You may think you know all about calories. Many people have counted, cut off, and added them up for most of their lives. But when it comes to weight loss, there is actually still a lot of confusion about counting calories. It turns out that many of the most common beliefs on the subject are really just myths. Here are seven of the most persistent myths about counting calories – plus the facts, straight from the experts.
1. All calories are the same
Many people believe that they can eat healthy as long as they keep a certain number of calories per day. This myth can get in the way of a balanced, nutritious diet. “You can’t compare 100 calories of salmon to 100 calories of soda,” said Samantha Cassetty, RD, former nutrition director for Good Housekeeping, based in New York City.
She points out that salmon is full of beneficial nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids and protein – one reason the American Heart Association recommends eating it twice a week – that work really hard to feed your body. “The opposite is the case with soda – those calories work against you,” she says. Not only are they lacking in nutrients, they’re also full of sugar, and their drinking has been linked to an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, previous research shows. “It is a total mistake to believe that all calories are the same,” says Cassetty.
2. Celery has negative calories
With only about 9 calories per stick, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), it’s obvious how this myth began. It’s easy to imagine that chewing celery “clears” enough of these calories to put the food in the negative calorie range. “It’s an idea from another era,” says Cassetty.
Cucumbers, radishes, lettuce, and other water-rich vegetables are also sometimes referred to as negative calorie foods, but just like celery, this is nothing more than a myth. “There are no foods with negative calories,” says Cassetty.
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3. Calorie labels are 100 percent accurate
What you see is not necessarily what you get when it comes to calorie information on nutrition information. “There is scope for manufacturers,” says Cassetty. In fact, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food manufacturers can be up to 20 percent off the mark with this number. This means that a product you eat that you believe has 200 calories can actually be up to 240 calories. A study published in Obesity magazine looked at the accuracy of nutritional information and found that prepackaged ready meals contained, on average, 8 percent more calories than the labels stated. That can add up.
4. If you cut 3,500 calories, you will lose 1 pound
This is a gross oversimplification of the science of calories and hardly the way weight loss works in real life, according to Cassetty. “Overall height, genetics, sleep, and stress can complicate this general rule,” she says. When a body loses weight, the amount of calories it needs to maintain that weight goes down.
The 3,500 calorie-equals-a-pound math just doesn’t take this into account. According to an article in Today’s Dietitian, other factors such as gender, changes in eating and exercise habits, and poor compliance are also not taken into account. Carson C. Chow, PhD, a senior researcher in the Mathematical Biology Division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is quoted in the article stating, “Every 10 calories per day that reduce caloric intake leads to a potential Lose a pound, but it can take three years to get there. “(You can check out the National Institutes of Health’s Body Weight Planner to try this new math for yourself.) This rule of thumb isn’t quite as appealing to dieters like the 3,500 calorie rule, but it’s more specific.
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5. Your body absorbs every calorie in a food
There is a difference between the number of calories a particular food contains and how many calories your specific body gets from that food. The number of calories you can ingest can vary depending on the composition of your gut microbiome, among other things. In another previous study, Harvard researchers even discovered that calorie counts can vary between raw and cooked foods. And then there is the fiber effect. Since your body doesn’t take in fiber (it’s the indigestible part of plants), the amount of a food can also affect the calories you actually consume. A small study of 18 people published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that almonds contained more calories than they contribute to a person’s diet. Almonds, in particular, are a source of prebiotic fiber that, according to previous research, we do not consume.
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6. The display of calories burned on your treadmill or fitness tracker is accurate
Many calorie counters live and die from the “calorie burned” displays on their exercise machines and fitness trackers. It’s very common for people to opt for an extra snack or dessert based on a number provided by their device, Cassetty says. However, a Stanford University study published in the Journal of Personalized Medicine in May 2017 found that wearable fitness trackers are generally 27 percent worse. “That is a considerable amount. If you overestimate your calories burned this way, not only can it make losing weight impossible, but it can also lead to weight gain, ”she says.
“People don’t notice when they are doing sport, they subconsciously reduce other energy that they use up during the day,” says Cassetty. Previous research supports the assumption that people fidget less, stand less, or climb stairs less after exercising. The body is constantly compensating and making small adjustments to keep the energy balance below the level of your consciousness. “You can’t necessarily control it,” says Cassetty.
“People do a really bad job of estimating the number of calories they are eating and then they get an overwhelming idea of how many calories they burned thanks to these devices,” says Cassetty. “You can really land on the wrong side of this equation.”
7. Counting calories is important to lose weight
Can Counting Calories Be A Helpful Guide To Weight Loss? Secure. But you don’t have to feel like you will never lose excess pounds if you can’t commit to tracking every calorie – especially when research suggests otherwise. A study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science in September 2017 concluded that reducing caloric intake may not be the golden weight loss ticket that people think it will be.
And a study published in JAMA in February 2018 found that other diet changes, such as avoiding processed foods, can be just as effective for weight loss. Specifically, the study was designed to determine whether a low-carb or low-fat diet is better for weight loss. Neither group counted calories, but they received nutritional advice. Both groups lost roughly the same amount of weight, and what they had in common was a diet made from natural whole foods, not processed foods. So count or don’t count, but know the best approach is the one that works for you.