The Complete, Utter Truth About Calorie Counting

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Calories Gif
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Calories – a word splashed across the pages of health and fitness magazines, plastered on the labels of healthy and unhealthy foods, and taking over our weight loss vocabulary in general. The promise? Cutting calories is the solution; you’ve already lost 10kg with just a simple swap from 500 calories to 100. Sound too good to be true? It is.

Goodness is here to reveal the truth behind calories, why they even came into play in the first place, and whether they do in fact have any merit.

What Is a Calorie?

A calorie, in simple terms, is a representation of energy. The higher the number of calories on the back of your favorite snack, the more energy that food will produce in your body and the more energy you will need to expend to use them up.

“Using calories” in itself is a term that has been lost in translation – we don’t say “use calories” anymore, we say “burn calories”. But here’s some food for thought: thousands of years ago, actually using the energy was the whole point of food. We needed the energy to survive, hunt, raise a family, and steer clear of danger. Nowadays, we eat food because we enjoy the taste and it’s readily available. Figuring out how to burn off the excess energy that we’ve consumed is an afterthought.

Thinking about fat loss in terms of calories does have some value as, ultimately, we need to consume less calories (energy) than we expend in order to burn fat. Having an idea of how many calories individual foods contain is always helpful, but the danger comes when a whole diet – or better yet, lifestyle – is manufactured around individual numbers rather than the quality of those numbers.

Quality, Not Quantity

A large green apple and a small KitKat chocolate bar have roughly the same amount of calories, but that doesn’t mean you can lose weight from eating a few KitKats a day in the long run. Continuing to eat food with poor nutritional value means that the body will start to give up. The metabolism slows down, cells don’t renew as quickly or as healthily as they should, organs start functioning improperly, cholesterol builds, insulin becomes desensitized, and diabetes lurks around the corner. It is a pretty grim picture and may sound a little far-fetched, but it’s not all about the amount of calories. It’s about their quality.

charles deluvio pug and cake
Photographed by Charles Deluvio

Stay Sane

While it may have been true thousands of years ago, we’re no longer living in the day and age of eating simply to give us the energy to get up for work and do a few chores. Great food is a luxury; it’s what we socialize around, after all. So how do you do both — be healthy and aware of calorie intake but not obsess over numbers? Knowledge is the answer. The easiest way to get healthy is to learn how to be healthy, cook new recipes that are full of vegetables and nutritious ingredients, and recognize what’s secretly full of hidden sugars and will spike your blood sugar levels sky high. Get creative with different snack options that keep food enjoyment high as well as health value. Knowledge teamed with balance is the way to live a happy and healthy lifestyle.

What's the Real Baddy?

Sugar, not calories, is the enemy. Do you remember being told to choose the low-fat option because it had a) less fat and b) more often than not, less calories? Did said option ever mention how much sugar it had instead? How do you reduce the amount of fat (and calories) in a product, but still keep the same delicious taste? You add more sugar! Sugar is the number one culprit for fat gain. It’s an immediate energy source that goes into our body and unless we “use” it right then and there during a 30-minute HIIT workout, it will be stored as fat. The body experiences a surplus of energy and, instead of getting rid of it, stores it for a rainy day.

Calories are something to be aware of, but are by no means what a healthy lifestyle should be based around. Be aware of how much you are consuming, how much exercise and work you are doing to balance out those ingested calories and, most importantly, how much of your diet is sugar!

Carly Rothman is the blogger behind LeanLivingGirl, a health and fitness website based in Dubai.