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Nutrition Label Calorie Counts Are a Lie

According to nutrition experts, many protein- and fiber-rich foods actually have significantly fewer calories than previous estimates.
Hilary Pollack
Los Angeles, US
Photo via Flickr user Andy Melton

Have you ever been idly plowing through a bag of chocolate creme sandwich cookies, maybe during a binge-watch of My Cat From Hell or in the midst of a particularly stimulating conversation about micropenises with your most trustworthy cousin, and thought, Maybe I'll have a look at the nutrition facts label, now that I'm seconds away from demolishing this entire vessel of carbohydrates. And lo and behold, when you do peep at the assemblage of numbers quantifying what you just ate, a horrific realization comes over you that you've just eaten—at least in theory—all of the food that you're supposed to eat for an entire day in the span of about 17 minutes.


Sigh, nutrition labels.

It's easy to assume that since science only seems to continue affirming, over and over, that many foods are worse for us than we had previously thought (kale excepted), that nutrition labels could be underestimating the physical crappiness bestowed by whatever packaged food we happen to be guiltily enjoying. But according to a new article in The New York Times, it could actually be an overestimation. Hallelujah?

As it happens, the number of calories that you're actually absorbing from protein- and fiber-rich foods (sorry—the aforementioned cookies are probably not included) is actually quite "overstated," according to expert Geoffrey Livesey, who serves as a nutrition consultant to the United Nations and heads the nutrition consulting group Independent Nutrition Logic.

In fact, Livesey estimates that the number of calories attributed to these types of foods can be incorrect by up to 25 percent—which adds up when we're talking about foods that can have several hundred calories per serving. Low-carb diets, in particular, could be significantly less caloric than one might think from calibrating using the standard calorie-measuring techniques, which rely on the notion of food being easily digestible in order to be fully accurate. Because high-protein foods such as meat and nuts are harder for our digestive systems to process, we actually expend energy to turn them from food into waste, which is also where some of the lost calories end up.

Nuts, in particular, are some of the foods most subject to this discrepancy, with their common calorie counts typically clocking in about 25 percent too high. And if you've ever gone crazy on a package of trail mix and then near choked to death in shock at the insanely high calories listed on the package's label, this may come as a bit of a relief.

Researchers are working to develop more accurate systems that can offer more realistic measurements of what we're really getting—or not getting—out of the food we eat. However, this newfound information about our nutritional inaccuracy isn't a license to eat more food.

Although those on a high-protein or high-fiber diet may be taking in a few hundred calories less than they previously thought, most of us in the Western world are—quite frankly—taking in too many calories to begin with.

So although it's nice to know that maybe we've been a little bit less naughty than we imagined when it comes to our snack habits, we're still not in the clear to go ape on a whole cheesecake.