How to cut calories without counting them

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

June 2013

Counting the calories that you eat every day is an exercise in futility even if you're a genius at math. The calorie content of food does matter but only in a general sense. The challenge for the health-conscious person is that small changes in calorie intake result in huge gains over a period of years.

For starters, consider that the calories listed on food labels are only estimates and that with very rare exceptions the last digit is zero. Isn't that odd? For example, I picked 10 items from our pantry and the calorie value of every single one ended in zero. Shouldn't there have been an odd number in there somewhere - or at least a "5"? Do you really think that those values represented exact measurements?

Americans eat about 45 percent of their meals outside the home. Many restaurant menus now include calorie counts but those are also only estimates. They are intended to give you a comparison between low-calorie and high-calorie items.

Without a scale, a measuring cup, a set of measuring spoons and a reference manual there is no way to determine precisely how many calories there are in any food.

Have you ever calculated how many calories you need to take in every day? Don't you need more on the days when you walk a couple of miles or go to the gym?

Yet, small differences do matter over the long run. For instance, if you take in 10 calories per day more than you burn off every day you'll gain about one pound in a year. Is it a coincidence that the average person gains about 40 pounds between high school graduation and that first Social Security check? Or that 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese? Yet one bite of a banana contains about 10 calories.

Here's why calorie counts do matter: they help you to choose between low-calorie foods and high-calorie foods when the difference is not obvious. If the package states "low-fat" it might not be low-calorie. When sugar replaces fat there is no nutritional advantage but it might promote weight gain. As a general rule, packaged foods are rarely low-calorie but fresh vegetables always are and they are more filling. Whenever you can, avoid the former and enjoy the latter.

Don't torture yourself by meticulously counting calories. Just get in the habit of picking calorie-sparse foods. Keep life simple.

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.