Calories: A Complex Lie
So, there is this big discussion that people find in nutrition. And that is that calories are a lie. People from credible medical backgrounds appear to have an extreme view from either side of the fence. But who's right? As always, it's not that straightforward. Are calories a lie? Well, yes. Sort of. But not really.
When people refer to calories in the context of food, they are typically referring to the large Calorie (kcal), which is used to quantify the energy that can be derived from consuming the food. The body uses this energy to perform various functions, such as maintaining body temperature, powering physical activities, and carrying out metabolic processes. Different nutrients provide different amounts of energy: carbohydrates and proteins generally provide 4 kcal per gram, fats provide 9 kcal per gram, and alcohol provides 7 kcal per gram.
Think of a calorie as a single unit of energy. A banana, for the sake of argument, is 100 calories. That implies that a banana will provide us with 100 units of energy. The long-time suggestion is that we need roughly 2000 calories per day. We need 2000 units of energy to blink, breathe, think, walk, talk, and generally be human.
But here's the complication: I personally don't see calories as just a unit of energy. Instead, I define a calorie as a unit of potential energy, a way to conceptualize how the body may utilize the energy from food. This is not a standard definition, but it helps you understand the complexities of how the body processes different foods. For example, if we took a banana and a cereal bar, both having 100 calories, will they both provide us with 100 units of energy? According to the traditional understanding of calories, yes. But the reality is they might not. How much energy can the body extract from the banana compared to the manufactured and processed cereal bar? A lot more. What is more likely to contribute to belly fat? The banana or the cereal bar? The cereal bar, right? So how can they both provide the same energy? Do you see where I'm going?
So, this argument that we need 2000 calories per day is deeply flawed. If the food isn't real, and doesn't contribute positively to our gut microbiome, it can't be broken down efficiently to its smallest molecule, which is what needs to happen for a food to be converted to energy.
There is also the argument that some food items may be listed with an incorrect calorie count. People often check the calorie content on a packet, but that alone doesn't tell the whole story. The calories on a processed item of food, like a microwave meal, could potentially be higher than listed, although this can vary and is not universally true.
What is clear is that not all calories are created equal in terms of how our bodies process them, making it essential to consider the source of calories, not just the number.
Here is the flipside: Calorie counting does work, to an extent. So in that respect, calories are not a lie. If you need 2000 calories a day, and you consume 1500, you will lose weight over time. Those 1500 consumed calories could even be made up of unhealthy food. It's not healthy, but it can work for weight control. Conversely, if you need 2000 calories a day, on average, and you eat 2500, you will put on weight. And there are some people who eat healthily but still put on weight, perhaps because they overeat good food. So in that respect, calories are real and do exist.
So what's the purpose of this blog? The world is full of people who know a lot, certainly more than us watching. Never take anybody's word as gospel, because there is someone out there just as smart, ready to debunk a theory that you just listened to, no matter how convincing. Listen and be inspired, see if it helps you make better choices, but be open-minded to being wrong and constantly learning. This is education, opening our minds to something new and being schooled every day.