Thursday, January 03, 2013

The Calorie Counting Catastrophe

Calories (noun) : Tiny creatures that live in your closet and sew your clothes a little bit tighter every night.

     I loved this quote on Facebook (author unknown). It seems to capture the eternal mystery that this term signifies for most of us.
     What is a calorie? It is a unit of measurement of energy. A kilocalorie is a thousand calories and raises the temperature of 1 litre of water by 1°C. This kilocalorie is what we commonly refer to as ‘Calorie’. In India another abbreviation used is ‘kcal’. 

     So how many Calories do we need per day? According to our National Institute of Nutrition, in the past:

A sedentary (inactive) woman weighing 50 kg needs approximately 1900 kcals per day. A sedentary man weighing 60 kg requires 2400 kcals per day.

    These values have now been updated and replaced with calculations which are more individualised but still the resulting values remain approximately the same as above. Moreover, these formulae are mainly for the use of clinical nutritionists working in a hospital setting where more specificity in overall nutrient intake not just calories is critical to survival of the patient.

     Here's the catch for ordinary folk. Suppose you are a woman weighing 60 kg, your requirement of calories does not automatically go up. If you are of average height, then you may even need to reduce your caloric intake. But again, you don’t really need to count calories. 

     The trend of counting calories for weight loss started back in the eighties and really gained ground in the nineties in the US. Over thirty years of calorie awareness and we have more obese people in the world than ever before. Obviously something’s not right here.

     Firstly, if you have been counting calories (from guide books or nutrition labels), you should know that these values are not accurate – in fact they may be off by about 20%! That makes a huge difference if you thought you were consuming 1800 kcals and really were consuming over 2100 kcals….
Secondly, tracking calorie consumption makes you focus on quantity not quality.

For example,

1 vegetable puff gives anywhere between 250 to 300 kcals depending on size and fat content.

3 medium sized phulkas (without fat) will give you 250-270 kcals without the extra burden of trans fats, refined flour and other harmful ingredients. They contain more complex carbohydrates, fibre and other nutrients as well!

     The point is that foods are not just about the calories. A food is a package offering a variety of nutrients at once. Unprocessed, organic, whole, natural plant-based foods are the best source of calories and the best part is that you don’t need to sum up if you are eating mostly these types of foods. Dairy products like milk, curd, paneer and cheese, so long as they are organic, are also healthy and white meat, cooked healthily is preferable to red.

     Thirdly, this whole process of doing food maths is stressful, taking away your focus on your body’s natural signal response system for satiety (fullness). It also increases feelings of guilt (when you have indulged) and encourages rather than discourages bingeing. A number of anorexics obsessively count calories which should ring a warning alarm in your head. 

     People who count calories may not do so with their nutritionist’s guidance and thus set their calorie intake too low. Consistently eating a low energy diet slows down your metabolism and leads to all types of chronic disease.

     Did you think being healthy = being thin? This is the idea that people who count calories generally have. A number on a scale does not translate into health. It is about overall fitness – people can be overweight and still be healthy. I’m not saying you can now justify those excess kilos. It is still best to reach your ideal body weight - however, that figure might be nearer to your current weight than you think. Meet a nutritionist to know what is ideal for you.

     To conclude, your health is comprised of the quality of food you choose to put into your body plus your physical output – the more activity throughout the day the better. If you’ve been trapped in this cycle of calorie counting --- weight loss --- weight gain, hopefully reading this will open up new routes on your journey to wellness.

This article was published in 'Life in Adyar', December 29th, 2012.


  1. Can I Thank you any less for this? Trust me, living here in US, the calorie counting game catches up on you. Everywhere you go and you see this word popping up and waving at you. And the comparison of Veg puff vs 3 phulkas cuts much deeper than it might seem. It suddenly opens up a lot more!
    Keep it coming! :D

  2. Got that Aditya, analyzing nutrition labels there is a nightmare. Hope these posts help. Just go to the fresh produce aisle, I think you are safest there. There's a store my brother-in-law recommends - Whole Foods......try to find the outlet nearest you....but even they have unhealthy options - I guess there's no other go than to be vigilant.


Hi, do give me a sense of how to serve you better by leaving a comment.