Numbers matter, but without units, they are meaningless. It is hard to keep track of big numbers, or to turn scientific numbers into a value that means something to us in our lives. Sometimes they try to help us by converting a big number into something we can relate to. The national debt is 14 trillion dollars, for instance. That number is too big to mean anything. If you stacked up 14 trillion dollar bills, it would stretch to the moon and back two times. Well, that value is meaningless, too. I have no idea how far away the moon is. Even if you tell me the moon is 250,000 miles away, that’s too big a number for me to relate to.
So I turn to the calorie. Who here knows what a calorie is? This is the first problem with measuring foods in calories, the unit itself is something we don’t understand. Food calories are determined by BURNING a food in a calorimeter. A calorimeter will give a calorie content for anything that will burn. A pound of hardwood, for instance, has a calorie content of approximately 2 million calories. That is because a calorie is how much the temperature of the water in the calorimeter rises when the sample is completely burned. Now we sort of understand the unit.
So, when you eat a food, there is no furnace inside of you. The fact that a twelve ounce Coke has 140 calories is really a number that is doubly meaningless. For one thing, the unit is really kilocalories, which is 1000 calories. Meaning a Coke has 140,000 calories in it. If that number were determined just by burning the component ingredients in the Coke recipe, it obviously would be a number that relates to nothing, and thankfully, that is not where that number comes from. An exact description with links can be found here, and I excerpt the relevant parts:
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA) currently dictates what information is presented on food labels. The NLEA requires that the Calorie level placed on a packaged food be calculated from food components. According to the National Data Lab (NDL), most of the calorie values in the USDA and industry food tables are based on an indirect calorie estimation made using the so-called Atwater system. In this system, calories are not determined directly by burning the foods. Instead, the total caloric value is calculated by adding up the calories provided by the energy-containing nutrients: protein, carbohydrate, fat and alcohol. Because carbohydrates contain some fiber that is not digested and utilized by the body, the fiber component is usually subtracted from the total carbohydrate before calculating the calories.
The Atwater system uses the average values of 4 Kcal/g for protein, 4 Kcal/g for carbohydrate, and 9 Kcal/g for fat. Alcohol is calculated at 7 Kcal/g. (These numbers were originally determined by burning and then averaging.) Thus the label on an energy bar that contains 10 g of protein, 20 g of carbohydrate and 9 g of fat would read 201 kcals or Calories. A complete discussion of this subject and the calories contained in more than 6,000 foods may be found on the National Data Lab web site at http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/. At this site you can also download the food database to a handheld computer. Another online tool that allows the user to total the calorie content of several foods is the Nutrition Analysis Tool at http://www.nat.uiuc.edu.
In a way then they do calculate it based on the pieces that are contained in the food. Now we know that your Coke has 140,000 calories based on burning the sugar that it contains. A Coke with no calories means that it’s sweetener doesn’t burn. When you drink a diet Coke though, it’s not going into a furnace. It is going into a chemical reaction chamber, combined with a biological digester. Even if your drink contains no ‘calories’ it reacts with your digestive chemicals and is consumed by the microbes in your digestive tract. Whatever it turns into after that process is absorbed by your body. Anything not absorbed passes out of you to feed the flies and other creatures that eat our wastes. There are definitely ‘calories’ in what passes out of us, which you could prove by putting your crap into a calorimeter. I don’t know if anyone has ever tried that experiment, but I bet they have.
When you hear or read that “A calorie is a calorie”, now you know that that is a BS statement. Technically a calorie is a scientific measurement, and is, therefore, a calorie by definition. Inside of your body, though, a calorie is more than that, and a calorie input may represent way more than a calorie inside of you. Lately, researchers have discovered that artificial sweeteners have a worse fattening effect in your body than natural sugars do. Our focus on calories is actually being used against us. You might buy a zero calorie drink thinking, wrongly, that you can have as many of them as you want, with no more risk than drinking water. The proof is in the results, though. Water is harmless, diet drinks are harmful.
Butter and margarine may have an identical amount of calories, but it is now known that margarine is very harmful to your heart, causes heart disease. Those kinds of fats are more and more being banned in countries that care about the health of their citizens.
So the most important thing to know about your food is not how many ‘calories’ it contains. The most important number to know is how many artificial ingredients it contains. The closer that number is to zero, the better the food is for you. Your body evolved to deal with the components and compounds found within natural foods. Processed foods may last longer on the shelf, but the things in them that make them last that way are food for either you, or the biological creatures within you. The number of people that react badly to these things is greater than zero and less than one hundred percent. Nobody actually tests any artificial ingredient for adverse long term reactions, but just look at the health of our population as a whole and realize that we are getting more and more unhealthy due to the processed foods that we are eating.
In the store, ignore how many calories the label says the food has. It has little or no relation to how good that food is for you. Instead, look to see if it has a label, or if it is packaged in a bag or box. Has it been processed before being sold to you? If it is processed and is labeled then it is not a natural food. Don’t eat these kinds of foods, except in special situations. In fact, don’t look for health claims on your foods, either. Health claims are irrelevant to your health. Processed vitamins added to your foods are not really going to be good for you once you eat them. They are only added to get you to buy the food, not to benefit your diet.
Finally, in The Atlantic this month there is an article about labeling foods with numbers more relevant than ‘calories’. Their idea is that informing you about how many miles you would have to run to burn it off would be more relevant. Perhaps. Knowing that you should not be eating processed foods would be more valuable information.
Counting calories is, as I’ve written before, a terrible approach to eating. As the nutrition mantra goes, “A calorie is not a calorie.” Calories from sugars affect the body differently than do calories from fats or protein. Our bodies are great at taking in and storing calories from food, and terrible at burning them. That’s because of a stubborn insistence on staying alive.