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Are We Missing The Caloric Forest For the Trees?

I’ve found myself in coincidental circumstances lately regarding the topic of counting calories. Specifically, the angle that counting calories is wrong because the numbers aren’t factual.

To be clear, I appreciate voices of reason and accuracy in the scientific community. When we quibble over details, it means a lot when considering phrases like “statistical significance.” I have no problem with attaining better methods, new approaches, or debunking old ones. People studying the research aren’t wrong in finding flaws in exact calorie counting. Doing your job well and reporting on inaccuracies isn’t the issue. Discouraging the average dieter who is trying to change their life while attacking everything they’ve been doing, well…

The problem is when inaccuracies are overblown for clickbait or selling a different (and always equally as flawed/statistically sketchy) method. Again the pattern emerges (quite frequently in the health industry) that your effort is useless or even part of a compulsive disorder but “look at our method over here.” The calorie as we know it is dead, useless; and if you take part in counting those numbers, you’re doing it wrong or so they say.

Spoiler 1: The average assessment of caloric content is erroneous.

Spoiler 2: Being obsessive about the numbers isn’t the answer to your body composition problems in the first place.

Spoiler 3: There are 101 ways and plans to make changes to your diet that have nothing to do with the knowledge of calories which in no ways means it’s meaningless or destructive knowledge to obtain.

What Does The Research Say About Caloric Accuracy?

How accurate are the general calories we know of today? How close do those nutritional facts line up?

According to some research, (here, here, and here to name a few) and depending on the food (mostly nuts), pretty close or a sort of “off” which leaves you with—not that bad.

It’s “not that bad” according to trying to exhume energy in a measured “vacuum” to mimic the effects of a caloric burn in the human body. When you think of it like that, it’s downright magical.

When you think of it as needing to measure, with an almost total and complete accuracy within a tenth or centimeter—in order to say, deliver a calculated drone strike and avoid civilian casualties—no no, I wouldn’t use this method of measure.

There are also factors of digestion or cooking which can vary caloric numbers. Often, it’s as simple as bringing the fat out. In studies, we see that unless the fat is heated enough or ground, there can be leftover whole particles in stools. The “shell” acts as a shield to breaking down the fatty acid composition. If you’re a lazy chewer, it’s even fewer calories absorbed. Heating the nuts can increase the calories we absorb. In short, you get more calories with a nut butter than the nut raw and whole itself. Let me stop you now if you think it’s a good idea to be inefficient in chewing your food. You want to absorb your food.

We see similar things in heating with fats in steaks. A rare steak will release fewer calories than a well-done steak. Foods react, in different ways, to enzymes, heat, and individual digestive systems.

It should be noted a lot of the times calories are less than we assumed, not more. But in most articles they leave that part out so you buy something. Nothing wrong with selling but should you scare first? I don’t think so.

If you look at independent companies and their nutritional facts, it’s a lottery at best. A lawsuit was recently filed against the Lenny & Larry’s Cookie Company for misrepresenting their nutritional facts.

The FDA allows variations in error levels and rounding of caloric and macronutrient content. It should be noted this can change on a yearly basis and new rules have been released recently for the nutrition labels themselves.

Take home?

We have a solid idea of the caloric content in our food, but it isn’t precise. That doesn’t mean the numbers, even in ranges, are worthless to know. It also does not mean they are so dramatically wrong they can’t be worked with using a system.

Should You Worry About The Count Of Calories?

As I stated, accurate caloric knowledge should never be touted as the answer. Trying to understand precise caloric intake in a free-living society is akin to learning how to juggle for the first time with eggs.

But caloric content is not a meaningless knowledge. It’s a skill and tool you can use.

If someone has a good grasp on intake portions, is routine, and doesn’t have a tendency to overeat severely or binge, we will likely never talk about calories. Instead, I would educate and forge a food strategy. I’d explain how they can make small shifts in their routine to land in the zone they need be it fat loss, maintenance, or muscle gain.

But if someone has a poor grasp on portion intake, erratic food schedules, and a tendency to overeat and binge, then we will talk about calories. I will educate them on understanding their intake needs in a more detailed manner. This does not mean they have to spend their life counting calories (or at all) but it does mean they will get a hard lesson on generalized calorie counts released by research facilities. They will learn the zone and range of calories in products, how calories relate to them, and how much (roughly) they may burn in a day.

It is a skill you can learn, critically and with logic.

Hone The Skill Instead Of Worrying Over the Numbers

I don’t care who you are, you’ve improved at a skill. Driving? Sports? Cooking? Child Rearing? Reading? Every person has improved at something. To get visual, let’s do an exercise.

Below you will find a picture of a set of circles.

1. Take your mouse pointer or touch pad to the furthest right edge of your computer or laptop.

2. As quickly (but as controlled) as possible, and in one swipe, guide the pointer to the circles attempting to land as close as you can to the middle circle.

3. Repeat your attempts until you feel you’ve honed your speed and achieved a relative “mastery” to this exercise.

4. Don’t feel bad if you can’t land in the middle. That’s not the point.

Disclaimer: I am not responsible for anyone breaking into a blind rage and busting their computer, mouse, keyboard, or any other object due to frustration.                                                                                                                                       `

What you learn from this exercise is over time your exaggerations and misses decrease. Ideally you nibble away until you land in your target. For some, you may nail it on your first venture. For others, you may not achieve the target at all, but still get closer.

Caloric measuring is the very exercise you practiced above. You take a little food out here, add a little there, and then manipulate it based on your goals. But unlike the immediate feedback from circles above, determining if one has landed on the “target” is a tiring exercise.

“Did I gain muscle? Am I retaining water? Have I given enough time? Was it sodium? Carbohydrate intake? Am I dehydrated? Am I too hydrated?”

Unless the deficit is extreme, change is subtle.


The point of this article is to drive home the main mission statement: The accuracy of calories is not the goal but learning your caloric need is.

It doesn’t matter if 2000 calories is actually 1800 calories or 2200 calories (in testing reality) as long as your adjustments towards your needs are made correctly. You shouldn’t be shooting for an arbitrary number, not in weight, activity, etc. Rarely unless in competition does the scale matter and history shows us that 155lbs can look very different on the same heights(depending on muscle and fat mass).

It’s not about the accuracy of the numbers.

(Extra: I’ll be releasing (free) a large review on the subject soon. I’ll also be presenting on the topic: Variations and Determining Factors in Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE): A Lesson for a Better Understanding of Daily Metabolic Rate at the GGS weekend this April. Got your ticket?)

To Summarize:

1) Caloric stats vary in accuracy. These variations and are still being tested.

2) Everything from heat, health, and the truthfulness of companies will determine the accuracy of calorie counts.

3) We have a good general idea of caloric content in food—it just isn’t precise.

4) Perfection over intake amount isn’t the goal and could lead to obsessive and unrealistic expectations

5) Calorie knowledge is one of many methods and tools; counting is not the only tool in the box.

6) Put your focus on honing your intake skills and learning how many “calories” your body needs instead of worrying about the numbers.


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