Calorie Calculators? Who needs ’em?

by Denis Faye | September 16, 2015

robot-tacos-600x433The other day, I ate dirt while getting fancy on the Honey Badger (translation: I crashed my mountain bike because I was riding like an idiot) and scraped up my knee pretty good. As expected, it bled actual blood instead of petroleum-based lubricant. Also, the wound didn’t reveal any kind of wiring or circuitry–probably because I’m not a computer or a robot.

And guess what? Neither are you, which is why you should stop fretting over calorie calculators. Why? Because given how incredibly diverse we are as a species, there’s no way a bunch of math is going to tell you exactly how much you should be eating. Mind you, calculators still have their uses. They can get you into your caloric ballpark if you’re new to nutrition or you’re operating in extreme circumstances. Beyond that, they’re pretty flawed.

Most calculators work from a set of data that includes height, weight, age, gender, activity level, and body fat. The first three are relatively solid numbers, but activity level is super subjective and body fat is super hard to measure, so you’re generally working with the wrong number. And then there are the other caloric-burn-impacting factors that calculators don’t account for, including ethnicity, altitude, weather, mood, food choices, how hard you thought that day, and whether or not you managed to seduce your wife with the “Erotic Dance of the Pink Elephant” last night.

Even the masterminds behind the Mifflin-St. Joer equation–widely accepted as the most accurate calorie calculator around–concede that “the limitations of any predictive equation for resting energy expenditure must also be considered.” (In their study, they found a 30% variability.) And the venerable Harris Benedict equation allows that it can be plus/minus 200 calories off. That’s a 400 calorie range!

But let’s say that these calculators were accurate. Or maybe that little pleasantly-colored, flexy doodad around your wrist is accurately telling you your daily burn. (It isn’t, for the record.) You may know what you’re expending, but there’s no way of telling exactly what you’re taking in. For instance, according to the USDA, an apple with a 3-inch diameter is 95 calories. But how many apples are exactly 3 inches? And if you find one, what about its height? Then there’s the sugar and water content variations depending on type of apple, how ripe it was when it was harvested, and how much the tree was watered.

This all may seem pedantic, but I’m talking about every, single piece of produce you eat. Animal products suffer from similar variations involving fat and water content.

Maybe the solution is to eat a bunch of processed foods. The junk food industry is infallible with it comes to nutrition facts, right? Wrong! Manufacturers are allowed a 20% margin of error on nutrition labels, which makes me wonder if the Harris Benedict folks help them with their math.

So even if you track your calories judiciously, you’re probably still a few hundred off daily.

So what’s a calorie calculating shemp to do?

Get comfortable with estimating. When Ani Aratounians and I build Beachbody nutrition plans, we include a calorie calculator, but it doesn’t give you a specific number. Instead, it dispenses with the faux accuracy and drops you into a “calorie bucket” where your daily caloric intake ranges by 300-400 calories. Frankly, it’s a fair better strategy since repetition tends to breed plateaus in the nutrition world. Allowing your calories–and the foods you eat–to vary keeps your metabolism guessing and avoids any potential nutrient deficiencies. From there, we try to offer advice on how to play with your calories in order to find the amount that works for you.

You can do the same thing on your own. Use a calculator and then use it as a rough guide. Even if you’re 300-400 calories off, well, you would have been 300-400 calories off anyway, according to Harris and Benedict. (How did those guys get that job?)

Honestly, I’d much rather tell people not to bother with calories. If your diet is super clean (mostly fresh fruits and veggies, then clean proteins, a few whole grains, then healthy fats like raw nuts, seeds, and avocados) and you stay active, your body should find its way to a healthy weight. slu_rockin_dopsie-1370202750But people don’t want to eat that way. A huge part of my job is working with customers  who want to figure out the maximum amount of indulgences they can cram into a healthy diet–and still lose weight. Either that or they’re trying to get the six-pack of their dreams, when walking around all day with a washboard on your gut simply isn’t a natural state of being. Unless you’re in a Zydeco band, of course.

Not that I’m judging. I like my chocolate-covered blueberries as much as the next guy and I’m all about forcing my body beyond normal limits. But in both of these circumstances, you’re torquing your natural regulatory systems (hormones like insulin, ghrelin, and leptin), so  that’s when a calculator might be useful–again, as a rough guide only. It’s kind of like mid-ninties civilian GPS technology, back when it only told you sort of where you were. Once you get that number, it’s up to you to experiment and find out if you need more or less.

Unless, of course, you’re a robot. In that case, you can ignore this entire post.

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