What are calories? 

What are calories? The Journal of Nutrition, titled “History of the Calorie in Nutrition,” in 1863, a calorie was defined as the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water from 0 to 1 degree Celsius.

A calorie is a calorie, right?

Well, technically this is true, but it’s not true in the context of how people use this statement. When people proclaim a calorie is a calorie, they are trying to convey that it doesn’t matter where calories are sourced. Of course, it matters! 300 calories from coke is not the same as 300 calories of fruit. If it didn’t matter then why not just stock the fridge up with coke that will never go bad and rot? 

The real question is, are all calories created equal?

Calories need to be stored and transported by a macronutrient. These are either, fat, protein or carbohydrates. Each of these macronutrients have different variations and can be broken down further, into types. For example, coca cola and a piece of fruit are all predominantly carbohydrates, coming from the type fructose (a form of sugar). If you had a piece of fruit with 15 grams of fructose in it and poured an equal amount of coke with 15 grams of fructose, your body will react quite differently to the piece of fruit, vs the glass of coke.

This shows that calories may be equal in energy but they certainly are not equal in terms of the effect they have on your body. The piece of fruit has bought fiber and phytonutrients along for the ride, mitigating some of the negative effects of the fructose. The fructose from the coke is entering your system alone and has actually been concentrated into high fructose corn syrup. Which is quite frankly toxic, nature has figured out how to deliver fructose safely, coke has not!  This effect is not at all taken into account when people argue that a calorie is a calorie, but how your body process calories are so important to overall health. 

The common (flawed) logic with calories is as follows.

Person X requires 2500 calories a day. To stay the same weight, they need to eat 2500 calories a day, to lose weight they need to eat less, and to gain weight they need to eat more.

With this logic, a diet of soda and fast food is equal to a diet of fresh meat, fruit and vegetables, as long as the caloric value is the same. Common sense is enough to tell us, there has to be more to it than that.  This link shows that, yes you can lose weight by only worrying about calories and not about the quality of food. However, note how “terrible” the guy in the article felt. I bet if we followed this guy up in a couple months time, all the weight he lost would have come back. Fat loss is one thing, but overall health has to be the objective. Then body composition will take care of itself.

Another problem with this over simplistic equation is, that no matter how diligently you count your calories each day you will never know exactly how many calories you have eaten. Which makes counting them and focusing on this arbitrary number pointless.  If you’re shocked that your meticulous calorie counting has been in vain, then continue reading for the explanation. 

 

The calories in vs calories out mantra.  

This way of thinking may be of some help when not taken too literally and if you’re only focused on fat loss. However, if one is focused on holistic health goals along with weight management, this formula is only going to have your weight fluctuating wildly and your overall health running away from you.

It’s a well know fact that carbohydrates and protein contain 4 calories per gram and fat has 9 calories per gram. This is the nice neat package that is taught, just like the calories in vs calories out equation. Anything that is explained so simply is clearly not very well understood. The caloric values of protein, carbohydrates, and fat are only averages of all the different types of the many different fats, proteins and carbohydrates in our diets.  These fluctuations in the real caloric value quickly add up over the course of a day. No matter how meticulous you add up your caloric values you will never know exactly how many calories you eat because you only ever have access to averaged numbers, not real values.

The guesses and averages continue….

Calorie counts on food labels are known to be inaccurate and sometimes guesstimates, as discussed above. Testing every food product on the shelf for calorie accuracy is too expensive and just doesn’t happen, we trust what’s on the label.  The video link below shows, over a 500 calorie difference between how many calories were meant to be in a day’s worth of food, and how many were actually in it.  For anyone that counts calories, 500 is a lot! Being 500 calories over or under your daily goal would be disastrous in the mind of a notorious calorie counter. No matter what anyone tells you, they do not know their EXACT calorie count for the day. It’s an educated guess at best.  Video link here 

The math doesn’t match reality. Even if you could accurately count your daily calories, which I don’t think is possible without your own expensive lab equipment. Restricting your calories by 500 less a day would equal 3500 by the end of the week, this equating to almost ½ a kilo of lost body fat.  Now, this might work for a week or two, but anyone that has ever tried calorie restriction will tell you, your body adapts and weight loss doesn’t happen at a steady state (Video here ). We want our bodies to be simple calorie calculators, but unfortunately, we are much more complex than that.

It costs energy to get energy.

Your body processes the 3 macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates)  differently. Each one depending on its source requires a certain amount of energy to break down the food and unleash the caloric potential. For example, protein requires more energy to break it down, than carbohydrates. So a 2500 calorie a day diet high in protein, will actually end up yielding less calories, than a 2500 calorie diet high in carbohydrates. Daily recommended calorie intakes have no way of calculating how many calories you will actually yield after digestion. 

You probably cook your food, right?

Cooking alters the caloric value of any food. Whether you have your steak well done or rare, greatly affects the calories available to you in that piece of meat. Vegetables also have a vast difference between raw and cooked. This is one of the reasons the trendy “raw food diet” is flawed. Sure it’s good to eat some foods in their raw state especially vegetables, but not all the time!  Our ancestors grew the large brains we enjoy today because they discovered fire and cooked their food. Sure, some vegetables require more cooking than others, and this is usually quite clear. The difference between how many raw potatoes a person could eat, compared to cooked potatoes demonstrates how vital cooking was to our development and its calorie unlocking ability. Not only can you consume more, but each cooked potato has more calories than uncooked.  It can be said that cooking is the first stage of digestion.

You don’t actually “burn” calories or fat. 

You don’t and can’t burn calories. As calories are merely a unit of measure for the heat that is produced when food is combusted in a lab, Specifically in a calorimeter machine.  Your body is more complicated than a calorimeter machine and is using many different chemical pathways to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP, or what your body actually uses for energy). All food sources are broken down into ATP or stored as fat to then later be broken down into ATP. When fat is broken down to ATP the by-products are water (20%) and carbon dioxide (80%) so technically you actually breath off most of your fat, not burn it.

Everyone is different.

Different gut microbes and hormonal differences, greatly affect how our bodies process food.  Two people following the exact same diet can have two completely different results in terms of body composition and health. 

Counting calories may be a good place to start because it draws your attention to what you’re eating on a daily basis. You become more consciously aware, and this only can have positive results. However one should not rely on simple addition and subtraction when it comes to food. It’s far too simplistic and when companies like Coke, preach the importance of counting calories you have to wonder (video link here).  When you eat real food, with fiber, there is no need to count calories. You will find it very hard to overeat on whole foods because they are filling by design.

It takes about 13 oranges to make a liter of juice. Have you ever tried to eat 13 oranges?