Delusions of Calories Dance In Our Heads

funny-pictures-cat-plans-to-eat-a-lot-of-foodAs a typical person trying to watch my weight, I count calories. Not obsessively, but I try to keep an eye on how much I eat. Like a lot of people, even though I watch what I eat, I'm still always fighting to not gain weight, and getting more frustrated all the time.

New Scientist put together a 3 page article called The Calorie Delusion: Why food labels are wrong today and I wanted to share it with you. Here are the main points that I got out of it:

  • Basically, it's good to balance calories in and calories out to maintain your weight. Common sense, right?

  • Some food labels over or underestimate how much energy your body will get from a food by as much as 25%

  • Eat a meager 20 kcal a day more than you need and you'll gain about a kilogram - or about 2.2 lbs - of fat per year

  • Wilbur Atwater, a chemist, came up with how to calculate energy in food in the late 19th century, and we still use that system today

    • The Atwater method determines the energy content of food through incineration, not digestion

  • Dietary Fiber: provides energy for gut microbes (which is good), is more resistant to mechanical and chemical digestion than other kinds of carbs, and therefore gives us lower energy than previously thought  (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol 51, p 617)

  • Protein also apparently takes more energy to convert to amino acids than previously thought (British Journal of Nutrition, vol 85, p 271)

  • Softer foods lowers the energy cost of digestion! Food texture can greatly affect weight gain

    • A 2003 study in Japan found that feeding one group of rats hard pellets and the other group soft pellets (same flavor and calorie content), after 22 weeks the rats on the softer food were obese with more abdominal fat (Journal of Dental Research, vol 82, p 491)

    • A similar study in people had similar results: women who ate the hardest foods had significantly slimmer waistlines than those who ate the softest foods (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol 86, p206)

  • The Atwater system assumes that the proportion of food that doesn't get digested is more or less constant, around 10%, but actually we've known for the last 60 years that this isn't the case

    • So while processed foods like white flour and white sugar are able to be almost completely converted to energy in the body, complex carbohydrates like course-ground wheat flour will only give up about 30%

  • Cooking also affects how many calories the body gets from foods, another factor ignored by the Atwater system

    • "Cooking gives food energy." It alters the structure of the food at the molecular level, making it easier for our body to break it up and extract the nutrients. It has been suggested that the advent of cooking propelled our ancestors onto the evolutionary fast track, by providing more energy to invest in growing bigger brains. (Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human)

    • Interesting study with Burmese pythons and 4 preparations of steak: raw, cooked, ground raw, ground cooked. Cooking reduced the cost of digestion by 12.7%, grinding by 12.4%. But cooked ground steak reduced the amount of energy needed to digest the meat by 23.4%. So your hamburger is easier to digest than a sirloin steak. Which means there are more calories that can be converted to glucose or fat storage

    • A study in people done with raw and cooked egg that showed that 90% of the cooked egg versus only 51% of the raw egg was digested. (The Journal of Nutrition, vol 128, p 1716)

    • A steak cooked well done versus rare will take different amounts of energy to digest, giving different amounts of calories to the body to potentially be stored as fat or turned into glucose.

  • Most nutritionists think we shouldn't change how calories are labeled even though the system is flawed. Why? Because the benefits to overhauling the system are far outweighed by the costs, even though the calorie counts on labels are potentially misleading

    • There are a few nutritionists out there who feel that the system should be overhauled, because we're not following the latest scientific research now when we read labels. But it doesn't look like that will happen any time soon.


  1. Hi! I just stumbled upon your blog today and I wanted to say that I absolutely love it! I've recently come to reject religion and its comforting to see others who have either "left the flock" so to speak or were never part of it to begin with. I had been raised as a Catholic but over the years had become completely disenchanted with Christian doctrine and it's complete lack of intelligently dealing with modern situations such as homosexual rights, abortion, women's rights and much more. This goes for all religions, not just Christianity. As I grew older I realized that religion causes more problems than it solves and its highly hypocritical and that religion's goal is to control people through fear. I recently had an experience today at work which made me so angry, but valuing keeping my job I held my tongue.

    Two hasidic Jews walked into the store I worked at and they were dressed in the typical hasidic style and were carrying around a pillow with Hebrew words on it. One of them approached me and asked me if any of the employees at my store were Jewish. I inferred this to mean that they did not want to do business with a non-Jew. (Today also happens to be their Sabbath so maybe that had something to do with it). I found it inappropriate to ask for many reasons. Firstly I felt insulted that my non-Jewishness somehow taints me from a normal business interaction. 2nd it's not my business to know my co-worker's spirtiual beliefs if any. Naturally I wanted to tell them to shove it, but since I'm not looking to be fired, I simply replied with "I'm sorry but I don't know specifically what my co-worker's beliefs are". They looked disappointed and walked away. Has anyone ever had an uncomfortable experience in the work places regarding either co-workers or customers/clients who frustrated you with either arrogance of their religion or pushing their ideas on you?

  2. Hello Loves2Think! Welcome to HDC. :)
    I wonder if the jews would have spit on your fellow employee if you had said he was a jew, since he would have been working on the sabbath. What were they doing out and about on the sabbath anyway?! Crazy.
    It's a good question that you ask. I'm going to do a post on it. Come back again and see what others have shared. :)

  3. Pretty Girls GalleryJanuary 3, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    I always monitor my Calories when i eat. I make sure that i dont eat foods that are very high in carbohydrates or foods with very high calories.

  4. Hi Loves2Think! I work retail too. Not having been there, obviously I'm working in the dark, but couldn't these men have had a question that only someone Jewish could answer? You might only be assuming that they didn't want to do business with you. Sometimes asking questions IS the right thing to do. I find that trying to "guess" what other people are thinking often leads to misunderstanding.
    If we are trying to get rid of our religious misunderstandings, it sometimes needs to go the other direction also.