Calorie wise, pound foolish

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

March 2008

Are you a calorie-counter? Have you ever noticed that the quantity of calories on the package label is almost always rounded off to the nearest 10? Among a dozen processed food items in our pantry I found that in 9 of them the calorie count ended in zero. That's odd, since measurement of things biological rarely yield such even numbers. The answer to this, of course, is that manufacturers round things off so that labels are easy to understand and don't need to be revised when the contents of the package vary a little in their composition.

Do you weigh or measure your morning cereal or the milk that you pour into it? How big is your orange juice glass? When was the last time that you weighed a steak? Our everyday wine glasses hold 6 ounces; the ones we use for guests hold eight — a difference of 40 calories

Nature isn't precise, either. The average apple contains about 75 calories, the average banana about 100. But the largest apples and bananas are twice the size of the smallest ones. Do you figure that into your meal plan?

Then there is you! I have never seen a package label or diet book meal plan that gives different serving sizes for different people sizes. It's a rare weight loss system that gives precise instructions for adjusting daily calorie intake according to body size. Twelve hundred calories might help a slightly overweight five-foot tall woman lose weight but the 240-pound, six-footer would find it impossible to exercise every day and still keep his day job by taking in so little energy every day.

Calories do matter but it doesn't help to count your daily intake for all the above reasons. If you take in ten calories every day more than you burn off with activity you will gain one pound per year — about as much as the average person gains between college graduation and age 55. You'll find 10 calories in 1 ½ medium-sized potato chips, one bite of banana, the first half-forkful of apple pie or one ounce of soda. No one can regulate food intake with such precision. And no one has to.

The calorie count on the label doesn't have to be exact in order to let you know that you should avoid it or at least to stick to the posted serving size. Almost all vegetables are low-calorie if you don't add lots of oil or butter and they will fill you up before you take in lots of calories. In spite of its sugar content, fruit rarely has more than 100 calories per piece but it has loads of healthy fiber and antioxidants. It's the fiber in fruits and vegetables that give you a feeling of fullness — way different than calorie-packed cookies, french fries and soft drinks.

Finally, research subjects who maintain daily food logs underestimate their calorie intake by as much as 50 percent!

In other words, calories do count but you don't have to waste time counting calories.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.