More Reason to Not Count Calories

February 26th, 2010

Like most people, you’re probably conscientious of the amount of calories that you eat. Perhaps you even count how many you consume each day. If so, what would you do if you discovered that the calorie data you’ve been using is unreliable?

Researchers from Tufts University analyzed the calorie content of a variety of supermarket and restaurant foods and found themselves asking the same question. In many cases, the actual calorie content of the food varied considerably from number of calories listed by the manufacturer or restaurant. This has significant implications for people who count calories to lose or maintain weight.

The entire basis of calorie counting is dependent on accurately assessing and adjusting one’s daily caloric intake based on their caloric needs. People looking to maintain their weight will generally consume about the same amount of calories that they need for the day, and those who want to lose weight will typically try to eat slightly less. Inaccurate calorie data could easily cause someone to consume more calories than intended and result in them gaining weight instead of losing or maintaining it.

A Rough Guesstimate at Best

The 29 restaurant meals and side dishes evaluated by the Tufts researchers were found to contain an average of 18% more calories than stated, and the 10 frozen meals from supermarkets were found to contain an average of 8% more. When applied to the typical 2,000 calorie per day diet, a caloric excess of just 5% can cause 10 pounds of weight gain in a single year. What’s even more alarming is that some of the foods evaluated had more than twice as many calories as stated.

You might wonder how restaurants and food manufacturers can get away with these discrepancies, but such a thought assumes that there are strict standards in place. There aren’t. The FDA only requires that the calorie content of packaged foods doesn’t exceed the stated amount by more than 20%. For restaurant foods, there’s no limit at all.

Some Surprising Examples

Some of the calories in food aren’t digested or assimilated. Although these calories are excluded from the calorie amounts listed on food labels and menus, laboratory methods used to measure calorie content includes them. To eliminate this discrepancy, total calorie amounts were calculated for each food based on its stated amount of macronutrients. As such, the stated amount of calories mentioned for each food is slightly higher than what you’d see on a label or menu.

A Denny’s veggie-cheese omelette with egg beaters contains 394 total calories for a 340 gram serving. The actual sample was found to be a 270 gram serving that contained 419 calories. Although this is only an excess of 25 calories, the serving size of the actual sample was considerably less than the stated serving size. If the actual serving size had been closer to the stated value, the calorie content would have likely been much higher.

A piece of toast from Denny’s is stated to have a 28 gram serving size and contain 97 total calories. The actual sample of toast was a 72 gram serving that contained 283 calories which is almost three times the stated amount. Denny’s grits are supposed to have a 113 gram serving size and contain 86 calories, but the actual sample was a 262 gram serving containing 253 calories. Like the toast, this is almost three times the stated amount. In addition to these inaccuracies, the total calorie content of the omelette meal is nearly doubled when combined with either of these two side dishes. Since the price of a meal typically includes a side dish, it’s very likely for most people to order one.

Another surprising example is P.F. Chang’s Sichuan style asparagus meal which is stated to have a 348 gram serving size and contain 260 total calories. The actual sample was exactly the same serving size, but contained 558 calories which is more than twice the stated amount. No need for a side dish to double the calories here!

To be fair, some of the foods evaluated contained fewer calories than stated. For example, a piece of toast at Ruby Tuesday’s is stated to be a 27 gram serving size containing 171 gross calories. The actual sample was the same serving size and contained 110 calories. Although this may seem more desirable than the previous examples, it’s important to realize that it could potentially create too much of a calorie deficit which can be just as bad as a caloric excess.

Packaged Foods are Slightly More Reliable

Like the restaurant foods, the packaged supermarket foods varied from the stated values in both directions. Lean Cuisine’s shrimp and angel hair pasta meal is stated to have a serving size of 283 grams and contain 250 total calories. The actual sample was a 345 gram serving that contained 319 calories. Weight Watcher’s lemon herb chicken piccata meal is stated to have a 255 gram serving size and contain 252 gross calories, but the actual sample was a 318 gram serving that contained 306 calories. Ironically, these same brands are specifically marketed to people who are concerned about calories.

What to Make of This

Like some of the ridiculous claims made on food labels, it appears that you can’t always trust nutritional data either, at least not for anything more than a rough estimate. It also seems that the nutritional information provided by restaurants, if it’s even made available, is considerably less accurate than that for packaged supermarket foods. However, it’s also important to consider that this is based on a relatively small sampling of 39 items.

In my opinion, the most important conclusion to draw from this study is that there’s little value in counting calories. While some might argue that more regulation is needed from the FDA to improve the accuracy of nutritional data, I think it’s more important to realize that calorie counting is a flawed practice to begin with and that increasing the accuracy of this data probably wouldn’t make much of a difference. Besides, the FDA is so heavily influenced by industry that such a change is unlikely to happen anyway.

The Flawed Thinking Behind Calorie Counting

On occasion, counting the number of calories consumed per day can provide useful information. This is especially the case if the counting is broken down by macronutrient. However, trying to limit yourself to a specific number of calories each day can not only be frustrating and ineffective, but it also promotes a misguided perspective on healthy eating that emphasizes quantity over quality.

Although appetite is a somewhat subjective matter that’s difficult to define, it’s clearly a complex subject and is influenced by a number of factors. The body’s ability to sense which nutrients it needs is very likely to be one of the most significant. As such, nutritional quality should be given more consideration than quantity. Many people who eat according to this perspective find that they can achieve and maintain an ideal weight without counting calories. In contrast, those who fail to realize that not all calories are created equal typically tend to continue eating lesser quality foods and try to compensate by resisting their body’s craving for nutrition. Such an approach tends to become more a battle of will than the pursuit of optimal health that it should be.

A More Simple and Satisfying Approach

Most people who choose to follow a truly healthy diet consisting mostly of natural whole foods such as meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, and nuts find that they satisfy their appetite more easily and rarely have to deal with food cravings, all while losing or maintaining weight. This has been the case for me as well. In fact, I find it very satisfying to know that I’m providing my body with good nutrition while also enjoying what I eat and not having to resist my appetite. It’s a much more pleasurable approach to weight loss and healthy eating.

For more information on the study done by Tufts researchers, you can read the abstract or purchase the full text here. For more information on a sensible and pleasurable approach to weight loss, I highly recommend reading The Slow Down Diet by Marc David.

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