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Nicola Zaina     
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Don't Count on Calories



Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight will know about calories and may have even become obsessed with counting them. We were told that if we wanted to lose weight all we needed to do was eat less and exercise more. Fewer calories in more calories out, through exercise. But anyone who has been on diet and tried this approach knows that in the long run, it fails.


This has proved to be a simplistic view, our bodies are far more complex than just taking in food and using it for energy, but what can you expect when the tool we use was designed in the 1800s.


Wilbur Atwater was an American agriculture chemist who was trying to solve the problem of malnutrition. He came up with the term macronutrients, nutrients that we need a lot of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. He likened these macronutrients to be fuel for our bodies. He worked out the calorie count of the foods by burning them. A gram of carbohydrate or protein produced 4 calories while a gram of fat produced 9 calories.


He conducted a study in the 1890’s where he measured the calories consumed by a group of students and how much energy these students bodies then burnt through exercise.


This measure is still used, even though we have a much better understanding of the body. For example, he didn’t know that a certain amount of energy was used to digest the food and that different foods are used by the body in different ways.


It also rather dangerously assumed that all calories are equal.


By 1930 the calorie had become entrenched and unchallenged as a tool for American public health policy and unfortunately where the USA led many other countries followed.


The focus of food was on the calorie content and not on its vitamin, mineral or fibre content. This fed into the rise of the food industry and processed foods that are high in refined carbohydrates.


But as levels of obesity started to increase it wasn’t these processed foods that were blamed but rather fats.


Calories IN

The calorie became the measure for a healthy diet. Fats with their higher calorie count were seen as the food group to avoid. The word fat was not only an important macronutrient but also a state of being that many wanted to avoid so it was even easier for people to see foods high in fat to be the reason for them becoming fat!


Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the sugar lobby in the States ran secret studies to help demonise fat as the reason for the rise in obesity. By 1977 the US recommended a low-fat low cholesterol diet for all which meant that food manufacturers added more sugar and salt into foods to make them taste good.


All this did was escalate the rise of obesity. So what went wrong:


  1. Food is made up of many other important healthy components such as vitamins, minerals, fibre and water counting calories is a crude method for showing how healthy a food is. .

  2. Processed foods contain empty calories because all they have are calories and no other health benefits. (A 2-finger Kit Kat and one apple may have similar calories but their benefit to our bodies are vastly different) When a person's diet is made up mostly from empty calories chances are the person is more likely to have health issues and be overweight.

  3. The calorie was based on the food being burnt in an oven and seeing how much energy was released but our bodies use food in a more complex way. Healthier foods actually get broken down and burn slower which is good.

  4. Refined carbohydrates get broken down quickly and there is only so much that can then be stored in the cells as glucose the rest gets stored as fat.

  5. The way our body stores fat has to do with many factors including genes, our microbiome, food preparation and even our sleep.


Eating foods with a higher fat content makes us feel full for longer so even though they may have more calories we tend to eat less.



Calories OUT

Exercise does not use up enough of the calories consumed. Most of the energy your body expends from the food you eat is for maintaining body processes like digestion, powering organs and maintaining body temperature.


The idea that excising more will use up more calories is also oversimplified. The type of exercise is often more important than how much energy we use.


Even though we now know that using calories as a measure is inaccurate and ineffective in keeping us healthy it is proving hard to change the whole calorie counting system.


Food manufacturers are reluctant to change as nutritional labels help their food appear healthier than it actually is.


Surprisingly Weight Watchers has moved away from counting calories and weighing food. It now uses a point system, the general manager in the UK saying “that relying on calories to lose weight is outdated. Science evolves daily, monthly, yearly, let alone since the 1800s.”


So it is time to let go of this Victorian measure and enjoy food that comes from real plants and not industrial plants.


#caloriecounting #emptycalories

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