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Should you count the calories?

Updated: Apr 3, 2021


Most of us can't stop obsessing over it.

We have become so vigilant about calories that our eyes constantly hover over the nutritional value labels on foods that we consume.

And, for those on a fat loss journey, eating in a calorific deficit has never been so important...

Some diet experts take this obsession a notch higher by providing a benchmark value for the amount of calories that we need to consume in a day.

Breakfast-500 cal; Lunch- 1000 cal; Evening Snack- 250 Cal; Dinner- 500 cal...

Wait. What???

Now, before we take this discussion further, let's understand some basics of food and energy.

What's energy?

  • Energy is popularly defined as the "ability to do work".

How is it related to the human body?

  • Well, the human body needs energy to carry out the various activities- both internal, & external- such as digestion, blood circulation, breathing, walking, resting and so on...

What's the source of this energy?

  • It's the food that we consume.

How is energy measured?

  • It is measured by a unit called calories.

What is a calorie?

  • It is defined as the amount of energy (heat) that is produced by metabolizing the food that we eat.

How do we interpret the calories for the food(s) that we consume?

  • For instance, if 100 gm of your breakfast cereal provides 200 calories, it essentially means that 200 calories of heat is available as energy for the body to use.

Now, what's calorific deficit?

  • Calorific deficit occurs when there's a shortage in the number of calories compared with what's needed for the body to maintain its current state.

  • Technically, this deficit can occur when we consume fewer calories (without changing the output), or increase the calorific output through physical activity (without changing the input).

Does Calorific Deficit work for weight loss?

  • Yes. It is scientifically proven & substantiated by the laws of thermodynamics.

So, now that we know some basics, let's talk about measuring the calories.

Let's begin with measuring the calories for a bowl of Sambar rice (lentil stew) that's cooked with a rich medley of spices, a cup of toor dal, a mix of random vegetables, half a cup of rice, and generously topped with ghee.

How many calories did you just consume? Er...

Here's the other aspect.

Indians are a diverse sect, and food is an integral part of this diversity.

Not only are we, as Indians, creative in our cuisines, our meals also include a wide array of local spices, and seasonal produce.

This creativity is largely driven by the nation's cultural habits that vary from state to state.

To understand this, let's take some examples.

Consider the Sambar again.

It is cooked differently in each of the states in this country- the Madras Sambar, the Udupi variant, the Kerala styled stew and so on...

With such diversity in both the cooking styles as well as in the ingredients, is it practical to draw up standardization charts that outline nutritional values? Would it ever be a true representation of the calorific intake?

So, how do we actually take stock of calorific input? Should we even measure calories?

To answer this, let's draw parallels between humans, and automobiles.

Automobiles need energy in the form of fuel (petrol/diesel) too, but, do we measure the calorific output every time we fuel it up?

We simply refuel when we run out of (/are about to run out of) fuel, don't we?

Why then do we obsess over measuring the calories that we consume?

Why not just eat when we feel hungry?

That sounds wise, doesn't it?

And while we are at it, let's also understand another correlation between automobiles and humans:

Just as different automobiles have different requirements (some give better mileage for the same amount of fuel, some vehicles need a different fuel etc.), different human beings also need different food requirements. Therefore, the calories that you need to consume are entirely customized.

What are some things that matter when it comes to the calorific needs of the human body?

  1. Body weight (including fat levels)

  2. Type of work that you do, and the extent of it

  3. Age

  4. Family's food habits

  5. Personal preferences (vegetarian, vegan, etc.)

So, although counting calories is an interesting activity with widely believed outcomes, we do not think it practical. Nor can you standardise this process with dietary estimations. You need to experiment with yourself to understand what your body needs, and figure out what extent of deficit eating actually works. If you feel tired on eating a deficit meal (and by deficit, we mean a smaller portion of the meal), it means that you need more. No expert in this world can put specific figures to this process- you need to explore this on your own- armed with scientific evidence on what works, and what doesn't.

And, as always, focus on consuming "nutritious" foods (and we'll talk about this in a later post).

Summing it up:

You don't have to count the calories; It's not practical. Instead, start experimenting with yourself.

If your goal is to lose fat, figure out the extent of calorific deficit that'll work for you.

Listen to your body- eat those meals that you enjoy, and eat to your heart's content. And, don't forget to stay hydrated.


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