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Counting Calories, what a complete waste of time.

March 18, 2019

Calorie Counting

Measuring calories is commonplace in modern life; gym machines and smart watches will tell us how many calories we have burned during the day while food labels and restaurant menus tell us how many calories are in our meals.

These measurements are inaccurate, and even if they were correct, they bear no consequence to how the body works. Counting calories and weighing it up against how much energy we use, to lose weight is total nonsense.

A calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1kg of water by one degree Celsius.

In the 1890s, an American chemist Wilbur Atwater carried out a series of experiments. He found out that 1 gram of carbohydrate or protein contained 4 calories of energy while 1 gram of fat contained 9 calories. These measurements were accurate, however, he made the mistake of assuming that foods were converted into energy in the body at the same rate as their calorie content.

The idea that a calorie from protein, fat, complex carbohydrate or sugar are comparable is as rubbish and as valid as saying the Earth is flat.

This mistake has allowed the food industry to produce unhealthy foodstuffs, guaranteed to make the consumer fat, and yet has allowed the food industry to blame the consumer of gluttony, eating too much and not exercising enough.

Calculating the energy content of food involves baking it in an oven and measures the energy released. However, the body is not a simple oven, and food consumed does much more than just release energy. The methods by which the body releases the energy is more complex than an oven and makes a mockery of the idea of counting calories.

Unfortunately, in the 1960s as obesity and diabetes were beginning to rocket, Atwater’s figures were used to point the finger of blame at the fat content of food. If fat was calorie dense it made sense that fat in all its forms was to blame for the growing levels of fat around people’s middle.

This was completely wrong. The obesity crisis was and is caused by highly processed sugary foods along with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.


When calculating the calorie content of food, it is burnt in an oven. All the calorific content of the food is released in moments. When we take a bite of food and start to chew our bodies begin to break down the food. This then passes through the stomach, along the intestine where it is churned up and acted upon by the trillions of bacteria in the gut. It is broken down into basic compounds and absorbed into the bloodstream.

On average, the passage of food from the dinner plate to the toilet takes 24 hours, but can vary between 8 and 80 hours, this affects how many calories are released by the food. How we breakdown the food also depends on our genes, our gut bacteria, how the food is cooked and how much sleep we have.

Sleep deprivation can help make us fat. Fibre found in vegetables and fruit feeds our gut bacteria and helps maintain a healthy weight, whereas sugars in the diet tend to destroy the good bacteria further nudging us further to weight increase. Cooking food or even finely dicing salad breaks down the food changing how quickly it is absorbed.

If we look at 1 gram of carbohydrate and 1 gram of protein, they produce the same calorie count burnt in an oven, however, their journey through the bodies digestive system is vastly different and play totally different roles in the body.

All carbohydrates break down into sugars and are the main energy fuel for the body. But the rate that the body gets its fuel from food is as important as the amount of fuel.

Simple carbohydrates are even broken down in the mouth. Converted into sugar they are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream giving a fast spike in blood sugars and energy. A can of fizzy drinks is absorbed at a rate of 30 calories per minute but this drops to 2 calories per minute if you have eaten a complex carbohydrate, say rice or wholemeal bread. Why is this important?

High blood sugar levels damage the blood vessels and so if we have a spike in blood sugar, it is rapidly followed by a spike in insulin. This is a hormone that removes sugar from the blood, a small amount can be stored in the liver, but the rest is converted to fat and stored in cells. Once the insulin has done its work the blood sugar level is reduced and we start to feel hungry again. This is very much the problem with the modern highly processed sugar laden foods. It leads to sugar highs, shunted into fat stores, sugar slumps that leave us hungry searching for that next high. This is exacerbated even further as our insulin response becomes heightened increasing our fat production.

Complex carbohydrates are exactly the same as simple carbohydrates except they are strung together and so it takes the body longer to break them down and release the sugar and so our blood sugar levels remain steadier. A glass of orange juice contains fewer calories than the average wholemeal bread roll. But the juice is mainly sugar and so will start the sugar hit more quickly increasing our chance of weight gain. The roll will release more energy but in a way our body can handle, so we do not feel hungry, there is no insulin spike to convert the energy into fat. This is not the message of simple calorie counting.

Protein is the main component found in meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, some legumes such as lentils and chickpeas as well as soy products. Proteins act as the main building blocks of bone, skin, hair and other body tissues. In the absence of sufficient carbs, protein can be broken down and used as fuel but this is a very slow process and so very unlikely to be converted to fat.

Fat is different again, as the body breaks it down into fatty acids, this is used to create hormones and also protects our nervous system producing a protective coating for the nerve fibres. Obviously, fat can be used as fuel, but the body breaks down fat even more slowly than protein, so a meal with a higher fat content will leave us feeling fuller for longer with a steady release of energy.

On an evolutionary basis, fat has allowed us to survive periods of food deprivation and was very important to the evolution of our species. So even now when in the first world we never experience starvation, our bodies are still programmed to store excess fuel as energy dense fat, incase we run out of food. Again the calorie measurement of fat does not reflect the complexity of how it is used in the body.

It is hard to believe that Atwater’s 4-4-9 system of counting calories, now over 100 years old and so inaccurate and grossly simplistic that it frequently leads people into making poor food choices, is still in use.

Increasingly medicine is looking for answers to our health problems in terms of our evolutionary behaviour. Our bodies developed over 150,000 years as hunter-gatherers. Our bodies aren’t designed for the modern sedentary lifestyle with our highly processed and sugar-laden diet.

We were designed to constantly move and hunt. Our diet would have been meat, fish, complex carbs, nuts and very limited sugar gained from fruit and berries, when in season. All these foods are long-burn fuels for the body, allowing a slow steady release of sugar into the bloodstream.

The modern western diet, is high in sugar, forcing the body to repeatedly deal with high sugar shocks, forcing our insulin production into overdrive (diabetes). Sugar almost acts in the body like a hormone rather than a food.

The higher Insulin levels mean more energy is shunted into fat tissue, leaving less fuel available for the normal body functions. This means we are hungry and so this encourages overeating, if this is another sugary snack it just adds to the problem.

Constant hunger and overeating could be a symptom of obesity, not the cause. Simplistic calorie counting and the ludicrous attempt at trying to balance caloric intake with energy expended, without regard to the type of food, is doomed to failure. Worse still, it is wreaking poor health on increasing numbers of our population. And the food industry continues to load foods with cheap sugars and simple carbs, almost a poison.

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