If you want to know how many calories are in a candy bar or a cup of black beans, ask a person who’s trying to lose weight – he or she probably has it memorized.
That’s because we’ve long reduced losing weight to the simplest of equations: burn more calories than you eat, and the pounds will drop off.
But new research suggests that on top of being an antiquated, inaccurate and incomplete way to evaluate the food we eat, counting calories might not even be a great metric for weight loss.
A recent article in 1843 magazine discusses how calories have become the numbers of everyday life for many of us – calorie counts are not just embedded in our brains, they’re on food packaging, restaurant menus, fitness trackers and more. But the idea of the calorie, which was developed nearly 200 years ago, comes from a primitive understanding of food science and human physiology, and it’s proving to be a poor measuring tool for the hyper-processed, speed-driven American diet.
Dr. Edwin McDonald IV is a board-certified physician specializing in gastroenterology, nutrition and weight management. He’s also a trained chef who posts recipes and tips for healthful eating at his website.
McDonald says that the basic math does remain correct for most people.
“Most studies recommend a 500-calorie deficit for weight loss, but bear in mind that not all calories are equal,” he said. “For overall health, most evidence suggests that plant-based diets are healthier.”
It’s also becoming increasingly evident that it’s not just what you eat but how it’s made that matters, says McDonald.
“Newer studies suggest that emulsifiers may negatively impact the bacteria in the gut,” he said. “A recent study shows that the average American diet is 60 percent ultraprocessed. As such, I encourage people to minimize the amount of processed foods they eat.”