Have you ever used a calorie counter or tracker to find out how many calories your workout just burned or how many calories you just ate? Many of us have. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you want to start tracking your calorie intake or calorie burn.
Nutrition accounts for around 80 % of your fitness goals and getting off the couch doesn’t do any harm either. However, reaching your fitness goal is not only about calculating Calories in vs Calories out.
Food labels can be off by 30%
Most calorie calculators and food labels will show you the average calories contained in food. However, depending on the country, brand, and portion size, calories can be very different. For instance, if you’ve ever been wondering how many calories are in a banana – one calorie calculator might list 90 calories, another one 120 calories. That’s a difference of more than 30%.
HIIT Workouts can burn 3 times more calories than shown in a calorie counter
A calorie tracker may tell you that a 15 minute Tabata session burns around 150 calories. This might be correct for the actual time you worked out. However, if you do a session of HIIT (high intensity interval training), your body is left with an oxygen deficit, (this is the reason why you’re sometimes left panting at the end of an intense session). To reclaim this oxygen, your body has to work extra hard over the next 24 hours. This results in a higher metabolic rate and thus you burn more calories over the next 24 hours. In the end, the Tabata session can burn almost 450 calories, which is three times more than what is shown in a calorie calculator.
Hormones can interrupt the metabolism of fat
Different foods produce different hormonal responses in the body. For example, too much sugar eaten without the proper balance of fiber, fat and protein causes a spike in the hormone insulin. This interrupts the metabolic process of fat and makes it more likely that consumed food is stored as fat rather than burned.
We absorb more calories from processed foods than we do from whole foods
Whole foods like fruits or whole grains typically contain more fiber than processed foods like juice or white flour. Fiber counts as carbs and is taken into account when calculating calories. However, not all carbs are absorbed by the body. As fibers are indigestible carbs, the body does not absorb those calories.
For example, 100 grams of chia seeds contain 40 grams fiber. The fibers are included in the calories but they are not absorbed by the body. Therefore, a calorie calculator shows 467 calories for 100 grams chia seeds, but you only absorb around 2/3 of that amount, which is approximately 310 calories.
Our gut bacteria determine how well calories are absorbed
Ever wonder why one person can stay lean while eating 2,000 calories, while another person gains weight?
Our “microbiome” is essential for digesting food. Each person or animal has microorganisms that take care of a variety of duties in our bodies. But each of us has a unique set of these microorganisms. Some might be more helpful when digesting certain types of food than others. Studies found that transplanting the gut bacteria of obese mice into lean mice caused the lean mice to gain fat cells quickly.
This shows the impact these microorganisms can have. One person may have a microbiome that helps them break down and absorb food much more efficiently than another person. This can have a big impact on the amount of calories we actually absorb from food.
The preparation method matters
How many calories we absorb from food also depends on how it is prepared. For instance, we absorb more calories from a cooked carrot than from a raw one. Cooking foods makes calories more easily available for the body. Back when food was harder to come by, cooking helped our ancestors survive!
When we eat foods that are processed, blended or chopped into very small pieces, our organs don’t need to work as hard on reducing the size. This is why replacing main meals with smoothies or shakes is inadvisable: They are absorbed quickly and easily, the blood sugar rises fast and we quickly crave food again. Instead we want our body to spend energy on digesting food – more calories are burnt and working hard makes our organs happy (and healthy)!
You are already putting a lot of effort into exercising to train your ‘external’ system. Don’t forget to keep your organs active too! Why give your “internal” system a permanent rest from doing its job? Digesting whole foods is like a workout for your organs. It keeps them – and you – healthy!
Counting calories is stressful
Most of the clients who use calorie trackers and calculators usually have trouble reaching their goal. Even though their food journal and calorie trackers show a calorie deficit, they wonder why they don’t lose any weight.
Keeping the calories of every little banana you eat in mind can become obsessive and stressful. When the stress hormone cortisol is elevated long term, we burn less fat.
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Even if your calorie intake looks good on paper, doesn’t mean the number on the scales will. Using a calorie calculator doesn’t mean you’ll reach your goal faster. The calculated calories can be very different from the calories you actually absorb or burn.
Calories on food labels are inaccurate? Hormones are messing up the numbers?
So what should you do? Don’t stress out over getting every calorie count exactly right. If you’re serious about your calories, get some professional help – a nutritionist can help you create a plan for a healthy, balanced diet. Or you can use a meal planning app, such as 8fit to calculate a customized plan for you.
Not sure where to go from here? Our nutrition guide can get you started.