Why Calories Will Never Count… Ever.
By Luke Sniewski
Do you currently work out? Do you “watch” what you eat? Are you on a diet? If so, then you probably have a calorie counting application on your phone. Or, you’ve had one in the past and can relate. There are a lot of different options for calorie counters to choose from since it’s an easy and straight forward calculation that most—hopefully—can do with a pen and paper. This makes programming such an application as easy as pie (pun intended). The only variables needed are an individual’s weight, height, age, and sex. Factor in the weight loss/gain goal for the individual and voilà, you’ve just calculated the amount of calories to be eaten during the day to reach a specific goal. So simple. So easy. So mechanical. So wrong.
Using weight, height, age, and sex to calculate how much food you should be eating for a specific goal is an absurdity. Period.
The rate at which individuals burn calories varies greatly, and cannot be measured. Saying that ‘calories count’ is nothing more a truism. Yes, food has calories, but it means nothing substantively since there are countless other variables that determine what happens to those calories and how they impact the rest of the interconnected human systems. In order to truly understand why calorie counting, as a measure of guiding dietary practices, is highly inaccurate and, arguably, unhealthy for our society’s food production systems, one must examine relevant variables that impact the human body’s metabolism.
Whole Foods Matter
There are important reasons to ‘count chemicals, not calories’ when choosing foods; and they have direct implications on the validity of a caloric number and the process of calorie counting. For one, highly processed foods can artificially stimulate dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter, which creates cravings and can lead to addictions (1). While this does not directly increase or decrease calorie absorption in the body, it surely leads to behaviors that make calorie counting even more difficult. If a person is constantly eating foods designed to make them crave more, willpower only lasts so long. Prevalent additives in processed foods like high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and MSG have been linked to weight gain and obesity (2). If we focused solely on caloric intake, these substances could hinder fitness goals and, more importantly, healthy habits.
The differences between whole and processed foods also impacts the actual net caloric number associated with the food. Whole and processed calories are just not the same. To start, the thermic effect of food, which is used to describe the energy expended (calories burned) in order to digest and process food, is different when comparing eating whole foods and processed foods. In one study, the thermic effect of the whole food meal was almost double that of the processed food meal.(3) In addition, depending on whole food or processed food choice, the resting metabolic rate after digestion was altered in significantly different ways. For those who ate the processed food meal, their metabolic rates dropped below their average resting metabolic rate (RMR) during the fourth hour after eating, while the whole food meal group never fell below the RMR, meaning whole food eaters were ‘burning’ calories at a higher rate during their resting state long after the meal actually ended.(3)
While most calorie counting proponents base their arguments on the laws of thermodynamics (despite the fact these are based on mechanical and closed systems, something the human body definitely is not), one study finds that the notion that ‘a calorie is a calorie’ is a direct violation of the second law of thermodynamics. The study notes that the “second law of thermodynamics says that variation of efficiency for different metabolic pathways is to be expected. Thus, ironically the dictum that a “calorie is a calorie” violates the second law of thermodynamics, as a matter of principle.”(4) Even the different macronutrients—proteins, carbohydrates, and fats—require different amounts of energy (calories) to be burned to breakdown, absorb, and use. Protein is the most complex macronutrient and, therefore, takes the most energy. Fat takes the least amount of energy to metabolize and carbohydrates fall between fat and protein. None of these thermic factors are accounted for in the calorie equation. Thus, depending on the food you eat, a calorie is NOT always a calorie.
Individual Digestive Differences
Every single person’s digestive system is anatomically and functionally different. We may all have the same parts, but they come in all different shapes and sizes, especially after a lifetime of lifestyle choices. Varying intestinal lengths and structures create different and dynamic ways in which the gut adapts to diet, disease, and damage. (5) Surely, these variables impact caloric breakdown and absorption rates. Of course, stomach acids and digestive enzymes in individuals will breakdown foods at different rates and varying degrees of efficiency and effectiveness. This can happen when someone’s digestive health is compromised from consuming too many processed foods that damage intestinal lining, thus impacting the secretion of these essential digestive acids and enzymes.
Even the foods you select can impact digestion. Eating fermented foods like sauerkraut and raw foods like raw milk means that you are also consuming the bacteria and enzymes that will help break down the foods once consumed, removing some of the digestive burden from your body and allowing for a more thorough digestive process.(6) This also means that an individual’s gut flora will also be a variable to consider in the digestion equation. The interplay of these variables significantly impact the actual amount of calories burned and absorbed through the digestive process making the process of counting calories a pointless act.
Hormones, Hormones, Hormones
Lastly, every substance that goes through the digestive process is a drug. This is because every substance, including food, will have a direct affect on hormone levels. Why are hormones important? Hormones, in large part, dictate fat distribution, body composition, and metabolic functions. (7) In one study, the diminished secretion of growth hormone was responsible for a general decrease of lean body mass and the increase of fat mass. All the calorie counting the world cannot override imbalanced hormones. (8) Since it is macronutrients, not calories, that impact hormones to a much greater degree, they can be considered superior to calories in determining food choices.
Carbohydrates, particularly those with a higher glycemic index, immediately increase the level of the hormone insulin, one of the key hormones and drivers involved with fat storage. This is a highly complex process that certainly has more to do than simply insulin, but this simple representation helps paint a clearer picture. When you eat a lot of carbohydrates, insulin levels are constantly elevated. As this dietary pattern continues, chronically elevated insulin makes the cells resistant to the insulin, which consequently elevates the stress hormone cortisol. This hormonal cascade contributes significantly to fat gain.(9)
Finally, the discussion turns to the all important stress hormone, cortisol. Frequent and long-term exposure to cortisol is associated with excess abdominal fat (10, 11). So for those people counting calories to lose fat, adding more stress to an already stressful life with the time-consuming process of calorie counting is counterproductive. Better to relax and simply choose meals that include wide varieties of whole foods.
Bringing to Together
The most important factor in all of the above mentioned points is that all of these inputs and metabolic processes are constantly and endlessly changing within the body. What this is means is that the human metabolism, the rate at which ‘calories’ are supposedly burned, is constantly in flux and always changing. In other words, calorie counting is an attempt at calculating and specifying the impossible: a moving target.
Admittedly, one point can be conceded in defense of calorie counting. If someone needs calorie counting in order to hold him or herself accountable to healthy food choices, by all means, continue. Whatever motivation or method an individual needs to build healthy habits—whether a vision board, a six pack, Jesus, calorie counting, or bikini season—is fine. Just know that the actual calculation is bogus. And stress inducing. F@%# stress.
The real downfall of calorie counting, however, is something that is much more important than whether a calculated number is accurate or not. Calorie counting perpetuates our current disease and obesity epidemics. Yup, I said it.
Calorie counting is one of the contributing factors to our nation’s diminishing food quality, thus leading to the current prevalence of chronic health issues.
By focusing on calories, people become disconnected from their own body. They no longer ‘listen’ to the way their body reacts to food and instead focus on an arbitrary number that does not acknowledge the intrinsic quality of the food choice. Just like your cholesterol level does not paint a complete picture of your health, a certain amount of calories does not determine anything substantive about the health of the food you eat. With a society focused on calories and other numbers on nutrition labels, many of us couldn’t care less about what we eat as long as it doesn’t take us over our ‘1,500 daily limit’, or whatever the number might be. This is obviously the wrong mental mindset. 100 calories of apple is different from 100 calories of a Snickers bar. 100 calories of grass-fed beef is different than 100 calories of a Muscle Milk protein shake. This reductionist perspective has transformed our food systems. Food engineers create ‘foods’ that conform to irrational expectations of what constitutes food.
The bottom line is that no one eats calories. Hopefully, they eat food, something that carries with it loads more complexity than a single number can ever convey. A level of complexity that, quite arguably, will never be fully understood. Calories are just a measurement—like a foot, an inch, or pound—and have no real substance. The community garden down the street from the LEAF Wellness Center is about 50 feet long. What does this measurement really tell me about the garden? Nothing. By definition, a calorie is a unit of heat equal to the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree at one atmosphere pressure. Does that sound like a human body to you?
The calorie theory, as used for dietary protocols, is based on the heat engine analogy, also known as thermodynamics. The human body is not a heat engine. The human body is not a machine. Even machines like cars do not burn their “fuels” at constant rates due to factors such as tire pressure, oil level, oil quality, etc. The human body is an infinitely more complex and open system. The human digestive system is not akin to a conveyor belt taking food through a mechanical system that extracts nutrients from within the food. Instead, food is converted into complex substances and structures through various series of reactions within the body. Most importantly, that process and its respective efficiency and effectiveness are different for every individual and based on many interconnected variables.
The true fuel value of any natural unprocessed food is dependent on many intrinsic qualities such as type, quality, freshness and ripeness. Do you really get the same value from unripe and pesticide-grown tomatoes you eat in January as you get from sweet and ripe tomatoes organically grown in a backyard in summer, eaten right off the vine? The calorie system says “yes”. Common sense, science, and nature say otherwise.
1. Goldhammer, Alan, D.C., Dietary Addictions: Why eating healthfully is so difficult. National Health Association.
2. Tsang, Gloria, R.D. and Girdler, Lauren. MSG and Your Weight. September 2008. Health Castle.
3. Barr, S., Wright, J. Postprandial Energy Expenditure in Whole-Food and Processed-Food Meals: Implications for Daily Energy Expenditure. Food and Nutrition Research. July 2010.
4. Feinman, Richard, and Fine, Eugene. “A Calorie is a calorie” violates the second law of thermodynamics. Nutritional Journal. July 2004.
5. Weaver, L., Austin, S., and Cole, T. Small Interstinal length: a factor essential for gut adaptation. BMJ Journal. October 2012.
6. Parvez, S., Malik, K.A., Kang, S., and Kim, H.Y. Journal of Applied Microbiology. June 2006.
7. Svendsen, OL., Hassager, C., and Christiansen, C. Relationships and independence of body composition, sex hormones, fat distribution and other cardiovascular risk factors in overweight postmenopausal women. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders. 1993.
8. Rudman, Daniel. Effects of Human Growth Hormone in Men over 60 Years Old. The New England Journal of Medicine. July 1990.
9. Taubes, Gary. What if it’s All Been a Big Fat Lie? New York Times. July 2002.
10. Rosmond, Roland. Stress-Related Cortisol Secretion in Men: Relationships with Abdominal Obesity and Endocrine Metabolic and Hemodynamic Abnormalities. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. June 1998.
11. Moyer, Anne. Stress-Induced Response and Fat Distribution in Women. Obesity Research. September 2012.
About the Author:
Luke Sniewski enjoys doing handstands, playing with his son Jack, and living the life of a nelipot. Inspired by his most recent book, Million Ways to Live, he is currently traveling around the world making documentaries about healthy living in different cultures. His aim is to empower people to take responsibility for their own wellbeing and be their own wellness guru. Follow his traveling adventures and web series on Facebook and Instagram.