I don’t usually count calories, but I am reading a very interesting book called “Why Calories Count” by one of my favorite nutritionists Marion Nestle. Yes, I have favorite nutritionists! The book elucidates the source of dietary calories, their origin as a measurement of energy in food, and why we care to count them. I have picked up tons of fun facts along the way. For instance, did you know that 100 calories (the size of many “snack packs” of processed foods) is roughly equivalent to the energy that will bring 1 liter of room temperature water to a boil? This example is readily accessible
to me, since I carry around a 1 liter Nalgene bottle of water all day. When we eat 100 calories of any food our bodies unlock that stored energy through metabolism. Lucky for us, metabolism taps that energy slowly so our blood doesn’t boil every time we eat a large meal!
Just out of curiosity I downloaded the app “Calorie Counter,” input all of the food that I ate yesterday and reviewed the app’s analysis of my diet. Here are the results, and some of my thoughts about the analysis:
1. I ate 5,621 calories
I eat a whole foods plant-based diet, which consists of minimally-processed plant foods that look as close to how they were grown as possible. Think: potatoes, not potato chips. Oranges, not orange juice. So here’s what I ate yesterday (quantity not noted here): Avocado, carrots, garbanzo beans, lime, dates, oranges, split peas, potatoes, brown rice, teff, tomatoes, watermelon, soy milk, ketchup.
This was a typical day’s food for me. I have a net weight loss of 15 pounds this past year eating this way. I say “net” weight loss because I am excluding my weight gained and lost due to pregnancy. (Pre-pregnancy weight 170lbs, highest weight during pregnancy 216lbs, current weight 155lbs and normal BMI).
2. I burned 1,840 calories
This is the number supplied by the app for the calories I burned just powering brain function, heart beat, respiration, etc: it’s my basal metabolic rate. It is an average number of calories needed to keep someone who is my weight, height, and age alive while being sedentary. Even though I didn’t do any strenuous exercise like running, I still burned a few calories walking around and moving while cooking and caring for my 1 year old daughter. I didn’t enter these “extra” calories into the app. I am also a nursing mother, which means I use a (very generous) maximum of 600 calories per day to produce milk. Even in consideration of this extra movement, the number of calories I burned doesn’t come close to the calories I ate.
3. Calories in < Calories burned = Weight loss
This is the accepted formula for losing weight. Since I appear to be eating huge amounts of calories more than I burn, I should be gaining (not losing) weight. My explanation is that the database used by the app for calculating calories might be inaccurate. Did I really eat 1000 calories each of home made pea soup (about 3 cups), teff porridge with dates (1 & 1/2 cups cooked), and almost a whole watermelon (15″ diameter)?
I think this app just freaked out and did not know how to handle a whole foods plant-based diet. See my analysis page:
My consumption of carbs was too high, exceeding recommendations by 1,000 grams. Yet a diet high in complex carbohydrates is traditional in all healthy and thriving cultures around the globe! I also exceeded the recommended amount of protein. This was truly a surprise! A diet with no animal products is widely acknowledged to supply adequate protein when calories are sufficient. To exceed recommended amounts of protein however (by 100%!) would be difficult and unlikely.
My fiber and vitamin A intake registered as “too high,” on the app. First off, you can’t get too much fiber from whole foods. Maybe if you ate just wood pulp (cellulose), but that’s not considered food. Second, upon closer inspection my vitamin A confusingly has a red warning bar, but says “good.” Vitamin A is toxic in excess and truly can be harmful if taken in supplement form in too high quantity. Even if I did eat 41,308 mg of vitamin A, since it was taken in whole plant form as food and not in pill form as a drug the body can process the excess nutrients with ease.
Iron also registers as “too high” with a dangerous-looking red warning bar. The app does not distinguish between heme (animal source) iron and non-heme (plant source) iron. Heme iron is found in blood and is more directly absorbed by the body, but excesses of this type of iron can not be excreted by the body. Non-heme iron is found only in plants, and undergoes a slight conversion before being used in the body for tasks like building blood. This type of iron is able to be excreted when it exceeds the needs of the body. Buildup of excess metals such as iron can be harmful to people; excess heme iron consumption from meat and/or supplements has been correlated to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Women who take heme iron supplements should be aware that the body can not remove any excess of this mineral.
I can only conclude that the makers of Calorie Count have made at least some errors in the functionality of this app. It’s possible
that the calorie figures per food are incorrect and that my total calorie intake was skewed. But I think that’s unlikely, since the USDA nutrient database is publicly available and is considered very accurate. I think it’s more likely that the continued success of this app relies on its users weight loss. Participants in dietary studies notoriously under-report calorie consumption. Maybe the app “pads the numbers” for the listed foods in order to make up the difference?
Even though this was a fun experiment, I prefer not to count calories. One of the wonderful things about a whole foods plant-based diet is that it is very easy and worry-free. I encourage people to make an informed decision to eat this healthful diet, and then forget about it! Who wants to worry about calories, log foods, check apps, fuss about nutrients? Not me! Simply eat a varied diet of whole plant-based foods when you are hungry, eat until you’re comfortably full, and enjoy improved health, weight, and a vibrant spirit!
To learn more about how to lose weight for health on a vegan diet, read my article on vegan lifestyle blog the “Peaceful Dumpling.”