calories are useless – so why are we still counting them?

Calories are seemingly everywhere, even popping up on restaurant menus of late. However, there is an overwhelming body of evidence to suggest that calories aren’t a great measure. BANT registered nutritionist Eva Humphries looks at the prospect of calories.

A few years ago, Dr Herman Pontzer, Associate Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University, set out to study the Hadza. This modern-day hunter-gatherer tribe is a physically active group that spends the majority of their day walking, running and foraging. Based on this large quantity of exercise, Dr Pontzer hypothesised the Hadza would burn a much higher number of calories than the average, mostly static, office worker. Surprisingly, the study yielded completely different results. The constantly active Hadza really didn’t burn many more calories than the largely immobile office workers. 

With this finding, the new research completely turned the ‘calories in vs calories out’ argument on its head.

Under previous ‘rules’, if you ate 2,000 calories of food but burnt off the majority of them via activity,
your body weight did not increase. Eating 2,000 calories and doing zero exercise meant weight gain was imminent. Or at least, that was our thinking previously.

In reality, the number of calories we burn per day isn’t solely based on exercise. We burn calories thinking, or overthinking in some cases. We burn it breathing and by carrying out day-to-day repair jobs around the body.

What was so revolutionary about Dr Pontzer’s research is the discovery of how calories are reassigned in the body. He noted that even if several hours of activity took place, the average human still only burns as many calories as if it did not exercise. On days of high activity, we simply
use fewer calories to do repair jobs and other jobs around the body. The moral of this is that we can’t burn off calories by being more active – but obviously, exercise does have other significant benefits.

Calories, as a piece of information, also tell us very little. For example, do the calories tell you how nourishing that meal is? Or the relative environmental impact producing that piece of food has had? How much flavour the food carries? How much work the chef preparing your food had to put into that restaurant meal?

For a moment, let me just flip the script.

As a nutritionist with hundreds of happy, and now, healthy clients, I am yet to ask a single individual to count calories. Those numbers are irrelevant. In fact, worse than that, they are damaging. What I truly care about is the nutrients the food contains. A low-calorie meal isn’t synonymous with a healthy meal. In fact, many well-rounded, nourishing meals are pretty high in calories.

So let me just throw one last cat among the proverbial pigeons in illustrating how calories are a pointless measure: 100g of chocolate contains somewhere in the region of 550 calories, give or take a few calories depending on your preference of chocolate. 100g of almonds also contain somewhere in the region of 550 calories. 

Eat the chocolate and you’ll likely absorb most of those 550 calories. Eat the almonds and you may absorb as little as 200 calories. This is because our bodies don’t respond to natural foods the same way they do to processed foods. With this in mind, is it the calories we should really be caring about or where those calories are coming from? 

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