Michael S. Fenster M.D., FACC, FSCA&I, PEMBA

You Are What You Eat

5 Reasons to Stop Counting Calories

Or why calories do not count

Posted Feb 12, 2016

If you love someone, set them free. If you don’t care for something, let it go. The basic gist seems to be about freedom, true love and the lightness of being. But not in the sense of a lighter, less calorically dense version of yourself. While a complete disengagement from those things that tether us to reality may result in an emotional and intellectual freefall, seeing how gravity will not let go of us; there are certainly things that we should have dismissed long ago. They are cumbersome and unwanted concerns that grow with the years like the expanding spare tire of middle-age. Increasingly, it is becoming apparent that the focus of a healthful attitude towards food value requires attention to the comestible quality; not just the volume of pie which is enters into our collective pie hole. What follows are five short reasons (there are a whole lot more and for detailed list see my most recent book; The Fallacy of the Calorie: Why the Modern Western Diet Is Killing Us and How to Stop It) on why you should stop counting calories and start caring about quality.

One: The definition or what is a calorie. Is an amazing experience to ask so many self-anointed expert calorie counters exactly what is it that they are counting. Their response usually is along the lines of someone struggling to derive the proof of an abstruse calculus solution. The calorie has nothing to do with food value. It was developed during the Industrial Revolution. It (kilocalorie, which is the food Calorie with a “C”.) is defined as the amount of heat needed to raise 1 kg of water 1°C at 1 atmosphere pressure. It is not a measure of energy; do that you need to multiply by 4.2 kJ for every kilocalorie. Joules are the proper way to define energy measurement. The calorie was used to determine the potential amount of heat generated from various materials tutorials generated during the process of incineration. This is very valuable information when one is powering the steam engine. Not so much when it comes to humans metabolizing food.

The caloric value of food was initially calculated by putting the item in a device called a bomb calorimeter and rendering it naught but ash. The resultant heat given off after it is burned to cinders is the caloric value. Today, that is not even done. A food’s caloric value is determined by using the general averages of fats (9 kcal per gram), proteins (4 kcal per gram), carbohydrates (4 kcal per gram) and alcohol (7 kcal per gram). Unless you frequently dine at the Mordor Café, this is not how the human body processes food. One does not simply consume calories and achieve a healthful outcome; not with ten thousand Calories could you do such a thing.

Two: The efficiency of extraction. This is because when it comes to driving energy from food, there is an incredibly important but little spoken of variable known as the efficiency of extraction. A simple but elegant experiment performed with mice services an example. A group of control mice were fed standard mouse chow. They grew up to be standard mice at a standard mouse weight. Another group of mice were fed the same chow, but it was highly processed and refined before the mice ate it. Both groups consumed the exact same number of calories. The composition of the food was exactly the same because the ingredients were exactly the same; the only difference was the food preparation. The difference is a can to eating an apple off a tree or applesauce made from apple purée straight out of the food processor. Or consider eating peeled cooked carrots versus raw carrots. Regardless, the experimental group consuming the more refined and processed foods gain significantly more weight.

Three: The physiological variable. To highlight the fallacy of the calorie even further, one only need look at what happens when calories are kept constant (isocaloric), but the elements of the diet change. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2012 examine just such a question. They looked at the physiological effects at people on a typical low-fat diet, a typical low-carb diet and a very low-carb or Atkins type diet. What they found was that each form of dietary restriction engendered significant variable of facts on measures of energy metabolism, hormone status and inflammation. Their insightful, and proper conclusion, was that such evidence challenges “the notion that a calorie is a calorie from a metabolic perspective.” Another study in 2014 examine the effects of replacing saturated fat in the diet with carbohydrates (particularly refined carbohydrates); keeping the amount of calories exactly the same. What they found was that replacing the saturated fat with refined carbohydrates resulted in a worse, more atherogenic blood lipid profile, increased body fat and obesity, increased markers of inflammation and more diabetes. It was an increase in calories that were causing metabolic mayhem, but the dietary choices.

Four: We; the variable. Not only are calories not equivalent from a metabolic or physiologic perspective, neither are the energy needs of people. Your basal metabolism, the measurement which reflects your basic energy requirements to sustain life, can vary significantly from the generally accepted average. For men these numbers are generally given at about 2200 kcal per day for men and 1800 kcal per day for women. However, this the actual amount can vary tremendously. Just a few of the variables which affect it include energy expenditure (your activity level), genetics, age, sex, hormones, stress and sleep patterns (one of the most potent predictors of obesity, by the way) and there are many, many others. Recent evidence also implicates your personal gut microbiome; that 100 trillion bacterial collection of minions that dine at the interface of what we choose to consume and who we are.

Five: The gut microbiome. Which of course brings us arguably, to the most important consideration: our personal gut microbiome. Outnumbering our human cells approximately 10 to 1 is the symbiotic construct that is in each and every one of us. It is increasingly apparent that are bacterial minions play a critical role in us enjoying health and wellness or suffering from disability and disease. Another elegant murine experiment demonstrates the power of poop.

Germ-free mice are mice that have no gut microbiome. These genetically identical mice who were giving a poop transplant from genetically identical human twins. The only difference between the twins, was that one was fat and one was lean. The mice who received skinny poop stayed lean. The mice who received a fecal transplant from the obese twin became obese. Mice also happen to share a rather disgusting from a PC perspective, but invaluable from a scientific perspective, habit of eating each other’s poops. So when the genetically identical fat and lean mice were kept together, through the magic of Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo all the mice acquired the same gut microbiome. And all the mice became thin.

A Take-Away: In the two hundred plus years or so since the term calorie first came into use, it has somehow become a confabulated in the public consciousness from its original intended usage to something synonymous with food value. Hundreds of years ago, when a chicken was a chicken and the choices did not span the gamut from a heritage breed, pastured organic bird to assemble nuggets; quantity was the key determinant in determining food value. When all the chickens were the same, what mattered was how many chickens you had.

But the times they are a changin’; what matters now is not so much how much chicken you have, but what kind of chicken you have. And that is a very new way in which we must examine our consumptive patterns and redefine our definition of food value. It is however, something we should be intimately familiar with in our life experience. It is neither the amount of time you live, nor the amount of food you eat that constitutes its value. It is the moments, the quality of those very bites, which define our lives and give it meaning. Bon appetit!


DiNicolantonio, J. J. (2014). The cardiometabolic consequences of replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates or Ω-6 polyunsaturated fats: Do the dietary guidelines have it wrong? BMJ, 1:e000032 doi:10.1136/openhrt-2013-000032.

Ebbeling, Cara,B., Swain, Janis F., Feldman, Henry A., Wong, William W., Hachey, David L., Garcia-Lago Erica, Ludwig, David S. Effects of Dietary Composition on Energy Expenditure During Weight-Loss Maintenance. JAMA 2012. 307 (24):2627-2634

Turnbaugh, P. J., Ley, R. E., Mahowald, M. A., Magrini, V., Mardis, E. R., & Gordon, J. I. (2006). An obesity-associated gut microbiome with increased capacity for energy harvest. Nature, 444:1027-1031 doi:10.1038/nature05414.

Wrangham, R. (2009). Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books.

Wrangham, R., & Carmody, R. (2010). Human adaptation to the control of fire. Evolutionary Anthropology, 19 (5): 187-199 DOI: 10.1002/evan.20275.

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