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They’re Still Doing It Wrong: Have We Been Miscounting Calories?

February 27, 2013
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A friend of mine recently sent me an article from Science Mag, one of the American Academy of Science’s publications: Have We Been Miscounting Calories?  In a few small ways we can discern pinpricks of hope in the article, but in most ways it falls egregiously short of what a picture of true health really looks like.

According to the article, calorie scientist specialists at the most recent American Academy of Science symposium convened in a panel to discuss the latest findings in calories and weight loss.  Their opinion?  That part of the reason weight loss has remained a pipe dream is not the fact that we’ve been emphasizing calories at all, but rather that we’ve been counting calories incorrectly.

They don’t see issue with counting calories as it is.  No, it’s best not to question the dominant paradigm, right?  Instead of investigating what may be wrong in this big picture approach, these scientists are nitpicking whether there are, say, 200 or 220 calories in a slab of steak.   Yes, certainly, that makes a difference.  Thank you so much, AAAS.

The reasoning behind their approach is that the method of counting calories is flawed.  This is true.  Ever since the science began, calories have been accounted for by burning (more or less) a piece of food and accounting for how much energy is released in the process.   Today, scientists are finally coming around to the idea that food burned in a lab is probably a little bit different in quality than food making it’s way through the human digestive system.

Some food takes more energy to digest, for example.  This fact accounts for the myth of celery as “negative” calories — as many dieters like to think it takes more energy to digest celery than celery actually contributes to the human body (this is false).   It also accounts for a handful of more drastic food consequences, around which the scientists definitely have a point: some foods such as white bread are super absorbable and the calories don’t all just make it into our bodies but even worse make it into our bodies quickly.  Fiber seems to be one of the epicenters of this approach.  The more fiber a food has, the more calories it takes to ingest.

However: I would argue that fiber is more important because of the way in which it impacts the rate of digestion, rather than calorie interference.  Fiber can significantly slow the absorption of food, which in turn can prevent blood sugar from spiking.  So that’s another angle that isn’t being considered here.  At what rate is the food absorbed?

Even more importantly, in what type of gut bacterial environment is this all happening?

What hormonal environment is responding to these foods?

What sorts of nutrients are contained in these foods?

All of which is to say that the medical establishment en masse still has no respect for the conditions of a body into which the calories are introduced.  How might a difference of 20 calories in a piece of steak actually matter at all when there remain vast disparities in metabolic health between insulin sensitive and insulin resistant individuals?  That far and away determines a much larger proportion of a person’s weight status and ability to metabolize food than a difference of 20 calories a day.

 

If you take a look at the article, you’ll see that some of the scientists almost get to the right conclusion.   David Ludwig, a pediatric endocrinologist at Children’s Hospital Boston, for example, says that how the body processes different foods in different ways matters. “The quality of calories is as important as the quantity of calories,” he reports.  We don’t get more than that from the article, however.  Does Dr Ludwig mean to assert that the issue of calorie quality revoles around whether or not the food has been cooked or something equally ludicrous, or does he mean whether or not the food is nutrient dense, something that has real consequences?

The article closes after this brief and unexplored detour.  You may be hopeful reading the first sentence of the quote below, but be warned that it won’t last long.

While others not on the panel welcome applying “the best science” to the problem of weight loss, they also provide a word of caution about getting too worried about precise calorie counts. “You can put a ton of effort into getting more accurate calorie counts,” says nutrition scientist Christopher Gardner of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “But why are you doing this? Will it make a real difference? If you want to lose weight, you still have to cut back on calories.” A few calories here and there may not matter to most people. But to the panel members, every little bit counts.

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My personal opinion is that calorie intake matters.   If you are taking in more energy than your body in it’s particular historical context and lifestyle and dietary environment can handle, you will store fat.  If you are taking in less, you will burn some.  The body is constantly in a state of cycling through storage and retrieval, and this is just how it goes.  But it is a) the history from which your body is coming, b) the way in which you currently live, exercise, sleep, stress, think, and eat, and c) the quality of the foods you are eating that determine how many calories is appropriate for you and how you manage them.  Each of us lives in a specific context, and our body’s ability to metabolize food and to function optimally is a direct result of that.

No bunsen burner is going to determine how much we can eat.  No hard and fast calorie number will ever help us be healthy.   Quality food sets the stage for good health and a good life.   The quantity of food we can then follows, is secondary to the primary conditions I listed above.  And perhaps most importantly, quantity of calories falls in line if we manage to restore our metabolic health and nutrient status.  We naturally eat what our bodies need.   But what we need for that is health, and calorie counting is not going to get us there.

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Managing director of Paleo for Women and author of Sexy by Nature.

4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Mediterranean Diet | Misadventures of Me

  2. Great post!

  3. If you are taking in more energy than your body *in it’s particular historical context and lifestyle and dietary environment can handle* , you will store fat :
    that is one pregnant statement :
    makes me hungry for more.
    calories matter, but as long as you are not counting them ,but improving the calorie context factors >
    Thanks.

  4. I agree we focus too much on calories and not enough on how foods interact with our biology such as hormones. But I think calories do matter to a certain degree. I have a PhD, and undertake research into behavioural ecology. One of the major themes in foraging theory is the ability to predict animal behaviour based on what provides them with the most energy gained. But this has such strong predictive power that it can even show small differences in energy intake determining animal behaviour. Its called energetics, and for that reason alone, I do believe we can’t completely discount calories as important for our biology.

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