Fitness trackers are very popular theses days. They can help keep you accountable by showing you how active you are. How many calories did you burn during the day? How many steps walked and stairs climbed?
You can log your meals and get a breakdown of the amount of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and total calories you consumed. Sounds like a perfect way to get and keep you on track. But wait!
There may be some misconceptions at work here!
The tracker you are using may be set up to calculate the calories burned based on the number of steps you have taken. When you walk from your car you take 150 steps and this is used to figure the number of calories you burned. But what about when you take an hour-long spin class? How were those calories-burned calculated?
What is the difference between the calories burned when you walk around the block after dinner (calculated on steps walked) and the calories burned during your intense weight training session?
Calories burned based on steps taken just doesn’t make sense!
And that is only part of the problem.
Calculating the amount of calories burned depends on the type of food we are talking about. Warning: Science ahead!
To figure out how much energy a given food contains, scientists burn food samples in a bomb calorimeter. This single result then becomes the standard value in energy/nutrient database. This can lead to problems because different foods contain varying amounts of energy.
There are many confounding factors when generalizing the results of the calorimeter evaluations:
Over-estimated Energy Counts - The human body doesn’t get as much energy from certain types of foods vs others. Example: Resistant starches/fibers vs proteins.
Outdated Data - Some data on foods can be out of date and inaccurate, throwing energy and nutrient calculations on the label or in nutrient databases off.
Product Variety - Different batches of both natural and processed foods vary in their exact contents. Using a single test at a single point in time to describe all batches in the future will be inaccurate.
Soil and Growing Conditions - Produce grown in nutrient rich soil is different from produce grown in nutrient depleted soil. This will throw off nutrient and energy estimates.
Ripeness - Produce picked at the peak of the season are different from those picked out of season, again throwing off energy and nutrient counts.
Animal’s Diet - The nutrients/energy found in milk, meat, and eggs vary based on what the animal ate and how it lived.
Length of Storage - There’s a big difference in nutrient count between produce harvested this morning and produce harvested 3 weeks ago in a different time zone.
Preparation and Cooking Time - Eating raw produce is different than eating cooked produce. The amount of cooking and processing affects the amount of energy and the nutrients we are able to get from the food.
What’s the take home here?
Your calorie INTAKE and BURN can be off by a lot. If you’re relying on calories as a means to weight loss, you could be taking in more calories than you think (because the calorie counts of the foods you eat are generalized and affected by the factors listed above) and the calories burned, as counted by your fitness tracker, are based on steps taken, not on the actual energy expended during exercise.
Calories count, for sure, but …
A better way to reach your weight loss goal is to start listening to your body. Are you truly hungry? Hunger is an empty sensation that may be accompanied by muscle contractions in the upper abdomen. While often confusing, here is what “hungry” is NOT.
Hungry is NOT feeling tired, slowed down, headachy, or wanting to put aside your work for a snack or meal.
At Commit Fitness we use habit-based nutrition coaching to get your diet on track. We teach one healthy nutrition habit at a time; give you time to master it; teach you another; and so on.
We teach you what and how much to put on your plate and how to use hunger cues to keep you eating just enough. Counting calories won’t teach you how much to eat or how to get in tune with your body.
Listening to your body is the answer to inaccurate calorie counts. Every day is different. Some days you are more active and you might be extra hungry. Some days are relaxed than others and you won’t feel like eating so much. Eating only when you are truly hungry is the first habit you need to instill. We’ll talk more about habit-based nutrition in future articles.
Just remember … tracking your activity during the day is a good thing. It can encourage you to do more and to see how you progress from day to day, week to week. What it can’t do is tell you when you are hungry – only your body can tell you that.