Don’t get me wrong, I love any gadget that helps make my life easier. If it also helps me live healthier, it’s almost a no-brainer. But lately it seems like there are a ton of health trackers on the market, many of which are focused solely on counting calories.

Personally, I don’t count calories. It’s tedious and time-consuming and the whole thing can be thrown off if you forget one meal or snack for the day. I don’t have time for all of that.

That’s not to say that I don’t watch what I eat. I just believe that counting calories can be ineffective for a few reasons. In this post, I’ll break down everything you need to know about calories, including why calorie calculators are ineffective.

I’ll even show you how to lose weight without ever having to count a single calorie again.

What is a calorie?

calories food ipad handsYou may be familiar with calories in that you know food contains them, but do you really know what they are?

In its simplest definition, a calorie is a unit of energy.

However, calories are a bit more complex than that.

For starters, there are two types of calories: small (cal) and large (kcal, Cal). Small calories are the energy needed to raise one gram of water by one degree Celsius, while large calories are the energy needed to raise one kilogram of water by one degree.

One large calorie is the equivalent of 1,000 small calories.

When it comes to food, you’re looking at small calories when you check nutrition labels. But something I find interesting to note is that the calories on those labels are actually a measure in kilocalories. So technically a 100-calorie snack pack is actually 100,000 calories!

Now that we know what calories are, let’s talk about how we use them.

Our bodies utilize calories for energy. The three primary sources of calories are carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Carbohydrates contain 4 calories, fat contains 9 calories, and protein contains 4 calories.

This leads me to a question I get all the time: How many calories should I consume per day?

Many people are unsure of how to calculate their calorie needs so they tend to rely on calculators. But determining your caloric intake may be easier than you think.

How to determine daily caloric needs

calculating size weight ipag excerciseYour height, weight, gender, age, and activity levels are the main factors that determine how many calories your body needs per day.

So your first step is to determine the amount of calories it would take your body to maintain your current weight, given some of the factors listed above. This is known as your BMR or basal metabolic rate. It’s how many calories your body burns at rest in a 24 hour period.

According to Body Building, your BMR is calculated as follows:

  1. Convert your weight to kilograms using the formula listed next to ‘W’
  2. Convert your height to centimeters using the formula listed next to ‘H’
  3. Now just plug those values–plus your age–into the formula corresponding to your gender. I’ve even added some color to help you break down the formula into manageable bites.

BMR-Calculations-BodyBuilding

Let’s look at an example using a 35-year-old male.

According to the ‘W’ equation, his weight of 210 pounds will be converted to kilograms by dividing 210 by 2.2, which equals: 95.454545 kg.

Using the ‘H’ formula for his height of 5’11, he would multiply 71 inches (5 feet, 11 inches converted to inches) by 2.54, which equals: 180.34.

Now we can plug everything into the BMR formula for men. It will look like this:

BMR= 66.47 + (13.75 x 95.45) + (5.0 x 180.34) – (6.75 x 35)

BMR= 66.75 + (1312.43) + (901.7) – (236.25)

BMR= ~2,044 calories per day to maintain his current weight

Go ahead and try out these formulas using your stats, it’s actually kind of fun.

When it comes to losing weight, though, one school of thought says that in order to lose a pound, you need to cut back on 3,500 calories. 3,500 calories is the caloric equivalent of one pound.

However, this calories in vs calories out notion has recently come under investigation, and for good reason.

Calories in versus calories out

calories on forkLet’s take a look at the premise behind calories in versus calories out. According to this theory, if you’re overweight or obese it’s because you’re consuming too many calories every day. If you wanted to lose weight, all you would need to do is cut down on calories and you’d be all set.

This simple notion opened the floodgates to overprocessed, 100-calorie snacks containing ingredients that no one outside of the manufacturing industry could pronounce.

It also led to the obsession of low-calorie diets.

But there’s a huge problem here: you need calories to survive. They give you energy, remember? So if you start cutting back calories in an effort to lose weight, how do you think you’re going to end up feeling?

Tired, sluggish, mentally foggy, and miserable is the answer.

But not all calories should be considered equal. The calories you’ll find in a high fat pastry snack are nowhere near as nutritional as the ones found in a high-calorie avocado. Yet, you could be consuming close to the same amount of calories.

Many lean, frozen foods also rely on calorie counts instead of focusing on nutritional value. What’s the point of eating something low-calorie if it doesn’t provide you with the nutrients your body needs to perform at its best?

Let’s take a look at this Lean Cuisine Apple Cranberry Chicken frozen meal. Sounds healthy, right? It comes in at 300 calories per serving, which is considered low calorie, and contains about 4g of fat, not too much for a meal at all.

Lean-Cuisine-Calories

Take a glance at the nutrition label and see if you can spot any unhealthy features.

For me, the 23g of sugar stood out like a giant red flag. That’s practically like eating a candy bar for dinner.

And how about the 480mg of sodium? As you can see, it’s 20% of your daily intake, which is a bit high for something claiming to be ‘low calorie’ and healthy.

This goes to show that the flavor in low-calorie food is being enhanced with added sugars and extra salt, which will leave you feeling bloated.

I also have to say that the gigantic list of ingredients–some of which include harmful corn syrups–is not exactly healthy either. You also don’t see much in the way of vitamins and minerals, aside from the sodium and potassium on the label.

The good news is that not all low-calorie foods are like this. In fact, many healthy foods are both naturally low in calories and high in nutrients. This means you won’t have to trade one for the other.

To get back on track regarding the calories in vs calories out debate, we also need to see the ‘calories out’ side of things: exercise. If you’re burning as many as 500 calories during your workouts, it’s imperative to re-fuel with foods high in protein and carbohydrates (depending on the intensity and duration of your workout), which both contain calories. If you don’t replenish what’s been lost after a workout, then you could be negating all of your hard work building muscle.

My point here is that the calories in vs calories out method is outdated.

Another problem area when it comes to calorie calculators is the fact that nutrition labels are not always correct. Does that surprise you? Because it bothered me when I first learned this.

Nutrition labels aren’t always accurate

nutritional label bottleIn fact, according to Lily Nichols, RDN, CDE, CLT, “Labeling laws allow as much as a 20% margin of error on the nutrition facts panel. That means your 100 calorie snack pack could be 119 calories.” Or your 300 calorie frozen meal that I mentioned earlier could actually be close to 360 calories. These small changes can add up in no time.

This can end up throwing off all your tedious work of counting calories all day.

After all, how do you know what your calorie count really is if you’re not given the actual numbers on the label?

It turns out that’s there’s even more to the calorie story than this.

Your body does not use all of the calories in food

woman drinking milkWe don’t all digest food the same way. I think everyone has that one friend who always wolfs down his food and wonders why he’s hungry all the time, right?

Chewing is one factor in calorie breakdown that can change the number of calories you absorb from your food.

If you don’t chew your food properly–i.e slowly and mindfully–the calories end up “locked up” during digestion and don’t get used by the body, according to an article in LiveScience.

The article continues to say, “People also expend some of the energy from food just digesting it; and even the bacteria in people’s guts steal a fraction of food’s calories. None of these factors are accounted for in our current system for counting calories, which dates back more than 100 years.”

Susan Jebb from the Medical Research Council’s Unit of Human Nature Research in Cambridge elaborates on how calories are actually lost:

  • 10% of the total calories consumed might appear at the end of our guts
  • Some calories are lost in urine
  • Others are fermented by our gut bacteria as stated earlier

Before you go jumping for joy, Jebb reminds us that “losses are proportionally quite small.”

This just goes to show that calorie counting is not as straightforward as most calculators make it out to be.

I haven’t seen a calorie calculator that adjusts for a 20% marginal error on nutrition labels or one that accounts for the calories lost during the digestion process.

As I’m sure you can tell by now, I’m not a huge fan of counting calories. Not only is it too time-consuming, it’s also not exactly the most accurate plan.

Instead, I prefer to use the approach taken by Michael Matthews of Muscle for Life, which doesn’t involve counting a single calorie.

Lose weight without ever having to count a calorie

breakfast juice fruit cereal bowlAccording to Matthews, the following six tips can help you lose weight:

  1. Start your day with a high-protein breakfast
  2. Eat more protein throughout the day
  3. Reach for low-calorie fibrous foods like spinach, broccoli, oranges, and pears
  4. Cut back on carbohydrates
  5. Drink more water
  6. Get at least 6 hours of sleep each night. Personally, I recommend at least 7 hours, but no more than 8. Any more than that can make you feel groggy.

For more healthy tips, you can also check out this handy guide about how to look and feel your best.

So before you go wasting another minute of your time trying to count your calories for the day, take a step back and consider using a different approach. Of course, you should always check with your doctor first in case you require a specific caloric intake for medical reasons.

Instead of spending time on calorie counters, I recommend using a tracker that helps you log your workouts instead. Although they aren’t always 100% accurate either, they can be a fun way to track your progress. To reduce your margin of error, make sure to use a fitness tracker that’s connected to a heart rate monitor.

Now it’s time to hear from you. Did you know that nutrition labels can legally have margins for error as high as a 20%?