Have you ever used a calorie counter or tracker to see how many calories your workout just burned or how many calories you just ate? Many of us have.
Nutrition accounts for around 80%, but it’s not all about counting calories. Reaching your fitness goals is about moving more and eating more nutritious foods, not just calories in vs. calories out.
Here are a few things to keep in mind if you want to start tracking your calorie intake or calorie burn.
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 may vary. For instance, if you’ve ever wondered how many calories are in a banana, one calorie calculator might list 90 calories while another says 120 calories — that’s a pretty significant difference.
HIIT workouts can burn more calories than your counter says
A calorie tracker may tell you that a 15-minute Tabata session burns around 150 calories. This might be a correct calculation of calories burned during the 15 minutes, but it doesn’t account for the extra calories burned after the workout. During HIIT (high-intensity interval training) sessions like Tabata or timed intervals, your body is left with an oxygen deficit (that out-of-breath feeling at the end of an intense session). To reclaim this oxygen, your body has to work extra hard over the next 24-48 hours. This results in a higher metabolic rate and thus more calories burned over the next 24 hours. In the end, the Tabata session can burn almost 450 calories in total. Not many calorie counters will account those post-workout calories burned.
Hormones can make you gain weight
Another thing to consider when counting calories is your hormones. 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. To put this simply, 100 calories from sugar might make you gain fat but 100 calories from nuts might help you to reach your goal.
There’s no way for your calorie counter to take hormones into account unless it has a very comprehensive idea of what your food is made of. This is why we suggest ditching the calorie counter and focusing on the quality of the foods you eat. Nourish your body with healthy, wholesome foods and pay less attention to calorie totals.
We absorb more calories from processed foods than 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. Carbs from fiber are indigestible carbs, meaning the body doesn’t absorb those calories.
For example, 100 grams of chia seeds contain 40 grams fiber. The fiber is included in the calories on the food label, but aren’t absorbed by the body. Therefore, a calorie calculator shows 467 calories for 100 grams chia seeds but your body only absorbs around 2/3 of that amount, which is approximately 310 calories.
Gut bacteria and calorie-absorption
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 number 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 because cooking foods make calories more easily available for the body.
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 we don’t suggest replacing main meals with smoothies or shakes all day long. Processed, blended and juiced foods are absorbed quickly and easily. As a result, blood sugar rises fast and we quickly crave food again.
If you’re already putting a lot of effort into training your external system with a new exercise routine, don’t forget to train your internal system too. Digesting whole foods is like a workout for your organs. It keeps them – and you – healthy.
Bottom line: Counting calories is stressful
Counting and tracking every calorie you put in your body is stressful. Oftentimes, it becomes an obsessive, unhealthy behavior and doesn’t always lead to weight loss. This is because when the stress hormone cortisol is elevated long term, we burn less fat.
Even if your calorie intake looks good on paper, doesn’t mean the number on the scale will. Using a calorie calculator doesn’t mean you’ll reach your goal faster because what you track can be very different from the calories you actually absorb or burn.
Our best advice: Don’t stress out over getting every calorie count exactly right. The 8fit meal plan is designed to help you do this without actually thinking about it. It’s also fully customized to your diet needs taste preferences. Still don’t know where to go from here? Our nutrition guide can help you get started.