Why Count Calories

flying robin

I never count calories to lose weight.  Yes, I know the theory of calories in/calories out has been around for a long time, and I will have people yelling at telling me that counting calories is the only way they ever lose weight, but I just won’t put myself into that box.  It may be because my son Kevin and I have been counting  his “carbs” for over 20 years in order to balance his insulin doses, but really as a biologist I know that the relationship between food and our bodies is just a lot more complex. Thus, my new bumper sticker:

Thinking about calories, and doing the usual surfing around pubmed  (a favorite site for science nerds), I discovered an interview of Marion Nestle.  Of course, Ms Nestle’s credentials concerning nutrition and food studies outweigh mine considerably: she  is Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health (the department she chaired from 1988-2003) and Professor of Sociology at New York University. Her degrees include a Ph.D. in molecular biology and an M.P.H. in public health nutrition from University of California, Berkeley.  She has written a number of books and a daily blog at www.foodpolitics.com .   Her latest book co-authored with Malden Nesheim is Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.

Why Calories Count

Why Calories Count is not a “how to” weight loss book or a book on healthy lifestyles.  Instead, Nestle and Nesheim sort through a great deal of the misinformation put forth by food manufacturers and diet program promoters.  And yes, they have a strong case for why calories do contribute to the increase of obesity in the U.S.  There is plenty of evidence that people are eating more now than 30 years ago.   Food portions have become super-sized and available almost everywhere, resulting in an environment of eating that did not exist years ago.

In Nestle’s own words: ” In the United States, eating more can be attributed to changes in agricultural policies in the 1970s that paid farmers to grow more food. The result was an increase in calories in the food supply. The second big change was in the way investments worked. Wall Street, which had formerly valued blue-chip stocks that gave long, slow returns on investment, suddenly began demanding higher and faster yields. These changes put extraordinary pressure on food companies. They had to do two things at once: sell products in an environment in which there was already twice as much food available as anybody could eat, and grow their profits every 90 days. Food companies had to find new ways to sell food. They did that by increasing the size of food portions; promoting consumption of foods eaten outside the home, either in restaurants or other places; and by creating an environment in which it became socially acceptable to eat food at any time of day and anywhere – in cars, in your hand, on the street – places where eating had never been acceptable. Suddenly snacking became okay, food was sold absolutely everywhere, in drug and clothing stores that never used to sell food.”   read the entire interview

The prevalence of processed and convenience food has shaped the way we eat.  Cutting portion sizes and calories are known to result in weight loss, but the question I have is whether just eating less of something of poor nutritional quality  results in long term health.  Nestle herself emphasizes the difficulty in counting calories.  Calorie counting creates a mindset that can encourage people to be more concerned about the calories than the quality of what they are eating.  It’s difficult to count calories when eating out,  at a party, or even when sitting down to a home-cooked meal.  People who are busy counting calories tend to purchase prepackaged snacks and frozen dinners merely because of the reduced calories, without regard to nutrition.

Eat Whole Foods

When we eat whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and lean meats (if you do eat meat), we are eating nutrient dense foods that help to satiate our appetites.  Many of these foods contain reasonably low amounts of calories per serving.  Because fruits and vegetables contain large amounts of water and fiber, they are especially nutrient dense and calorie low.  When we eat a varied diet consisting of whole foods we eat more fiber and essential nutrients, and our bodies repay us with increased energy and stamina.  The fiber, protein and healthy fats in whole foods helps us feel more satisfied and eat less. On the other hand, highly processed “junk” food is nutrient poor and calorie rich.  Compare a 100 calorie snack food with an apple, which has about the same number of calories.  The snack food disappears quickly, leaving us wanting more.  Often they are filled with either sugars or salt, MSG, preservatives, and trans-fats.  The apple has fiber, is a good source of vit C, and is quite satisfying to eat.  If you don’t like apples, there are plenty of other healthy snacks that contain whole foods.

Portion Control

Eat less on smaller platesCounting calories is time-consuming and confusing.  Most people do not know how many calories are in their favorite foods.  In fact, when researchers ask how many calories a person usually eats, most responders underestimate the number by 30 percent or more.  The current environment of extra large portion sizes only exacerbates the problem.  We don’t even remember what a normal serving is anymore!  A slideshow from the Mayo Clinic gives a better idea of serving sizes of common foods, but here are three tricks my family uses every day:

  • Use smaller plates!  The brain still thinks it has eaten a plate full of food, and you are more likely to be satisfied with smaller portions.
  • Serve your food from the buffet or kitchen counter.  Eating family style with large platters of food on the table just tempts you to eat seconds, or even thirds.
  • Prepare your meal plate and then put leftovers away immediately.  You won’t be tempted to eat more after the meal when you are cleaning up.

You don’t have to count calories, weigh your food, or read labels to eat healthy.  Stay away from highly processed, packaged foods, eat whole foods, and manage your portion size, and you will enjoy all your meals with no guilt added!

Live Well!


Other articles you may find interesting:

Are you Too Busy to Eat Healthy?

Enjoy Your Fruits and Vegetables for a Healthy Heart



1. Nestle, Marion and Malden Nesheim (2012)  Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2. Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., Dr.P.H., Tao Hao, M.P.H., Eric B. Rimm, Sc.D., Walter C. Willett, M.D., Dr.P.H., and Frank B. Hu, M.D., Ph.D.Changes in Diet and Lifestyle and Long-Term Weight Gain in Women and Men. New Engl J Med 2011; 364:2392-2404 June 23, 2011