Have You Been Lied To About Counting Calories?
What if a calorie is not the best measure of how much energy we obtain from food?
This certainly would shake up the whole field of diet and nutrition, since it is so calorie focused.
Even my Macro Solution System focuses somewhat on calories!
I recently stumbled across a new book that actually challenges the widely accepted notion of using the calorie as a suitable measure of how much we are eating.
As a certified nutritional coach, I try to keep an open mind when it comes to different viewpoints since I firmly believe there isn’t one best answer for ALL dieters.
The book is called, The Fallacy Of The Calorie: Why The Modern Western Diet Is Killing Us And How To Stop It by Cardiologist, Dr. Mike Fenster.
Dr. Fenster was nice enough to take some time to answer a few of my questions about his book and concept.
Can you tell us the top reasons why you believe a calorie is not a good measure of food consumption?
The answer to that lay in the very definition of the calorie. Many people assume that a calorie is the measure of energy that we derive from the food we eat. However in actuality, a calorie is a thermal unit that is defined as the amount of heat required to raise 1 kg of water 1°C at an assumed pressure of 1 atmosphere.
To calculate the caloric value of the substance, it is completely incinerated and the amount of heat produced from turning the substance to ash is then recorded.
Therefore, a calorie does not accurately reflect the energy that a food provides for us, it completely disregards how we metabolize different foodstuffs and speaks absolutely nothing towards the quality of the food and its nutritive worth; which is perhaps the most important variable in determining food value.
Which scientific studies support your theory?
In my forthcoming book there are hundreds of references and studies for the interested reader to peruse at their leisure. Therefore in such a discussion as this, it is difficult to highlight one or two particular papers.
However, one particular paper published by Ebbeling and colleagues in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2012 bears commentary.
In this study people consumed exactly the same amount of calories but ate three distinctly different diets. Measures of metabolism and markers of inflammation were recorded. Each of the three different, restrictive diets produced distinctly different physiologic effects.
In the book, I also address the role of the human gut microbiota or gut microbiome in the role of health and disease and how it is affected by the qualitative constituents of our diet.
This is an area of intense research is already yielding striking findings like the recently published study in Nature. In this study consumption of artificial sweeteners was linked to the development of abnormalities in handling glucose; the hallmark of diabetes. However, the researchers were able to show that this was mediated through an alteration of the gut microbiome.
If counting calories is a fallacy, how should dieters track their food consumption?
I think this question highlights a common misperception. If someone needs to lose weight, then they need a program and they need to diet; using the word in its verb form.
However, eating healthfully, which tends to bring one to their appropriate weight anyway, is about choosing quality ingredients as the basis of their diet; using the noun form. Choosing quality food and emphasizing food value makes calories irrelevant.
Which foods do you believe are the leading cause of disease and obesity?
These are the foods that compromise the modern Western diet. They are highly processed, prepackaged, and prepared foods that makeup over 50% of what people in this country consume.
They are energy-dense and nutrient-poor and can generally be classified as greasy meats and sweet treats.
What’s the single most important healthy eating advice you can offer?
The answer is simple; literally. Eat simply. Eat as much high-quality, fresh, wholesome food that you can. Try to know where your food comes from and how it was produced.
If you read the label and it sounds like a description that belongs on the Science channel, and not Food Network, put it back.
Dr. Mike makes a lot of good points but as a nutritional coach, I have helped quite a few clients that “eat clean” but were still overweight. Healthy foods can be energy-dense too, especially avocados, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Therefore, simply telling people to eat as much nutrient-dense foods as they want and their weight will somehow align wouldn’t be accurate based on my experience working with real people.
I certainly agree with him about eating nutrient-dense foods and greatly limiting the greasy meats and sweet treats, however, I think that this can be challenging for those just getting started to a whole healthy eating lifestyle.
Most people need some perimeters and an understanding of the energy value a particular food is estimated to provide and the energy needs they have based on their stats and the amount of movement they do.
Counting calories or macros can be a good starting point for those who don’t understand how much they are eating in comparison to how much their body actually needs. This is good training for better intuitive eating like Dr. Mike suggests, which takes practice.
So while I agree that calories aren’t the only measure we should be using to determine the types of foods we eat, they do help us with determining our estimated energy balance which is key for losing fat or gaining muscle.
Dr. Mike Fenster, “America’s Culinary Interventionalist,” is a Board Certified Cardiologist, chef, and martial artist.
His cutting-edge medical expertise and insight, culinary talents and dedication to fit living convene in his uniquely integrative Grassroots Gourmet™ approach to food-born health.