It’s come to my attention that calories have become the basis for how society looks, places judgments and makes decisions on food. There is confusion that calories are related to actual nutritive value or health properties. The numbers are everywhere, and they aren’t adding up. And they certainly aren’t making anyone thinner or healthier.
What is a calorie actually?
A calorie is a unit of measurement – like a centimeter, a kilogram, or minute; except for calories measure the amount of energy as opposed to distance, weight or time. Specifically, one calorie is the amount of energy it takes to raise one kg of water 1 degree Celsius. Calories were never designed to measure the energy in food, but historically it seemed like a reasonable way to look at the different levels of energy potentials in food. To measure the calories in food, items are placed in a calorimeter. A calorimeter is a machine used to measure the heat of chemical reactions or physical changes as well as heat capacity. The amount of energy given off during the food being combusted is measured by the calorimeter and that is how calories are measured for different foods.
But low calorie or calorie-restricted diets are not ideal because…
The body is not a calorimeterThe human body is much more complex than a simple combustion process. The way foods are processed and metabolized in the human body differs vastly due to digestive processes, metabolic functions and hormone development. And everyone’s body is so unique, foods act very differently in every body!
Focus on quantity over qualityCalorie counting has little to do with the quality of foods and much to do with the quantity. So it focuses little on how healthy the foods are and much on the numbers of food. The human body is not a math equation. What a quantity rule implies is that a doughnut would act the same way in the body as an energetically equal amount of fresh fruit would.
You have to rely on extraordinary willpowerThere is a reality that eating fewer calories will decrease one’s weight, especially if the amount of energy expelled is more than the amount of energy taken in. This is due to the law of thermodynamics. The problem is the method by which this occurs. A low calorie diet relies on willpower to be successful, and willpower is challenging when your body is working against you with cravings and stress. When willpower alone is heavily relied on for dietary changes there is a higher likelihood of failure, or binge eating. There is also the risk of damaging the metabolic system long term, in which case it would be harder to maintain or loose weight in the future, as well as gain energy, because the body goes into storage mode rather than energy using mode.
Creates stress around food and eatingBecause food becomes numbers with “good” and “bad” properties along with a constant evaluation of calories in and calories out. This may become a stressful task. Stress hormones are linked with increased cravings and weight gain. Stress also dampers the digestive system, and shuts down or restricts digestion – adding to weight gain.
A “low calorie diet” doesn’t focus on the “why”Low calorie or calorie deprived diets usually focus on short term deprivations, which means they have nothing to do with long term lifestyle or eating habit changes. They also fail to address the underlying cause of weight gain in the first place. Weight gain may have occurred initially due to poor dietary choices, metabolic sluggishness due to hormone imbalance or thyroid disorders, over toxicity in the body or due to emotional struggles where food is being used for comfort. Low calorie or calorie-restricted diets do not address any of these issues! They leave out the bigger question of “why” do you want to be healthy and are usually only focused on weight. Focusing on consuming nutrient dense, high quality foods instead, lends itself to deeper reasons to eat healthy like, “I want to have more energy, patience and love for my family.”
Erika Weissenborn B.Sc. FNH, CNP