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The arguments for why the calorie is ‘broken’

Journalists Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley: “A calorie isn’t just a calorie. And our mistaken faith in the power of this seemingly simple measurement may be hindering the fight against obesity.”

For decades, health officials have given us a straightforward message about what to do if we want to shed unneeded and unhealthy body fat.

“To lose weight,” they say, “you must use up more calories than you take in.”

Of course, for that strategy to work, we have to be counting the calories we consume correctly. Yet, as journalists Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley report in an article published last week on the science website Mosaic, our current system of calorie-counting is broken.

“A calorie isn’t just a calorie,” they write. “And our mistaken faith in the power of this seemingly simple measurement may be hindering the fight against obesity.”

At best, the numbers printed on food labels are just “good guesses,” they say. “Worse yet, as scientists are increasingly finding, some of those calorie counts are flat-out wrong.”

The ‘bomb calorimeter’

Scientists use a two-chambered “bomb calorimeter” to determine the calorie counts of various foods. Food is placed inside the inner chamber, and the outer chamber is filled with water. The food is then burned, and the rise in temperature in the outer chamber is recorded.

As Graber and Twilley explain, “Roughly speaking, one calorie is the heat required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius.”

This way of calculating calories is known as the “Atwater method,” a name derived from the Department of Agriculture chemist, Wilbur Olin Atwater, who first developed it in the late 1880s. Although the method has been modified since then, some of the calorie counts given foods today can still be traced back to that period.

Wilbur Olin Atwater
Wilbur Olin Atwater

Yet despite the upgrades, any “aura of scientific precision” behind the method “is illusory,” argue the two reporters.

“Even if the calorie counts themselves were accurate,” they say, “dieters … would have to contend with the significant variations between the total calories in the food and the amount our bodies extract. These variations, which scientists have only recently started to understand, go beyond the inaccuracies in the numbers on the back of food packaging. In fact, the new research calls into question the validity of nutrition science’s core belief that a calorie is a calorie.”

Why calories are not all alike

Graber and Twilley describe the various reasons why the calories currently attributed to foods may not be all that meaningful, including the following:

[O]ur bodies sometimes extract fewer calories than the number listed on the label. Participants in [recent nutrition] studies absorbed around a third fewer calories from almonds than the modified Atwater values suggest. For walnuts, the difference was 21 per cent. This is good news for someone who is counting calories and likes to snack on almonds or walnuts: he or she is absorbing far fewer calories than expected. The difference, [one researcher] suspects, is due to the nuts’ particular structure: “All the nutrients – the fat and the protein and things like that — they’re inside this plant cell wall.” Unless those walls are broken down — by processing, chewing or cooking — some of the calories remain off-limits to the body, and thus are excreted rather than absorbed. …

[C]ooking unlaces microscopic structures that bind energy in foods, reducing the work our gut would otherwise have to do. It effectively outsources digestion to ovens and frying pans. [A scientist] found that mice fed raw peanuts, for instance, lost significantly more weight than mice fed the equivalent amount of roasted peanut butter. The same effect holds true for meat: there are many more usable calories in a burger than in steak tartare. Different cooking methods matter, too. In 2015, Sri Lankan scientists discovered that they could more than halve the available calories in rice by adding coconut oil during cooking and then cooling the rice in the refrigerator. …

There’s also the problem that no two people are identical. Differences in height, body, fat, liver size, levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and other factors influence the energy required to maintain the body’s basic functions. Between two people of the same sex, weight and age, this number may differ by up to 600 calories a day — over a quarter of the recommended intake for a moderately active woman.

A ‘gut reaction’

Recent research also suggests that intestinal bacteria and other microbes influences how many calories we receive from a food, write Graber and Twilley:

The microbes in our intestines digest some of the tough or fibrous matter that our stomachs cannot break down, releasing a flow of additional calories in the process. But different species and strains of microbes vary in how effective they are at releasing those extra calories, as well as how generously they share them with their host human.

In 2013, researchers in Jeffrey Gordon’s lab at Washington University tracked down pairs of twins of whom one was obese and one lean. He took gut microbes from each, and inserted them into the intestines of microbe-free mice. Mice that got microbes from an obese twin gained weight; the others remained lean, despite eating the exact same diet.

“That was really striking,” said Peter Turnbaugh, who used to work with Gordon and now heads his own lab at the University of California, San Francisco. “It suggested for the first time that these microbes might actually be contributing to the energy that we gain from our diet.” 

Time for a replacement

“All of these factors introduce a disturbingly large margin of error for an individual who is trying … to count calories,” report Graber and Twilley. “The discrepancies between the number on the label and the calories that are actually available in our food, combined with individual variations in how we metabolise that food, can add up to much more than the 200 calories a day that nutritionists often advise cutting in order to lose weight.”

That’s why some scientists are calling for innovative ways of labeling foods, such as by giving individual foods rankings for satiety (the ability of a food to make us feel full) or for their calorie-by-calorie nutritional value.

Other scientists are also working toward an even more revolutionary and personalized approach to nutrition — “a future,” explain Graber and Twilley, “where you could hold up your smartphone, snap a picture of a dish, and receive a verdict on how that food will affect you as well as how many calories you’ll extract from it.”

“None of these alternatives is ready to replace the calorie tomorrow,” they add, “yet the need for a new system of food accounting is clear. …  Science has already shown that the calorie is broken. Now it has to find a replacement.”

FMI: You can read the article by Graber and Twilley on the Mosaic website and check out the latest episode of the authors’ podcast, Gastropod: “The End of the Calorie.” Mosaic is published by the Wellcome Trust, a British-based “independent global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health through science, research and engagement with society.”

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 02/01/2016 - 10:03 am.

    cutting 200 calories a day isn’t much of a diet…

    I generally would assume that the calorie counts on my packages and in my book and the calorie counts that I burn according to my fitness tracker all probably have a margin of error of 10-20%. That would be 200-400 calories on a 2000/day diet. Dropping 200 calories doesn’t even take you out of the margin of error and in any event, even if it were true and exact, it would only net you one pound lost every 17.5 days, based on a pound lost or gained being equal to 3500 calories.

    Of course there is variability and inaccuracy but the current ideas work as a shortcut method of diet monitoring. For a typical weight-gaining American, I bet you are consuming way more than 2200 calories per day. If you have gained enough weight that you have to go on a “diet” then you probably have been averaging more like 2500-3000 or more per day, which would put on weight if you aren’t exercising regularly.

    Maybe new tables based on “useable” calories or something would be a good update, but a smart phone app? Instead of taking a picture of my Big Mac, it would be more useful to me to take a picture of my belly and look at that picture while I’m eating my Big Mac.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/01/2016 - 02:16 pm.

    Maybe, but…

    Mr. Schletzer is likely correct, and I like the photo of the belly instead of the Big Mac idea as a weight control method, but I was diagnosed last year as a Type 2 diabetic, and though I was eating what I thought was a varied and healthy diet, I suddenly found myself calorie-conscious in ways I’d never been before, and for probably the first time in my life. In that situation, calorie counts on food packaging suddenly began to seem relevant and even important. While I’ve already figured out what a few foods do to my blood sugar levels, which I now have to monitor daily, my instructions from the doctor are to construct a low-fat, low-sugar diet plan (Michael Pollan’s “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” is a goal, but not yet a reality). None of these kinds of adjustments are made easier by conflicting or contradictory dietary information from various sources. I’ve had a certified nutritionist tell me quite seriously that I should avoid artificial sweeteners at all costs, while my physician insists that I avoid “natural sugar” in any form outside of fruit at all costs. What to do? From my perspective as a mere patient with a chronic, but not yet acute, condition, such confusion is not helpful.

    I agree, by the way, that cutting 200 calories a day – however they’re measured – doesn’t seem like much of a diet, at least in the sense that the term is usually used in a weight-loss context.

    • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 02/02/2016 - 07:50 am.

      seems like everyone has an agenda…

      …and we need to cut through the confusion and make our best decisions for ourselves. Of course none of the science is exact and complete but it seems like many “experts” like to pretend it is. I’m sure there is no harm in telling someone to avoid natural sugar or artificial sugar at all costs but the advice can be so impractical it becomes useless. Doesn’t help that all these bandwagons come rolling through Nutrition World like No Gluten, Low Salt, No Artificial Sugar, Calories Are Broken, Fats Are Bad, Fats Are OK – It’s Carbs That Are Bad, Hard Exercise Is Good For The Heart, Hard Exercise Is Bad -Moderate Exercise Is Good.

      I think the best “expert” is our own bodies and the feedback we get from our bodies, your blood sugar monitor, our scales. For me I go by the general rule of calories in – calories out. I’m sure there is some percentage of importance in what kinds of calories and when I consume them and the balance in types of cals but I try to keep it simple only watching to make sure I get adequate protein each day and assuming I’ll get enough other nutrition.

      A few years ago they were pushing how regular exercise pushes up your metabolism for the rest of the day allowing you to eat more. But then at this online web site connected with my Y people would complain they weren’t losing weight. I did some research on the metabolism thing and I think the effect for the rest of the day after the exercise and return to normal heart rate was less than 100 calories a day or something like that. The Experts didn’t go into specifics, they just yelled about the elevated metabolism and people naively bought into it.

  3. Submitted by Brian Scholin on 02/01/2016 - 08:39 pm.

    Incorrect Definition

    One calorie will raise the temp of one gram [not kilogram] of water one degree Celsius.


    One Calorie [a “kilocalorie”] will raise the temp of one kilogram of water one degree Celsius.

    You are off by a factor of 1000 one place or the other…

    • Submitted by Susan Perry on 02/02/2016 - 09:26 am.

      Technical vs. non-technical writing


      You’re correct.   A “calorie” in this case is actually a “kilocalorie,” but in non-technical writing, “calorie” (sometimes capitalized, sometimes not) is generally used.

      I struggle in this column every day with the issue of how much background information I should give the reader. In this case, a simple link to the USDA’s definitions of calories and kilocalories would probably have helped. I’ll add that link.


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