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rants & raves

my thoughts on nutrition, food, research and everything in between


Can we trust calories on food labels?

Alison Boden

Let's talk calories. 

We call 'em kilocalories in nutrition nerd-land, abbreviated kcal. Same as what y'all know as a calorie on the food label. A calorie is a unit of measurement, describing how much "energy" you get from the food you eat. You need energy to do everything, from the obvious stuff like working out, to the more subtle body processes like your heart beat, your digestive enzymes and the work it takes your brain to read this page. We measure the potential energy available in the food we eat by calories per gram - Carbohydrates and protein each have 4 calories per gram, fat has 9, alcohol has 7. 

When we get more energy (calories) than we can use, we store as fat for later. When we eat less than we need, we burn that stored fat. In reality it's a whole heckuva lot more complicated than that, but for argument's sake let's just say weight management is all about calorie balance and nothing else. I'll attack the idea of the "calorie myth" in another post.

So like the diet soda rant the other day, let's also look at this from the perspective of weight management. Say you're diligently tracking your calorie intake on an app like LoseIt or My Fitness Pal (both of which I think are sub-par and am not particularly recommending - but they're easy and lots of people use 'em). You're measuring everything you eat, and using the app's database for nutrient info or entering it yourself from food labels. And you're measuring your physical activity too! Trying to either reach a calorie deficit for weight loss, keep it even for weight maintenance or reach a surplus for weight gain. 

So now, maybe you've tracked your data forever and you've consistently been under your allotment and are expecting some weight loss. And nothing for a month. Then 2. What gives?

Well could be a lot of things. You could be measuring incorrectly. You could be forgetting about seemingly small yet important details like that handful of M&Ms at the reception desk or that free cronut your boss brought you (btw I have not tried a cronut yet! Where can I get a cronut??!!). 

Or it could be that those calorie counts that we all think are super scientific and accurate are actually totally not. And don't have to be. 


Yeah. The "rules" from the FDA allow a margin of error of 20% on the food label. TWENTY PERCENT. And if that weren't enough to totally screw up your calorie counting, nobody really checks to see that the products on the shelf or in the restaurant are maintaining any accuracy after the initial approval by the FDA. So essentially we're on the honor system. And I wouldn't necessarily say that a lot of the big names in the food industry is known for being honorable. 

Check this video out of some guy actually taking the time to compare food he purchased to what was actually in it. Your mind might explode. 

So in your calorie count that you think is super accurate, your 2000 total calorie day could really be 2400. That's certainly enough to mess up any kind of weight loss based on calories in v. calories out. 

Wait! All hope is not lost. While I am not an advocate for calorie counting, I think entering foods eaten into an online program can occasionally be helpful to check in with yourself on what you're eating and see if you're missing any nutrients (especially vitamins and minerals). To do that you'll need to use a more comprehensive program like FitDay or MyNetDiary or PaleoTrack because they'll give you a way more thorough breakdown. Think about using this more to check in about quality of the food eaten, rather than the detailed quantity which may be throwing off your efforts. And guess what? When you eat foods that have a high nutrient density (that is, loads of vitamins and minerals per calorie - think low cal produce like vegetables, fruits, and super filling proteins like meat, eggs and nuts) that usually means you're eating foods that are more supportive for weight management anyway.