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Why the Calorie Is Broken - And How to Fix It

June 14, 2022
Why the Calorie Is Broken - And How to Fix It - Lark Health

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In this article: 

  • Calories are a unit of energy. Food calories mostly come from carbohydrates, fats, and protein. 
  • Your body needs calories from food. To lose weight, you need to cut calories that you consume from foods compared to the calories that you burn.
  • Calorie counting isn't precise, and it can be time-consuming. Still, the concept makes sense. You can reduce calories by taking smaller portions and opting for lower-calorie foods.
  • Lark can help you use calorie counting to your advantage to help you lose weight by making small changes for lasting habits.

If you've been trying to lose weight, you may have come across calories. They've long been a focus of many diets. But is calorie counting the only way to go? Is it even the best way to lose weight? Here's why the calorie is broken, and how you can fix it enough to use calorie counting to lose weight.

Definition of a Food Calorie

A calorie is a unit of energy. Food provides energy, or fuel, for your body. It takes energy to stay alive, such as breathing and keeping the heart pumping and blood circulating. It takes more energy to move and exercise. 

Mayo Clinic says that food has calories. Most of our calories come from carbohydrates, fat, and protein in foods and beverages. Alcohol also has calories. 

Calorie Balance and Weight Loss

When your calories are balanced, you are using (burning) the same amount of energy that you are taking in, or consuming, from food and drink. That means your body weight is stable. You don't lose weight or gain weight.

Are you gaining weight? That means you have a positive calorie balance. You are taking in more calories than your body needs. Your body stores the excess energy as body fat. That's true whether the extra calories are from fat, carbohydrates, or protein.

Do you want to lose weight? A negative calorie balance means that you are burning more calories than you are taking in. 

Why the Calorie Is Broken

Calorie counting may seem like a good approach for achieving a negative calorie balance, but it's far from perfect. These are some reasons why calorie counting isn't an exact science when you're trying to lose weight.

  • Calories on labels of food packages aren't exact. They can be off by 10 to 20%.
  • It's hard to measure everything you eat all the time. It is a burden to count foods and use a food scale and measuring cups and spoons for everything you eat or drink.
  • It's hard to know exactly how many calories you burn throughout the day at rest and while being active.

Harvard Health Publishing says that two different people eating the same number of calories can have different calorie balances.

  1. Everyone has their own metabolism. Some people burn more calories than others.
  2. People have different bacteria in their gut. Your gut bacteria profile is linked to weight gain or loss.

Make Calories Work for You

Calorie counting may have its problems, but that doesn't change a basic fact: weight loss depends on getting calories you take in to be lower than calories you put out. These are some simple ways to shift your calorie balance to make it negative, without becoming obsessive about precise calorie counts.

Mayo Clinic and Harvard Health Publishing have tips for reducing your calorie intake without strict calorie counting. These are some ideas.

Take smaller portions of high-calorie foods. Calorie-dense foods include sweets, fatty foods, and refined grains, such as bread and pasta, for example. If you're still hungry, fill up your plate or bowl with lower-calorie foods. These are some examples.

  • Take 1 cup of cooked pasta instead of 2 cups, and have extra sauce with cooked vegetables, plus a side salad.
  • Have 3 ounces of steak instead of 6 ounces, and start your meal with a salad or broth-based vegetable soup.
  • Eat only half of what a restaurant serves you, and take the rest home with you. Order a side salad or steamed vegetables if half your restaurant meal is too small.
  • Take only half a piece of cake or other sweet, and round out your dessert with fresh fruit.

Swap lower-calorie foods for higher-calorie ones. These are some examples.

  • Skim milk or unsweetened almond milk instead of whole milk
  • Skinless chicken instead of chicken with skin
  • Fresh fruit instead of raisins or other dried fruit
  • Water instead of soda or an energy drink
  • Black coffee or coffee with almond milk instead of a syrup-sweetened coffee beverage
  • Popcorn instead of chips or crackers

Some foods are more filling than others. It's good to choose less processed foods, says Harvard Health Publishing. They can help you eat fewer calories without even thinking much about it. It's also helpful to choose foods with fiber and protein, according to research published in Advances in Nutrition. These are some examples.

You can also shift your calorie balance by exercising more. Harvard Health Publishing shows estimates of calories burned in 30 minutes for various activities. A half-hour of brisk walking, for example, burns about 133 calories for a 155-lb person and 159 calories for a 185-lb person. 

Even though calorie counting can be imprecise, a calorie counting app can help you lose weight. That's especially true in the case of Lark. The meal logging feature tracks nutrients and healthy food groups in addition to calories. Plus, you get coaching that is increasingly personalized the more you use it.

Calorie counting can work, but it's not the only way to lose weight. When you log your foods with Lark, you can get personalized coaching on good choices for weight loss and health. You can establish healthy habits that last a lifetime.

Lark makes weight loss and healthy eating simple. With Lark, weight loss and healthy living happen when you make small changes that fit into your lifestyle. Lark offers tips, tracking, instant feedback, and friendly suggestions. Over time, small healthy changes can become habits for long-term success. Your personal Lark coach is available 24/7 through your smartphone so you can get expert tips, track meals, physical activity, and weight loss. 

The entire program may be available at no cost to you if your health insurer covers it. Click here to find out if you may be eligible for Lark! You could be minutes away from taking the first steps to hitting your weight loss goals and improving health.

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