The New Numbers Game: What to Count Instead of Calories

For generations, calorie counting has been the backbone of dieting and the conventional “calories in/calories out” model for staying fit has held strong. Yet, calories aren’t a great indicator of diet healthfulness, and many health experts are saying they shouldn’t be our main eating focus. 

After all, when you compare 100 calories from candy with 100 calories from almonds it should be clear that not all calories are created equal — same calorie load, yet very different nutritional profiles. Calorie counting ignores one key factor: the quality of your food. 

It’s just that there are far smarter things to count on to make sure you are eating your way to healthier body composition, better runs and a longer, healthier life. So what do you track instead of calories?

How Many Calories Do You Need?

Many people seek to lose weight, and often the easiest way to do this is to consume fewer calories each day. But how many calories does the body actually need to be healthy?

This largely depends on the amount of physical activity a person performs each day, and regardless of this, is different for all people – there are many different factors involved, not all of which are well-understood or known. 

Some factors that influence the number of calories a person needs to remain healthy include age, weight, height, sex, levels of physical activity, and overall general health.

For example, a physically active 25-year-old male that is 6 feet in height requires considerably higher calorie intake than a 5-foot-tall, sedentary 70-year-old woman. 

The body does not require many calories to simply survive. However, consuming too few calories results in the body functioning poorly, since it will only use calories for functions essential to survival, and ignore those necessary for general health and well-being. 

Calorie Counting as a Means for Weight Loss

Calorie counting is not an exact science and can be as complex as you want to make it. The above does not consider the proportions of macronutrients consumed. While there is no exactly known, ideal proportion of macronutrients (fats, proteins, carbohydrates), some balance is certainly advisable, and different foods have been found to have different effects on health, feelings of hunger, and several calories burned.

Generally, minimally processed plant and animal foods tend to be more conducive to healthy weight loss and maintenance. There are many approaches to weight loss and there is no set ideal method that works for all people, which is why so many different diets and exercise regimens exist.

While some methods are more effective for each individual person, not all weight loss methods are equivalent, and studies suggest that some approaches are healthier than others.

 That being said, one of the most commonly effective weight loss methods is counting calories. In its most basic form, calories consumed minus calories expended will result in weight gain if the result is positive, or weight loss if the result is negative. However, this is far from a comprehensive picture, and many other factors play a role in affecting healthy, sustainable weight loss. 

Studies have shown that foods that require a person to chew more and are more difficult to digest result in the body burning more calories, sometimes referred to as the thermic effect of food. While the increase in burned calories may be marginal, foods that are more difficult to digest such as vegetables generally tend to be healthier and provide more nutrients for fewer calories than many processed foods.

However, ignoring efficiency and health, sustained, significant reduction of caloric intake or increase of physical activity should result in weight loss, and counting calories can be an effective way to achieve this sole result.

Aside from being one viable method for facilitating weight loss, calorie counting has other somewhat less quantifiable advantages including helping to increase nutritional awareness. Many people are completely unaware of, or grossly underestimate their daily caloric intake. 

Counting calories can help raise awareness of different types of foods, the number of calories they contain, and how these calories have a different effect on a person’s feelings of satiety.

Once a person has a better understanding of how many calories are actually in that bag of chips that they can so easily inhale within minutes, how much of their daily caloric intake it consumes, and how little the chips do to satiate their hunger, portion control and avoidance of foods with empty calories tends to become easier.

Having actual caloric measurements can also assist in weight loss, since tangible calorie goals can be set, rather than simply trying to eat less. Also, although this is not necessarily directly related to calorie counting, studies have shown that portion control by simply eating from a smaller plate can help reduce calorie intake, since people tend to fill their plates and eat everything on their plates. 

Many people do not realize that they are overeating, since they have become accustomed to restaurant-sized portions being the norm when said portions can be up to three or more times larger than necessary for a typical meal. 

Calories: Different Kinds and Their Effects

The main sources of calories in a typical person’s diet are carbohydrates, proteins, and fat, with alcohol also being a significant portion of calorie intake for many people (though ideally this should be limited since alcohol contains many empty calories). Some studies have shown that the calories displayed on nutrition labels and the calories actually consumed and retained can vary significantly.

This hints at the complex nature of calories and nutrition and is why many conflicting points of view on the “best” methodology for losing weight exist. For example, how a person chews their food has been shown to affect weight loss to some degree; generally speaking, chewing food increases the number of calories that the body burns during digestion.

People that chew more also tend to eat less, since the longer period necessary to chew their food allows more time to reach a state of satiety, which results in eating less.

However, the effects of how food is chewed and the digestion of different foods are not completely understood and other factors may exist, and thus this information should be taken with a grain of salt (in moderation if weight loss is the goal)

Count: Grams of Fiber

Dietary fibre isn’t exactly the most exciting term in the wellness world, but it just might be the most devastating shortfall in the typical American diet. And it can have profound health and performance consequences beyond disconcerting toilet habits. A recent study found that people who eat more fibre are less likely to succumb to some of today’s biggest killers like cancer and heart disease. 

Both soluble and insoluble fibre play several important roles in our health including steadying blood sugar levels, lowering blood pressure and improving cholesterol.

By helping regulate hunger, a fibre-rich diet can also put the brakes on overeating which can contribute to unwanted weight gain. This is played out in research suggesting that consuming more roughage helps achieve and maintain healthy body composition. 

Not to be overlooked is that consuming more fibre is perhaps the best way to improve your microbiome — levels of beneficial bacteria in your gut — and perhaps even more important than eating probiotics.

A robust microbiome has been linked to everything from better digestion to improved mental health to even a boost in athletic performance. Yet, despite all the finer points of fibre, dietary surveys show that more than 90% of American adults don’t get the recommended amount on any given day. 

Count: Late Night Calories

If you’re struggling to achieve or maintain your target healthy body composition perhaps it’s because you’re running to the fridge too often well after sunset, a snacking habit that trips up many people.

One newer study discovered that people who consumed the lowest percentage of daily calories at night consumed fewer calories overall when compared with those who ate more at night. What’s more, those who saved more of their daily calories for the evening scored significantly worse for overall diet quality. 

That’s not surprising considering that too often late-night snacks are nutrition bombs. Findings suggest that evening is a high-risk time for overeating because hunger hormone levels rise and satiety hormones drop at this time of day, and this shift is made even worse when experiencing periods of stress.

An investigation showed that late-night eaters not only had lower weight-loss success than those who obtain more of their calories earlier in the day but also metabolic conditions such as lower insulin sensitivity and higher blood triglycerides that placed them at higher risk for heart disease.

Our bodies may handle calories it receives later at night differently than the ones it gets earlier in the day including reducing rates of fat oxidation and worsening blood sugar control. 

Count: Protein at Each Meal

To make the protein you eat work harder for you, the latest science shows when you eat it is just as important as how much you take in for helping to build and maintain lean body mass. (Remember that the more muscle mass you have the more power you can achieve on your runs and the less susceptible you are to training-related injuries.) 

Instead of consuming most of your protein at a single meal, which many people do at dinner, distributing the macronutrient more evenly does a better job of fueling your muscles more consistently during the day.

A study showed that muscle protein synthesis increases when people consume 30 grams of protein (the amount in 5 ounces of the chicken breast) at a meal, but taking in more doesn’t necessarily bring about bigger gains. 

And this study found that 30 grams of protein consumed after a bout of higher-intensity endurance exercise is a good amount to shoot for as a means to maximizing muscle recovery and growth.

Research still needs to better determine meal protein requirements for active females who may need slightly fewer protein calories to maintain and improve lean body mass. 

Count: Meals Away from Home

The pandemic may have altered the numbers slightly, but in recent decades Americans have been spending more of their food dollars on meals and snacks prepared by someone else.

Convenient yes, but all this restaurant and fast-food eating can be a recipe for less nutritious eating that may impact health and fitness gains, not to mention being a drain on the bank account. A study found that people who ate out more frequently typically consumed less nutritious diets and also had higher food expenses. 

Since chain and non-chain restaurant food is typically higher in calories, fat and sugar than what comes out of your kitchen it’s not surprising research shows that eating out more often can make it more challenging for many people to achieve a healthier body composition.

Investigation researchers showed that adults who reported never watching TV or videos during family meals and also whose family meals were all home-cooked had lower odds of being at an unhealthy body composition than those who ate while distracted by a screen and prepared fewer of their meals.

Count: Grams of Added Sugar

If you are running up a storm then, yes, you can get away with a bit more of the sweet stuff in your diet and it can work in your favour during long endurance efforts. But since the research is so dire concerning added sugar in our diets it’s a good idea to keep intake in check. 

There is no way to sugarcoat it: Eating too much-added sugar — the stuff pumped into food and drinks to artificially sweeten them as opposed to what occurs naturally — is a culprit in a host of health concerns that goes beyond unwanted weight gain and diabetes.

The research found women who took in one or more sugar-sweetened beverages per day had an almost 20% higher risk of cardiovascular disease, compared with women who did not consume or rarely drank sugar-sweetened drinks.

Other evidence has linked lofty intakes to increased chances for depression and certain cancers — a strong indication that the body responds to sugary calories differently than it does to other kinds of calories. And this study suggests that higher intakes of added sugar can lead to a lower intake of several essential micronutrients.


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