Okay, this sounds morbid, but the Death of the Calorie is one death to celebrate. News of the demise of the calorie is welcome for many in the nutrition world who have tried to push the focus toward food and away from calories for some time. While the mantra was calories in, calories out for many years, evidence is clearer that there is a problem with the calorie and the concept of energy balance:
- Calorie totals on food labels can be inaccurate and vary by 20% or more.
- Calorie trackers like MyFitnessPal and calorie expenditure predictors on watches, Fitbits, and exercise equipment are average estimations that can be unreliable for an individual person.
- 100 calories of broccoli, cookies, chicken, oil, or a mixed snack are not processed the same by the body.
That does not mean that the calorie is wholly without merit. Undereating can result in weight loss or stalled gains in the gym. Overeating can result in a person gaining weight. Research on the causes or contributing factors of weight gain is moving beyond the calorie and into many areas. In addition to quality of food being important—when the food is consumed, combinations of foods, individual person variability (eg., length of intestine, absorptive capacity of the intestine, genetics, health of the intestinal bacteria), stress, and lack of sleep to name a few—may also have a role.
If you are one of the people who has already moved beyond the calorie as a frame of reference and is focused on quality food, go you! But if you are looking for how to refocus your attention:
- Listen to your body. Eat when hungry and stop eating when about 80% full.
- Choose mostly foods that are whole and minimally processed.
- Minimal processing means foods not in packages.
- If choosing food in packages, choose those with the fewest ingredients possible, and recent thinking says, choose packaged food with fewer than 5 ingredients.
- A Mediterranean and vegetarian eating pattern, are shown to be associated with better health. There is preliminary and limited evidence that a Mediterranean eating pattern may also be associated with better exercise performance, but much more research is needed.
As is noted in the Death of the Calorie article and by many in nutrition, it is more about what you are putting into your diet than what you are taking out; therefore, focusing on calories does not help ensure intake that is nutrient dense. So can we please stop tracking calories MyFitnessPal? I’m begging you!
Happy and healthful eating,
Donna G. Pertel, MEd, RD, LDN