Thursday, June 13, 2013

How the Calorie Ruined Nutrition

Okay - that's it - I've had all I can take...

I know we are going to start a storm here, but, day in and day out, we keep seeing the same mythology and misunderstanding being perpetuated around the Internet, the water cooler, and forums across the web.  It's time to try and put it to rest.

The dietary Calorie, a brief history:

The Calorie, in its modern definition, came from  roots in mechanical physics at the time that the steamboat and the steam engine locomotive were the height of technology.  It was, as today, a measure of heat energy to quantify the effects of fuel on a thermal engine.
 In the mid-1800s, this concept became adapted to food consumption, though the measurement was transformed into the more practical Kilo-Calorie (kcal).  The concept was introduced to the public by Atwater in the journal "Century" in a series of articles.  Ironically, even at this early stage, scientists acknowledged that "The potential energy represents only the fuel value of the food, and hence is only an incomplete measure of its whole nutritive value".

As a unit of energy, the calorie has long been surpassed by the joule, but the term Calorie has become so embedded in our nutritional awareness, that it has never been replaced.

The method of determining the caloric value of food is the same as it has always been: a calorimeter, which combusts the food in a laboratory and records the heat energy generated.  Which is great, if you're a pot-bellied stove.

What's wrong with the Calorie?

This obsession with food = calories = energy = balance to be maintained and manipulated is baffling.  Somewhere along the way, we forgot about the difference between energy and matter.  Energy that exists solely as energy can be found in all kinds of places: light, heat, radiation, house music... well, maybe not house music.  Matter, on the other hand, has mass and takes up physical space in the universe.  Which category do you think your chicken breast falls into?

The whole calorie theory rests its ponderous bulk on the First Law of Thermodynamics, that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred or converted.  Fine and good, except that, as matter, the things we eat as food also have the laws of physics surrounding them.  As finite quantities of molecules, you can't burn them and build with the same piece.  You have to choose.  

YES, okay, the chicken breast can potentially be used as energy.  And some of it certainly will be.  But some of it, depending on your age, metabolic health, training routine, and other factors, possibly most of it will be applied to replacing worn out tissues and building new ones.  

Think of a steak.  When it is on your plate, you look at it as "X" calories per serving.  But, in the cow, it wasn't energy; it was muscle tissue.  Stored protein that did work and burned energy.  Yes, if the cow were starving, that muscle tissue would eventually be catabolized into energy to keep the cow alive.  But then the cow wouldn't have the muscle anymore.  You can't burn it and build with it.  You have to choose.

Somewhere along the way, we took a wrong turn...

Something happened in our advanced society.  Somewhere we lost the ability to think and reason for ourselves.  Worse, some pompous scientists started bashing anybody that disputed the immutable laws of physics when it came to food - completely ignoring the fact that they had skipped a chapter along the way.  I'm not a pot-bellied stove.  The stove isn't going to take any of the wood you throw in it and use it to reinforce the iron base, or replace the stovepipe molecules that have degraded in the heat.  Nope, it's just going to burn stuff.  I'm not a pot-bellied stove.
ourselves.  Grandma used to say "eat your meat and vegetables; they'll make you grow up big and strong."  We used to think of food as nutrients, as building blocks.  In short: matter.  But some knucklehead started slapping the caloric value of every piece of food on a label and we lost our minds.  Calories became everything.

If food is just a collection of calories and calories are interchangeable, then why do some people get fat and some get muscular?  Why is there any variation in body composition between two people that eat the same thing?  Why can some people lose weight on 1800 kCal a day and others feel the need to plummet to 1000?  

And it gets even more ridiculous!

Since people abandoned their own experience for the wisdom of a food label, they have gone to unbelievable lengths to create the "perfect equation" of energy balance.  From measuring calories in, to Basal Metabolic Rate, to calories burned in exercise, we have heaps of calculators and tools to show us how to strike the magical energy balance.  And none of them, no matter how complex, are right.  

Futility, Part 1 - Calories in.

Calorie counters read those labels religiously. They add them all up, weigh, measure, and portion so exactly right.  But - there is so much variation between those labels and the actual content of food, sometimes as much as 50% above or below, that, from the outset you're doomed to arrive at any meaningful number.  Add to that the variation in cooking techniques and, well, you get the idea.  

What's more (and I'm going out a scientific limb here) many of the so-called "foods" we eat in a modern society are either barely digestible at all or so refined the body sucks it up at alarming rates.  The best documented example of this is baby formula.  Scientific studies have conclusively proven that much less of the processed and artificial nutrients used to simulate breast milk are not absorbed into the body, but passed straight into the stool.  Their solution, multiply these ingredients by the inefficiency of absorption to "force" sufficient nutrient into the baby's system.  But what happens to the rest of it?  How does it impact the digestive tract?  Anybody who has changed diapers of both breast-fed and formula babies will tell you.  

Paleo practitioners, on this score, have it right.  Though the specifics of "what" are still in dispute, there is no doubt our body was constructed and equipped to digest and process certain molecules better than others.

Futility, Part 2 - Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). 

Apparently there is an app for that...
The next piece in the calorie-counting nightmare is calculating BMR.  There are all sorts of Theory of Relativity-rivaling calculators out there that estimate your activity level, adjust for the Thermic Effect of Food, and factor in other components like age and gender.  These calculators are supposed to spit out the amount of energy you burn just existing.  

But again, every person is unique in their combination of body composition, metabolic health, hormone levels, perceived level of activity, and even the efficiency (conditioning) with which their body operates.  Conditions such as stress, fatigue, and even the weather add further variables to your actual daily energy expenditure.  

So we start with a calculator based on estimates and subjective factors, leave out individuality and variation, and yet, somehow, spit out a number that we are supposed to consider "valid".

Futility, Part 3 - Calories Out. 

C'mon, would he lie to you?
This part may be the least controversial assertion I make, but still people cling to it.  "Calories burned" calculators are models that estimate the amount of energy you converted in your body through oxygen consumption.  Oxygen consumption is estimated by measuring your heart rate.  Most calculators include a body weight factor and some an age factor as well.  These factors are supposed to increase or decrease the base number built into the heart rate model.  

Once again, these factors entirely leave out individuality.  Conditioning, training style, and body composition all drastically effect the level of effort you put forth in any activity.  Furthermore, your body is the ultimate master of efficiency and adaptation.  That means, as you improve your conditioning in a specific activity, you will expend less energy as you continue to perform it over time.  Yet the calculator will read out the same number again and again.  

And no calculator effectively measures the expenditure of energy through anaerobic activity, such as lifting weights.  Yet every single contraction of a muscle consumes sugar, generates heat, and stimulates hormonal reactions that stimulate energy-burning growth.  And, as with aerobic activity, our body's become more efficient at performing the same workload over time, so you burn less energy each time you repeat the same activity at the same load.  

So, once again, we start with estimates, toss in generic factors, and leave out the actuals, while completely ignoring an entire class of activity.

Futility, a recap. 

So - you cannot count on the precision of the calories you're taking in, you have little hope of producing a realistic number of your BMR, and calorie monitors for exercise are next to worthless.  So why are you still doing it?

Why is the Calorie still around?

Calorie zombies? We may be onto something...
Here's the deal.  The Calorie is a well-established scientific measure, defended by the medical and scientific community for over 150 years.  And there is a very strong statistical relationship (in real food) between caloric content and nutritional density.  So strong, in fact, that at times, it's truly difficult to tell the difference.  No matter how strong the relationship is, you simply can't get around the fact that this is correlation and not causality.  

Note: It is precisely because of this strong correlation that calorie counting can prove useful to practitioners who understand and adjust for all the variability and use the relationship to achieve weight loss.  

But, in the age of ultra-processed ingredients, we have stripped away nutrition, leaving only the energy (in refined carbohydrates) behind.  To counter this, we stripped away even more of the original ingredients (like fat) and replaced them with lower-calorie substitutes like sugars and gluten.  This has created a bizarre imbalance in our perception of healthy food.  

But food isn't just energy.  And you are not a pot-bellied stove. You need to rebuild and replace your body every single day with amino acids and fatty acids.  You need to fuel your activity with glucose from quality carbohydrates.  You need to put things into your body that it was designed and equipped to consume to perform these functions.  Nutrition is about incorporating the right amounts of the right components to continue these activities.  Grams of protein, grams of fat, grams of carbohydrate, all with the essential vitamins and minerals they provide.  Anything else is malnutrition, pure and simple.  

Now, eat your meat and vegetables so you can grow up big and strong!


  1. Brilliantly stated. I'm going to have to read this post three or four times to fully take it all in. You are absolutely right that the vast majority of people think of food solely as "energy." I love the pot belly stove analogy! When I have written on this subject, I have used the acronym "S.A.F.E" and advised people to think of the food they eat in terms of their Structural Anatomy and Functional Energy hoping that come to realize that a Twinkie meets neither of those criteria.

    1. Thank you, Robert! That's high praise coming from you. It's a challenging subject in many ways to get a point across. I really like the S.A.F.E. acronym. I hope you don't mind if I borrow it (with due credit, of course).

  2. You make a big stink in this article about people who conceive of calories as the only nutritional parameter that matters at all in any sense whatsoever. I have never met a single person in my whole life that thought that. Where are these people? More importantly, who dropped them on their heads as children? This is called a straw man, Michael. No calorie control advocates are actually this virulently dumb, or if there are some, it's offensive to those of us who aren't this dumb to be lumped together with these knuckleheads.

    Obviously dietary macronutrient content matters for determining the *composition* of weight gained or lost, while micronutrient content likely modifies all sorts of long and short term health parameters. What calorie control advocates claim is that these factors, while important, have no significance whatsoever for weight loss or gain *magnitude* or *direction.* And the research literature supports this, over and over again. In studies in which calories are rigorously controlled, macronutrient ratio does not matter, and weight loss or gain rates track caloric intakes extremely closely. In other words, the calorie is "still around" because it's literally the *only* validated measure we have for predicting changes in weight. That you don't get this astounds me.

    Your matter/energy distinction makes no sense at all. For one thing, matter and energy are interchangeable, as matter is essentially a condensed form of energy. And in exactly the same way as matter, a quantity of energy cannot be both stored and used to do work. So the point of your making that distinction is completely lost on me. The first law of thermodynamics applies equally to both.

    As for the use of some absorbed macronutrients for "building" rather than "burning", I assure you that virtually all absorbed macros are *eventually* burned (with the exception of some molecules which have been damaged by radiation or chemical modification so as to be impossible to fully break down by our available catabolic enzymes), which is why their temporary storage, either as fat, glycogen, or structural protein, does not affect the energy balance equation. You *can* both build and burn, just not at the same time. The only food calories that are not eventually burned are those that fail to get absorbed in the GI tract. You argue that this often happens with so-called "fake" foods, and that presumably "real" foods are better absorbed, but what you don't seem to understand is that if this were true, it would be advantageous for weight loss to eat "fake" foods. The unabsorbed nutrients essentially act as a mild laxative which causes water weight loss in addition to the missed calories.

    As for your futility arguments, measuring exercise calories is unnecessary in addition to being impractical for the layman, and measuring BMR has only ever been advertised as an estimate providing a starting point. The real money is in adjusting your dietary calorie intake on the fly to produce the weight change you want to see. Not losing fast enough? Eat less. Not gaining fast enough? Eat more. Calorie intake is truly the only thing available to measure for this purpose, so you kind of have no choice but to settle for whatever semblance of accuracy you can get. The only reason to not measure your calorie intake is if A. You're lazy, B. You don't care about your weight (not necessarily a bad thing), or C. Both.

    I can assure you the calorie zombies will keep rising again and again until you take the time to actually address what they're saying, as opposed to your caricature of their arguments -_-

  3. I love how someone who takes so much time to argue posts as Anonymous!
    If you believe what you write-sign your name and stand by your argument!
    If not you just want to argue;)

    1. It is entirely possible to believe what I write and be sincere in it without signing my name to it. If I did sign my name to it, you would have no assurance that I haven't lied about my identity. Likewise, I have no assurance that you haven't lied about your name, or even that Michael hasn't lied about his name. Happily, such assurance isn't necessary, because the things people say stand on their own, regardless of who says them. Truth is still truth and falsehood still false regardless of the identity of the bearer. To argue otherwise is to engage in logical fallacy, specifically, argumentum ad hominem.

  4. Ahh yes, there is nothing quite as virulent as the misguided belief that "common sense" trumps actual research and real understanding.

    1. There is one thing: A vague, snarky reply from an anonymous critic who would rather be clever with generalities than engage in debate with specificity.

      We fully realize that this post is controversial. As such, we expect and welcome debate. But debate has substance and purpose. Our post represents a position based on research, experience, and collaboration with others. It merits more than thoughtless derision, whether you agree with it or not.


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