Not All Calories Count & Food Labels Lie

When you buy a package of nuts, whether they’re raw, roasted or turned into a yummy butter, the ingredients are the same…. nuts.  The calorie content per serving will read almost exactly the same.  But food labels can be misleading and, not all calories count the same inside your body.

raw almonds


Not all calories behave the same once you eat them

Below we have raw almonds, roasted almonds and almond butter. (TJ’s messed up my example here by throwing a few cashews into their butter, giving it a slightly higher calorie content, otherwise, the labels would be almost exactly same).

Can you guess which of these three almond products actually has LESS calories once you EAT them?

raw food, not all calories count

Almonds: roasted, raw and butter

The raw almonds. Why? One reason is because a food in its raw state requires more energy from your body to break down. Whereas once a food is processed out of its original state (cooked, soaked, chopped, blended, etc.) at least some of the work has been already been done for you, making it easier to digest. This means your body spends less energy breaking it down.

The more processes a food goes through (like roasting, soaking or grinding), the easier it is for the body to absorb calories from. Since the nuts in butter are usually cooked first, then pulverized, they become the easiest for your body to absorb, making those calories count more.

Food labels may be wrong

But there are other factors when the calories you think you’re eating are not really there at all. Food labels can be off as much as 20 – 25%! 😮 The system the food industry has adopted for measuring the metabolizable energy (the amount of calories your that become available for your body to use), called the Atwater factor, was developed well over 100 years ago.

Researchers have been finding that this method sometimes overestimates the calories in certain foods, like nuts… particularly raw almonds. The calories listed on a package of raw almonds are usually between 160 and 170 calories per one once serving. But a 2012 study showed we really only absorb about 129 of those calories. The researchers concluded, when applied to almonds, the Atwater factor overestimated the calorie content by 32%.

Different bodies may absorb more or less calories from food

Plus, every body is different. Other factors affect how many calories you absorb from your food, such as how much and, which kinds of gut bacteria you have. You may absorb more or less calories from the food you eat than someone else eating the exact same thing. And, the labs that test the caloric values of food cannot predict how many calories you are personally going to absorb.

The point is, the labels are not always accurate. I would never say not to count calories because most people tend to underestimate how many calories they consume and overestimate how many calories they burn.

You absorb less calories from raw, whole foods

fresh produce

raw, whole food means less calories get absorbed

But, remember when you have a choice, go for raw food in its whole state. Highly processed foods, like packaged cookies, are more likely to have accurate calories printed on the labels and more likely to be absorbed by your body.

Let’s get back to nuts. There’s no doubt that nuts are a healthy snack, but those high calorie counts give many of us pause if we’re trying to manage our calorie intake. So now we know, raw nuts, although not as tasty, are the best bet. But if you like your nuts roasted (and who doesn’t?), they’re probably not quite as fattening as the labels would have us believe.

A recent study on walnuts checked to see how many of the calories predicted by the commonly used Atwater factor were absorbed by the body. Similar to the almond study, it turns out that a 28g serving of walnuts contained 39 less calories than predicted. That’s 21% less than listed, again showing that the commonly used calorie prediction method isn’t very accurate.

The researchers surmised this could be why people who eat a lot of nuts don’t gain a ton of weight. Of course, nut eaters may also exercise more and eat less overall, so more studies need to be done, but as a nut 🥜🌰 myself, I’m going with the researchers theory!

Jill Brown
Jill Brown
Hi, I'm JillI am a Los Angeles based Fitness + Nutrition Coach. With 20+ years of experience in teaching, training and continuing my education, I have transformed thousands of lives through fitness and healthy lifestyle changes.