Counting Calories: Yes or No?

By: Elizda Hanekom

In order to lose weight we need to eat fewer calories than what our body uses. In theory this may seem really easy and simple to do however, in the modern world it becomes a little more complex. With tendencies towards healthier lifestyles, individuals are equipping themselves to make better choices and calorie counting is often used for weight management. Let’s take a closer look at counting calories in the correct way.


People haven’t been counting calories forever, as difficult as a world without calorie awareness may be to imagine. The concept became popular around the turn of the 20th century1. Scientist Wilbur Atwater discovered that if you put food into a bomb calorimeter, a machine that measures the energy contained in a food by measuring the heat generated during its combustion2, you would then know how much “energy” was in the food. The idea became popular and many people started counting calories – that is, counting exactly how many calories are consumed when eating foods and then exactly how many are “burned” when doing different activities. These activities include walking, talking, eating and even activities that keep our bodies functioning properly like breathing3.


Understanding calorie counting is an important concept. When we eat the same number of calories as we burn our body uses, our weight will be maintained. If we eat more than what our bodies use we will gain weight. If we then eat less than what our bodies use we will subsequently lose weight.

Besides calorie content, there are numerous reasons to choose certain foods. For example: choosing a low GI, high fibre option means that the food will keep you fuller for longer which may prevent you from eating “extra” calories to fill you up4. The other benefit of eating healthier options (fruits, veggies and low fat foods) is that we can eat a lot more food, for less calories. Our bodies get greater nutritional benefits too. Carbohydrates and protein have 4 calories per gram whereas fats have more than double this at 9 grams per calorie5. Alcohol is 7 calories per gram. So, although counting calories for weight management definitely works, our diet quality is extremely important. It doesn’t help we choose high fat breakfast options such as a full fat cheese and bacon omelette, as one could easily consume over half your day’s calorie allowance by the end of breakfast without getting nearly the nutritional value that those calories ought to contain.


People are counting calories for different reasons but it all has to do with weight, whether it is to lose, to maintain or to gain. People want something that’s easy – therefore downloading an app that helps count the calories of the foods that you want to eat seems very appealing. Note that this often leads to eating smaller portions of the unhealthier foods. For me this is a big no-no. My advice is that individuals should focus on diet quality. The problem is that it’s easier to count calories (or fat grams) than to understand the complex effects that food has on our bodies and waistlines. In short, calories do count but there’s more to it. Different foods have different effects on our bodies. Think of hormones, some hormones say “store the fat”, others say “release sugar” and others say “build muscle.” Numerous studies have shown that the amount of calories consumed are important, but, different proportions of carbohydrates, protein and fat result in varying amounts of weight loss1,3,5.


Counting calories accurately is extremely difficult. Yes, there are apps to assist us but these are also not 100% accurate as there is still an element of human error when estimating portion sizes. In addition the pizza listed on the app may contain a completely different amount of cheese for instance than the pizza you are consuming. Although 67% of Americans have reported taking calories into account when making food choices, about 9 out of 10 had no idea about the actual amount they needed to consume per day4.

Another factor is that we often miscount what we eat. Men claim to eat an average of 2618 calories per day whilst women claim to eat only 1877 calories4. Where are all the extra calories going? These mainly go straight to your waistline.

Nutrition experts were put to the test in an experiment. Two hundred dietitians were given five different meals served in restaurants and asked to estimate the calorie value of each meal. It was found that their estimates of the calorie values for each meal were inadequate6. With even the professionals struggling to accurately predict the number of calories in meals it just shows that alternative methods could prove to have better results.


Yes, calorie formulas are still correct, but that doesn’t take away from the complexity of it all. Think of exercise. We focus on the number of kilometres we have run, our heart rate or the number of minutes we have exercised for instead of the amount of calories burned. Here are a few alternatives to calorie counting:

o Eat smaller portions: This sounds so obvious although it isn’t always the easiest. Restaurants and fast food outlets serve larger portions – do you recognise any of these words – supersize, grande, large, even extra-large. Studies have shown that when we are served more, we eat more4. We also then gauge a serving to be a lot bigger than what it should be. An easy way to eat less is to dish up in a smaller plate and then not reach for seconds. When eating out, swop your carbohydrate (fries) for salad or stir-fried veggies.

o Choose foods that use more energy to digest: Yes, you read this correctly. Certain foods use more energy to digest and metabolize, this is called the thermic effect of food. Although the difference is small, small amounts all add up. Protein and carbohydrates have a higher thermic effect than fats. Whole-wheat bread for instance uses more energy to digest versus a refined white bread4.

o Making the right nutrition choices: We always hear about balance, variety and moderation. Making better lifestyle choices are of utmost importance. Choose lean meats, low fat options, whole grains, low GI foods, plenty of fruits and veggies, lots of water, exercise and you’re off to an excellent start.


Let’s place greater focus on why we eat certain foods, which foods are healthier and when we do eat something “naughty” don’t fall off the bandwagon, just get back on. It is all about lifestyle choices. In short: “You don’t need to count calories, but you should make all your calories count!


1. Bowden J. Smart Fat. [Online]. [cited 2017 June 12. Available from:

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4. Kovacs JS. Wed MD. [Online].; 2009 [cited 2017 June 12. Available from:

5. Rousell M. Shape. [Online].; 2017 [cited 2017 June 12. Available from:

6. Young L. The Portion Teller Plan House R, editor. USA: Potter/TenSpeed/Harmony; 2005.