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Introduction: Does Counting Calories Help with Weight Loss?
The utility of counting calories is a more complicated question than it may seem. The thought that exercise may contribute to weight loss is rooted in the law of thermodynamics and the “calories in, calories out” dogma.
In the strict sense, calories in and calories out applies to a chemical change of converting food to energy. A calorie means the amount of heat required to raise water temperature by one degree Celsius. The concept of a calorie was initially applied to chemistry and physics in the late-seventeenth to mid-eighteenth century. After Century magazine published an article featuring an earlier (1887) publication by Wilbur Atwater about the term Calorie (equivalent to 1000 calories) in 1894, the US food industry began to apply the word for nutritional information (more on the history here).
Although some features of the law of calories in and calories out likely have some plausibility in humans, we are not Bunsen burners. The trend of calorie-counting probably began in the 1920s, when “thin was in” and even a sign of affluence.
Calorie-counting offers the allure of a scientific approach to food intake, although its gross simplification of human metabolism may have led to unforeseen negative consequences. The “calories in, calories” out principle suggests that if we take in fewer calories and expend a more significant amount from activities, such as exercise, there will be a net negative in calories, contributing to weight loss.
Why calories don’t apply to human metabolism
There are at least three reasons why the concepts of calories and counting them are erroneous.
A CALORIE IS NOT A CALORIE
By applying a number to total caloric intake (e.g., 2000 calories), it does not consider inherent differences in the composition of food. One peppermint patty has the same amount of calories as 1.5 pounds of spinach. However, the nutritional content is vastly different.
Simply starting with the surface area, fiber, and water content of spinach tells a lot. A patty is a concentrated amount of sugar without any fiber or water. You can imagine that eating natural food comes with a greater quantity of food with fewer sugars. Just consuming the “right” amount of calories can expose the body to serious protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals deficits.
THE BODY IS NOT A BUNSEN BURNER
Simplifying digestion and metabolism to a chemical process is erroneous. While it’s true that digestion comes with the generation of heat with an increase in blood flow to the gut, our bodies do not act the same as the flame in a Bunsen burner. Our bodies use adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for energy (see link on cellular respiration). The ATP supplies the power to fuel DNA/RNA synthesis, which produces various enzymes, transport molecules, and hormones to transport and assimilate molecules after they cross the brush border of the intestines.
In summary, our bodies use acid, enzymes, and hormones to digest and metabolize food components. Depending on the food and quantity, the body adapts by secreting a sufficient amount of enzymes and hormones. Fat metabolism requires lipase, elastase, and bile acids; glucose metabolism requires insulin and glucagon; protein metabolism requires proteases, like trypsin.
CALORIE-COUNTING OFTEN LEADS TO BEHAVIORS THAT CONTRIBUTE TO METABOLIC IMBALANCE
Calorie-counting can become something that gets checked off the list. Counting calories to try to balance intake and output to achieve a negative balance creates behaviors that may be harmful. Not only do we underestimate the number of calories in a meal, but we also can fall into a cycle of skipping meals, trying to “burn” calories through excessive exercising, only to increase appetite and lead to a preference for higher carbohydrate foods.
There are two main metabolic states: the immediate post-meal state (the absorptive state) and the fasting state, which is the time between meals. Check out this mini-course in metabolism.
Here is a general summary (alert: it is complicated):
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Recommendations: Favor Not Calorie Counting
I recommend that calories-counting not be used for the general population. While it has some value as a “currency” for communication, it is misleading and grossly oversimplifies metabolism. Instead, a natural food diet satisfies all concerns about calories, satiety, and nutritional needs.
- Counting carbohydrates may be helpful. However, not all carbohydrates are the same. Remember that with natural foods, like fruits and vegetables, comes water, fiber, vitamins, minerals, along with fructose and complex carbohydrates.
- Shifting to a natural diet means that you can eat more! Given the fiber, water, and surface area of a plant, you can enjoy greater satiety, even though you consume fewer calories. I didn’t even get into the benefit of eating a plant-based diet on our microbiome, which may play a role in obesity. Here is a YHF link.
Dr. Christopher Cirino
Founder Your Health Forum