Calories: can you count on them?


Almost every packaged food today features calorie counts on its label. Many of us live our lives by these little numbers, feeling alternatively happy, or guilty depending on our daily food choices. But can we count on them being accurate? And are they telling us the whole story when we allow them to guide us to what we eat?

Calories – do the labels always tell the truth?

No. This isn’t because of any great conspiracy. Most of these counts are inaccurate because they are based on a system of averages that ignores the complexity of digestion, while the ripeness of certain foods, for example fruit, can also have a big impact.

  • Many calories we extract from food depends on what we eat, how we prepare our food, which bacteria are in our gut and how much energy we use to digest different foods.
  • Current calorie counts do not consider any of these factors. Digestion is so intricate that even if we try to improve calorie counts, we will likely never make them perfectly accurate.

Every food is digested in its own way. Processed foods lacking nutrition are so easily digested in the stomach and intestines that they give us a lot of energy for very little work. In contrast, veggies, nuts and whole grains make our bodies work for our calories, but generally offering far more vitamins and nutrients than processed items, often with slow release, helping us feel more satisfied for longer whole keeping our gut bacteria happy.

Counting calories based on food labels is not as precise as we are led to believe, while our choice of foods has the bigger impact on our health. A good example is flavonoids.

Flavonoids – what, why and where to find them

Flavonoids are a group of phytonutrients that are usually recognised through their rich-colour-providing pigments. Found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, chocolate and tea, flavonoids are best known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, while they can also be beneficial for metabolic and cardiovascular health. It appears flavonoids make the arteries more flexible, which increases blood flow. According to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, men who eat at least three servings of flavonoid-rich foods such as berries, grapes, apples, pears and citrus fruits per day are 10% less likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction (ED). ED is often an early indicator of poor vascular function.

Most flavonoids can be found in the skin or outer layers of the plant food, so eat the whole food if possible. Pre-cutting, pre-slicing, pre-peeling can also affect the flavonoid content greatly.

Water-soluble, they can be lost through overcooking – so watch out for vibrant colour becoming duller or disappearing.

As there are over 6000 flavonoids it’s worth consuming as wide a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes and other plant-based foods as possible. There is no one flavonoid ‘silver bullet’ to health.

It should come as no surprise that flavonoid deficiency arises from overconsumption of processed foods, overcooking vegetables or not eating enough fruits. Regular consumption of fruit and vegetables is associated with reduced risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, Alzheimer disease, cataracts, and some of the functional declines associated with aging.

When it comes to chronic disease, prevention is a more effective strategy than treatment – so it pays to start becoming a little more mindful about what we eat.


Move beyond calories


Make eating real food Just Routine


NOTE: before you consider flavonoid supplementation speak to your doctor. High consumption of dietary flavonoids is generally considered to be safe, however, flavonoid supplements may affect the action of anticoagulants and increase the toxicity of a wide range of drugs when taken concurrently.


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Iris is the founder of No Targets Just Routine. She has researched food since 2009 and believes “Happiness is real food shared with loved ones.”

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