Do Calories Really Count?

Written by Dr. Kate Rhéaume-Bleue, BSc., ND

My mother was a dieter for most of my life. Over the years she tried every diet imaginable in order to manage her weight, including one that involved eating mostly pineapples. So I was completely surprised recently when she asked me a simple, yet pivotal question.

She said, “Katie, you know how they say you should only eat a certain number of calories per day to lose weight?”

“Yes, what about it?”

“Well,” my mom continued, “does it matter what those calories are made of?”

I was stunned.

Food Shapes Our Metabolism

You can’t discuss weight loss for very long before someone pipes up and says “losing weight is simply a matter of eating less and exercising more”. I can assure you the person who says this has never struggled to lose weight, but the statement is based on the notion of calories in versus calories out. If you burn more than you eat you can expect to lose weight, and vice versa. But the foods we ingest regularly do more than provide energy, they shape our metabolism. In short, food high in refined carbohydrates will cause insulin to spike, which encourages fat storage. Protein, fat and fiber tend to have the opposite effect, or at least they don’t stimulate fat-storing insulin production.

Understanding What Calories Can Tell You

In and of themselves calories don’t tell you much. They can be a gauge of food quality, though.

Calories are a decent way to understand the relative value of food: how much nutritional bang you get for your caloric buck. For example, it takes about 100 calories to get a paltry 4 grams of protein from peanut butter (one tablespoon). But, 100 calories of cottage cheese will provide a respectable 11 grams of protein. Even better, 100 calories of shrimp will provide a whopping 24 grams of protein!

We also know that empty calories – like the sticky buns that provide a lot of “energy”, but very few nutrients – are best avoided.

It’s What The Calories are Made of That Count

Calories on a label or in a chart may not accurately reflect the energy we absorb from our food, anyway. The outdated way calories are calculated –  in a laboratory crucible – doesn’t reflect what happens in the human body. For example, the measured caloric value of course and fine ground flour is the same, however studies in people show we absorb more calories from finely ground flour. This is a major caveat to consuming a diet based on counting calories.

Ultimately, we have to consider how our body responds to the food we eat; how 100 calories from a piece of cheese or from a cookie will affect us very differently.

In other words, yes, Mom. What the calories are made of makes all the difference.