The calorie counting habit has been around for about one hundred years, and while it took a back seat for a while to the counting of grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fat it seems to be making it’s way back to the top of the public consciousness.
What are, exactly, the calories that people count? First of all, they’re not “things.” They can’t be seen. They’re not “in” food. At best, the digestion of the food liberates them. At worst, there’s no real way of knowing how many calories you “get” from the food you eat. Let’s look at the context.
The idea of calories comes from the science of thermodynamics. The application of the concepts of thermodynamics to digestion and absorption was born in Germany in the mid-1800’s with the work of Justus von Liebig, who stated that living beings and non-living machines were chemically equivalent. His contemporary Julius Robert von Mayer, a German physician and physicist, was the first to state that oxidation is the primary source of energy for any living creature, and eventually applied what became the first law of thermodynamics to living organisms.
Calories in should equal calories out?
The first law describes the conservation of energy, and it became widely assumed that it underlies all of metabolism. In other words, the concept was that the body acts pretty much like a machine, using energy (heat) to do work – in the vernacular, “calories in” should equal “calories out.” While this concept is mostly true, it’s also very limited, because it doesn’t factor in that the body also has a reaction and may make changes that confuse the equations.
This is the definition: One regular calorie is the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water from 3.5 degrees centigrade to 4.5 degrees centigrade. The calories derived from food are actually 1000 of those, technically called kiloCalories, or kCal. But for short, we call them calories.
How is the caloric value of a food measured? Well, the food is put in a machine called a “bomb calorimeter” and burned, and the amount of heat it gives off is measured. As this has been done in past experiments with most foodstuffs, there are now extensive tables with those figures, and these tables are then used to calculate the caloric value of a food.
What this means is that you will never know the exact caloric yield of the food you’re eating – unless you burn it, and then you can’t eat it. So all those numbers are just approximations.
Here is the catch: caloric value also means “enough” or “not enough.” When the food we eat is digested, it’s assumed that it releases heat, which gives us the energy necessary for our metabolism. If we consume food that has more calories than we need, the assumption is that we store the excess as fat.
Cutting calories to lose weight could slow your metabolism
If a person lowers the caloric intakes to “lose weight,” the body may read this as “not enough to eat,” and respond by lowering it’s basal metabolic rate, so as to function on fewer calories. In other words your body believes you’ re starving and it does what it has to do to conserve energy and keep you alive and healthy.
This is a phenomenon most women dieters will recognize because they’re the group who suffer the most from it. Men’s bodies appear to function more along the standard thermodynamic model – ask any woman who’s gone on a diet with her male friend and she will complain that he lost plenty of weight while she didn’t.
It appears that women’s bodies are more sensitive to “not enough”–also known as “famine”–and they will adjust their metabolism by slowing it down. This is built into women’s genetics most likely because as they child bearers you never know when they may have to make a baby, and they will need to manage with the food that’s available.
There’s another serious problem with the calorie idea: it implies that all calories are equal. There’s just no evidence that this is true, yet somehow the myth continues to exist. The truth is the calories from wholegrain bread are not the same as the calories from pound cake. In other words, the calorie idea doesn’t have any room for the concept of quality. Many folks are able to lose weight easily, eating to their hearts content without counting calories, when they go on a health-supportive whole foods diet. When people ONLY look at calories, they may ignore the actual ingredients and end up happily chowing down on junk food!
You may have heard about Olympic medalist swimmer Michael Phelps and his 12,000 calorie diet. It’s a doozy! Of course this man spends 6 or more hours a day swimming and training, so he needs plenty of food, no problem there. The following is an overview:
- Breakfast: Three fried egg sandwiches; cheese; tomatoes; lettuce; fried onions; mayonnaise; three chocolate-chip pancakes; five-egg omelette; three sugar-coated slices of French toast; bowl of grits; two cups of coffee
- Lunch: Half-kilogram (one pound) of enriched pasta; two large ham and cheese sandwiches with mayonnaise on white bread; energy drinks
- Dinner: Half-kilogram of pasta, with carbonara sauce; large pizza; energy drinks
Despite having some questionable foods on the list. this diet has allowed Phelps to win a record number of medals, regardless of the “quality.” So this may be a case of, if it ain’t broken don’t fix it.
Eating by numbers is inexact and depressing
How many calories does a person require per day? It depends on your weight, amount of activity, your age and your sex. Men need more calories than women. Around, 1,600 calories is about right for many sedentary women and some older adults. 2,200 calories is about right for most children, many active teenage girls, active women and many sedentary men. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding may need somewhat more. 2,800 calories is about right for teenage boys, active men, and some very active women. Another source I found considers 3500 calories the right amount for healthy young men. Unless you’re Phelps, of course.
Therefore, if you’re looking at a tuna melt sandwich yielding 1,270 calories and feeling horrified – this could be the perfect lunch for an active young male. Asking him to make do with a 690-calorie salad is counterproductive – he will get hungry and keep eating and snacking all afternoon, because he didn’t get enough to eat!
How do you apply the calorie concept to eating? Many folks estimate the calories in each bite or each dish, including drinks. This activity turns eating into a left-brain math exercise, detracting from the possibility of enjoying the right-brain sensory experience of the food. Besides being a depressing way to eat, it is also inexact – remember that we really don’t know exactly how many calories our food yields, and all the guilt feelings that this eat-by-the numbers system brings make it even worse. This is how people become alienated from their food, and approach it with trepidation and fear.
A fast or slow metabolism can effect calorie burn
We also don’t know if our individual body burns food at the same rate as others do – people have different metabolic rates, fast or slow or medium. The numbers cannot be exact in individual cases. There was an idea that went around a few years ago, that if you ate 2 extra tablespoons of peanuts (35 calories) for 300 days you would gain 3 pounds. This may be numerically correct, but for most people, their weight generally stays stable, even with the extra peanuts, unless they engage in yo-yo dieting.
Cooking with the calorie concept generally obliterates creativity. Every bit of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats in the dish must be precisely measured. Then you run the recipe through a nutrition software program, which will tell you how many calories it yields, and you divide that by the number of servings. Then you put the dish on the table. If people take their own helpings, there goes the math out the window. If you do the serving, you must weigh each portion exactly.
But what if people at the table have different caloric needs, or different rates of hunger? Are you going to say, “you must take another tablespoon, you’re 63 calories short?” Or, the reverse: “you get two tablespoons less, you’re 126 calories over your allotted portion.” Try that one on your family, or your friends! Also, feeling full is important – people need to feel they’ve had enough to eat.
The calorie counting concept is cumbersome, user un-friendly, guilt-provoking, complicated to apply and in the end not even accurate. The calorie myth has directly contributed to our dysfunctional approach to eating in Western civilization, especially among women. Common sense such as avoiding health harming junk foods and and limiting chain restaurant meals which have gotten ridiculously super-sized in the past 20 years is a much better approach. Counting calories is an outdated concept and unhelpful because technically you could eat all your calories from ice cream and cookies, which is absurd.
To be healthy eat whole, fresh, natural, organic food, including whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, as well as wild ocean fish, organically raised eggs, poultry, and grass-fed beef if desired.
If you choose your food that way, your body will automatically eat the foods that give you the calories you need, and of course all the nutrients. It’s the most user-friendly dietary system, applicable at all times and to all cultures, and you can keep using it for the rest of your life.