. If eaten regularly, fiber such as oats, pectin, and psyllium reduces serum and LDL cholesterol.
  • HDL Cholesterol - The "good" cholesterol, HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol helps your body remove "bad" cholesterol from your arteries.
  • LDL Cholesterol - The "bad" cholesterol, LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol tends to be deposited in artery walls.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids - A good-for-you polyunsaturated fat found in some fish and vegetables (salmon, flax seed, soybean, English walnuts, and canola oil).
  • Plant sterols - Found in plant foods, isolated from soybean and tall pine tree oils, they lower LDL "bad" cholesterol levels.

Which foods do you favor?