Other videos in this series will dive into what you need to know about the major macronutrients of protein, carbohydrates, and fat, but since Foundations of Fitness Nutrition operates from the fundamental mindset that food is fuel, let's start by discussing the way most of us currently measure food as a fuel source: the calorie.
A calorie-focused approach to nutrition has many limitations, but it still has important uses in certain situations. So, let's try to provide a little clarity, and try to help you make the most of the information that's on a food label.
Essential Ideas from the Video
The calorie is not a universally accepted system of measurement, but every point made about it in this video can also be applied to other measurements like joules, kilojoules, or kilocalories.
The biggest advantages to calories are that they give you an objective way to measure very different meals, and to make more informed decisions about portion sizes. This can be helpful because portion size has increased immensely in restaurants and homes in recent decades.
Calories can also help you see how small indulgences, like a daily soda pop, can add up over time. One soda a day is enough extra calories to add 15 pounds of weight in a year!
Beer, wine, cocktails, and coffee drinks may not have food labels, but they're definitely not calorically "free."
A major downside to calorie counting is that it's never totally accurate, even if you take the number on the label as gospel.
Packaged foods have been shown in research to have a lot of variability in caloric accuracy. It's normal for them to underreport both carbs and total calories by 25, or even up to 95, percent.
Another flaw in calories: Digestion is highly complicated and personal, and the number you eat is never exactly the number your body absorbs. Hard-to-digest foods like meat and nuts can increase inaccuracy by another 25 percent or more.
A final flaw: As soon as people start counting calories, they often start cutting them—often too low, and without taking enough care where they're cutting from. Getting too few calories, for too long, is a big problem that can make it harder to maintain a healthy body composition, leave you feeling awful, and put you no closer to your goals.
So, what's a better way to get the benefits of counting calories? First, by sticking primarily to whole foods, you'll avoid the calorie inaccuracies that are common in processed foods. Second: Don't just exercise to burn calories. Why? You burn far less than you think, even in intense training, and judging your training by how many calories you burned is just a good way to end up hating exercise.
Think portions, not just numbers. In future videos, we'll show some hands-on ways to measure portions. You can also control portions with how you eat; research says to eat slowly, off of a plate whenever possible, and have a plan rather than making decisions on the fly.
If you've been counting calories forever, you don't need to stop. Just consider it one measurement among many. Food quality matters just as much, and actually matters more in terms of how a food will affect your blood sugar and hunger levels, or how it will help (or not help) fuel you through hard training and recovery.
Part of controlling calories is snacking better! Protein bars and ready-to-drink protein can be life-savers in a pinch.