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Science

Why the Calorie Is Broken (arstechnica.com) 425

An anonymous reader writes: Nutrition is a subject for which everybody should understand the basics. Unfortunately, this is hard. Not only is there a ton of conflicting research about how to properly fuel your body, there's a multi-billion-dollar industry with financial incentive to muddy the waters. Further, one of the most basic concepts for how we evaluate food — the calorie — is incredibly imprecise. "Wilbur Atwater, a Department of Agriculture scientist, began by measuring the calories contained in more than 4,000 foods. Then he fed those foods to volunteers and collected their faeces, which he incinerated in a bomb calorimeter. After subtracting the energy measured in the faeces from that in the food, he arrived at the Atwater values, numbers that represent the available energy in each gram of protein, carbohydrate and fat. These century-old figures remain the basis for today's standards."

In addition to the measuring system being outdated, the amount of calories taken from a meal can vary from person to person. Differences in metabolism and digestive efficiency add sizable error bars. Then there are issues with serving sizes and preparation methods. Research is now underway to find a better measure of food intake than the calorie. One possibility for the future is mapping your internal chemistry and having it analyzed with a massive database to see what foods work best for you. Another may involve tweaking your gut microbiome to change how you extract energy from certain foods.

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Why the Calorie Is Broken

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @09:32AM (#51381017)

    FTA "Nash uses an app to record the calories he consumes and a Fitbit band to track the energy he expends."

    Is it possible that the Calorie is just fine and maybe using some cheap piece of electronics strapped to your wrist is just a really piss poor way to track the energy expended?

    • That or the calorie count on the food he consumes is not as accurate to each person as it should be?
      • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @09:53AM (#51381141)

        Yeah, the Calorie is pretty well defined. 1 Calorie = 1kcal = 1000 calories, with 1 calorie defined as the amount of energy it takes to heat up 1 ml of water 1 degree C. If that's broken, then so is the joule. Now if the number on the side of the box is wrong, that's believable. If they're consuming more then the serving size without realizing it, that's believable (seriously, this small package contains 2.5 servings?). Different peoples digestive systems operate at different efficiencies, thus different people get a different amount of energy out of the food, that's believable. And it's well known the amount of energy you burn depends on your amount of activity and the amount of muscle you have which means that wearing a fitbit to track your energy expenditure is almost certainly worthless. Considering all those things on why losing weight isn't so easy to put into a simple mathematical formula still doesn't imply that the calorie is broken. It does it's job of measuring energy just fine.

        • Two units, one 1000x the other, distinguished only by capitalization...WTF does it take to call something broken?

    • But this leaves us still with the other piss poor (or - learning about its history - rather literally shitty) method used on the other end of the equation: we can't say how much of the available energy (and here the calories are indeed fine) are actually processed and absorbed by the human body as this varies. (Hint: it's not 100% as there is still energy left in the digestive waste products)

      • by sFurbo ( 1361249 )

        we can't say how much of the available energy (and here the calories are indeed fine) are actually processed and absorbed by the human body as this varies. (Hint: it's not 100% as there is still energy left in the digestive waste products)

        The fact that it is not 100% is well known. The method you decry as "piss poor" explicitly takes this into account by measuring the energy content of the faeces. It might still be a piss poor method due to inter-personal variation, or even variation over time in the same person.

  • by Tx ( 96709 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @09:43AM (#51381081) Journal

    I don't see how any of that stuff makes the calorie "broken". Sure, "Differences in metabolism and digestive efficiency add sizable error bars." etc etc. Gasoline has 30MJ/L of energy, and the fact that cars have different fuel efficiencies doesn't mean that isn't useful data, or that the joule is "broken" either.

    Is it really news to anybody that you need to take account of more than just pure calorie intake when monitoring your diet?

    • No, it's saying that the measure of how much calories is in a given serving of food isn't really a good measure of anything.

      And all of those things which say how much calories is in a portion are such bad estimates as to be fairly unreliable, because the methods of measuring it are pretty incomplete and sketchy.

      The scientific calorie and the nutritional calorie are different things .. the nutritional calorie is, at best, a wild ass guesstimate.

      • A rough guideline. General nutritional guidelines are like most things, your mileage may vary. It is well established that a fat calorie and a carb calorie behave differently in the body. Hell, glucose and HCFC are treated differently.

        Right at the top, it seems likely the nutritional content label would be something of an average or mean over many ears of corn or servings of potatoes.

        And every one of us is a little the same and a little different, so there's no universal tenet that works for everyone.

    • The summary is off base also, for the same reason. The calorie isn't any more outdated than the joule. The article does a much better job, talking about exclusively focusing on calories in and out doesn't necessarily work.
      • Actually calorie IS outdated. Scientific community moved to SI units like joule. The fact that calories instead of joules are used to measure energy stored in food shows that no genuinely new research was done in that area since nineteenth century.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by CastrTroy ( 595695 )

      I agree. The Calorie is a useful measurement. If you monitor your health by tracking Calories eaten, weight, and Calories expended then you should be able to control your weight. If your weight is going up, you have few options, reduce your Calorie intake, or increase your calorie expenditure, or some combination of the two. Maybe the numbers on the packaging don't work for you, and you actually get more energy out of the foods you are are eating than what's reported on the label. The fact still holds

      • That approach generally works, but it can be hard to maintain a healthy balance if you treat 100 Calories of Coke the same as 100 Calories of steak.

  • "Then there are issues with serving sizes"

    Someone doesn't understand calories.

    • I think the issue is with how calories are reported on labels and how much people typically eat in a serving. There was a case a while back where certain cola producers were reporting the calories on the label based on a serving size of 100 mL, even though they knew that nobody only drinks part of the can when consuming it. The serving sizes reported on product labels are usually much lower than a person would typically eat, which makes the calorie count of products appear lower. Sure people should just

    • Yeah. As long as we're using modern methods to determine the calorie (energy) content of food now (and not tables of burning poop data from the turn of last century), I see no issue with the calorie itself. Although the "raising the temperature of water" bit is kinda contrived, torching a cheeseburger is going to release energy measurable in 4.2 kilojoule increments. Complaining that bigger portion size messes with the amount of available energy is... not the calorie's fault?

      Though I agree with the au
  • by petes_PoV ( 912422 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @09:52AM (#51381131)

    If we're talking about obesity, then it's still a case of you only get fat if you eat too much. And here (for those who haven't already clicked Reply and are starting an argument) "too much" means more than your body needs to function, for however much or little exercise you take.

    If your weight is increasing and you don't want it to: either exercise more to burn off the excess, or eat less. That is independent of whatever unit of energy you use - or the accuracy of the food labeling.

    • by omnichad ( 1198475 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @10:39AM (#51381463) Homepage

      Eat "less" is the part that's in question. how much less to eat depends entirely on what type of calorie you are eating (specific types of fat, protein, or carbohydrate). Cutting out the soda but not cutting out the ribeye steak might make a lot bigger difference than the converse, even if they are the same decrease in overall calories. And there are some arguments that decreasing carbohydrates and increasing fat intake and overall consuming more calories can still result in weight loss (or at least no additional gain), depending on individual biology.

      • Still, using calories to measure and "eat less" works as well as anything else out there. Assuming you don't change your diet content or buy different foods, eating less calories will lower the available energy going into your body and lower your weight gain. Further, if you do change the mix of your diet, using the calorie to evaluate what it might do to your weight is a good place to start (Atkins followers aside) in that it generally captures the most important metric about food's energy content availab

    • by epine ( 68316 )

      Yes, but nobody who studies nutrition in the 21st century gives a flying fuck about the back of a torn business card energy-balance calculation, because food consumption patterns are tied to human behaviour and performance in a hundred other ways and most people wish to lose weight more for vanity than actual health reasons, while also continuing to cope with life stress—does anyone even take a shit any more without consulting their iDevice?—and maybe even dream a little in their spare moments.

      O

  • The calorie works well, the problem is people who are trying to use it for reasons other than what it was intended.

    .
    Regardless of metabolism, exercise, how well you digest food, etc, the following always holds true (maybe not precisely true to minute decimal places, but true)

    Take all the calories you eat, subtract out the calories you lose, exude, emit, excrete or otherwise eliminate.

    If the result is more than the number of calories your body needs to run, you'll gain weight.

    For me, I know the magic

  • Dump the crap food, eat good stuff with enough "fiber" and eat less overall w/more fiber to lose weight.

  • If he had done that research today he would have died in the swat raid looking for his bomb.

    But its ok, it would be his own fault for making them suspicious enough to put him on the no fly list for his seditious publication about bombs.

  • All this should be very familiar by now to anyone who is interested in nutrition. Gary Taubes, in particular, has explained the facts fully and clearly in his books, starting with "Good Calories, Bad Calories" (published, for some strange reason, under the title "The Diet Delusion" in the UK).

    It should be obvious that the total chemical energy in a substance is by no means the same as the energy that the human digestive system extracts from it. Otherwise we could consume, and thrive on, hydrocarbons such as

  • by havana9 ( 101033 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @10:42AM (#51381485)
    I was 85 kg in June, now I'm 69 kg. How I've lost weight? Fiers of all i've gone to my general practitioner and him made a me a request for a visit to a dietician at the hospital. I paid a ticket €40 fort the visit, the doctor visited me, printed a personalized diet after having asked me my food preferences, advise me to make some exercise everyday. I started to walk at work instead of using the car, making 4 km every day. I followed the diet at the letter (except xmas, of course).

    Following the diet at the letter was meaning weigh as much I could all the food I was eating and estimate when I couldn't, say wen I was eating outside, and having one and only one meal per week where I eated a bit more, like pizza or sushi, but without overeating.

    Of course some foods were banned, like carbonated dink with sugar or industrial snacks. The doctor said to me that if I wanted to eat say some chocolate, having to eat less was way better to eat the high quality one.

    When last week I meet him for the control visit, he complimented me with the result and gave me the maintenance diet, that was similar to the one I was following for loss weight but with some more daily food to eat.

    I think that self made diets or read on newspapers aren't going to work. Ask an expert..

  • by xxxJonBoyxxx ( 565205 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @10:47AM (#51381505)

    Remember the government's "four food groups" with X servings of 4 groups (meats, dairy, bread, fruits and vegetables)? (http://www.rootedcook.com/visuals/foodguides/ - 1956-1992) It worked (it was even used on game shows) because people could understand and remember four things and whole numbers without units.

    Today's government food pyramid? It's 6 different items measured in a mix of "cups" and "ounces" (http://media-2.web.britannica.com/eb-media/05/82105-004-3C485EB5.jpg) - not exactly how food is packaged and remembering 6 different figures with units is beyond what people can easily recollect.

    If you want the masses to "get" any nutritional advise, I can't see how blowing up a common denominator like the calorie would help.

  • With the way calories are counted... what's the official calorie value of a box of tissues?
    'cause cellulose burns pretty well, but contributes a flat 0 to human nutrition.

  • Nutritionism (Score:5, Interesting)

    by CPIMatt ( 206195 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @10:55AM (#51381573)

    This sort of story smacks of "Nutritionism" as explained in Michael Pollan's book 'In Defense Of Food'. Generally people do not need to know how many calories, carbs, nutrients, vitamins, etc. are in a piece of food unless you are a nutritionist, and most people aren't. How to eat healthy comes down to one simple rule:

    Eat food(1) mostly plants(2) not too much(3).

    (1) Food defined by things your great-grandmother would recognize as being food. Nothing overly processed. Food should spoil. If what you eat will not spoil you should not eat it. Things that are not food, but edible food-type substances: refined sugar (includes soda, twinkies, etc), refined flour (white bread, etc), refined oils of all kinds (peanut oil, sunflower oil, and *gasp* olive oil).

    (2) Plants, meaning whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. And a variety. Different shapes, textures, colors, whole and fresh if you can get it. This should make up 90% of your diet. Less than 10% of your diet should come from animal products. This includes dairy and meat.

    (3) Don't eat too much of one thing. Don't overeat.

    If you do this, you don't need to count calories or take vitamins or worry about your riboflavin intake. Just eat and be healthy.

    -Matt

    • Re:Nutritionism (Score:4, Insightful)

      by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) <mojo@worl d 3 . net> on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @12:59PM (#51382663) Homepage

      Food defined by things your great-grandmother would recognize as being food.

      Problem is my great-grandmother was a stay-at-home mother and had plenty of time to prepare meals. It was one of her primary responsibilities. I, on the other hand, have little time to find recipes, shop for ingredients, manage my stock and cook food from scratch.

      Plants, meaning whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. And a variety. Different shapes, textures, colors, whole and fresh if you can get it. This should make up 90% of your diet. Less than 10% of your diet should come from animal products. This includes dairy and meat.

      In Japan fruit is quite expensive, for various reasons. They eat a lot of rice, a hell of a lot of meat, fish, seafood and seaweed. They also have very long life expectancy and are generally pretty healthy if they don't destroy themselves with alcohol or smoking. Obesity is only really much of an issue with the younger generation that has a slightly more western diet.

      I find I can't finish most Japanese meals, the portions are too large. Japanese people do okay. I think it's because they are used to the amount of protean. Protean makes you feel full, and meat has plenty of it.

    • by JMZero ( 449047 )

      I prefer eating fruit and vegetables (and I love grains and nuts of all kinds) but to manage my weight I find I have to eat a bunch of meat (more meat than I want). My brothers have found the same thing - as we've all got into our late 30s, we've had to switch to eating more meat (I eat mostly slow-cooker chicken) to keep from ballooning up in weight. But I also have to have carbs in the morning or else I under-perform at work. Anywho, your vague "natural"/"grandma-recognizable" stuff is completely usele

  • Google "The Hacker's Diet." In it, John Walker explains the basics of how it's all about just doing the math every day. I lost 33 lbs last year with a slightly modified version of this method. When I tell people I lost weight, the first words, almost invariably, are, "What's your secret?"

    When I say "I counted calories every day" they are underwhelmed. The only other "secret" is that you have to be willing to be -a little- hungry, but not starving.

    Web edition: https://www.fourmilab.ch/hackd... [fourmilab.ch]

    • by Nidi62 ( 1525137 )

      Google "The Hacker's Diet." In it, John Walker explains the basics of how it's all about just doing the math every day. I lost 33 lbs last year with a slightly modified version of this method. When I tell people I lost weight, the first words, almost invariably, are, "What's your secret?"

      When I say "I counted calories every day" they are underwhelmed. The only other "secret" is that you have to be willing to be -a little- hungry, but not starving.

      Web edition: https://www.fourmilab.ch/hackd... [fourmilab.ch]

      I lost 30lbs in 3 months. Never felt hungry, didn't count calories, didn't even change what I ate. I simply ate less. My dinner meals were basically either beef or chicken with rice almost every day of the week. While I did cut out snack foods (in fact I made sure to keep no snack food in the kitchen), I didn't stop drinking soda or sports drinks. Never starved myself, never went hungry; I ate until I didn't feel hungry then stopped. I also went from doing a workout designed to maintain conditioning a

  • by Dcnjoe60 ( 682885 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @11:16AM (#51381747)

    Instead of

    One possibility for the future is mapping your internal chemistry and having it analyzed with a massive database to see what foods work best for you. Another may involve tweaking your gut microbiome to change how you extract energy from certain foods.

    1) Eat food - food does not list ingredients, but often is listed as an ingredient. A potato is food, A box of scallop potatoes is not. If what you are eating is required to have labels to inform you of what is really in it, then it isn't food. (Note: this applies mainly to packaged food products. Obviously, there are foods that have labels, because they may be packed in water, etc.)

    2) Don't change calories - Calories simply measure the maximum amount of energy that may be utilized. People have different metabolisms so that one person may be more efficient at utilizing those calories than somebody else, but that doesn't mean we should change the measure. Different automobiles are more or less efficient at utilizing gasoline, but that doesn't mean we should change how gasoline is labeled.

    3) Calories aren't nutrition - Calories are about energy, not nutrition. 100 calorie apple and a 100 calories of sugar both provide the same amount of available energy, but the sugar has zero nutritional value. However, since calories do impact weight as in calories consumed less calories burned will either add to or subtract from one's weight, they can't be ignored. On the otherhand, they shouldn't be obsessed over, particularly since metabolism has a major impact on weight.

    4) CICO - Calories In, Calories Out - assuming one is getting adequate nutrition, if the concern is weight, then regardless of ones metabolism, if you are gaining weight more weight than you want, you either a) need to reduce calories or b) burn more calories. Likewise, if you are losing more weight than desired, you need to a) increase calories or b) burn less of them. It doesn't take some database tailored to your specific body or specific flora in your gut. Those may explain why one person loses or gains more than another, but it doesn't alter CICO.

    TL;DR - We don't need a national database of each person's metabolic profile or gut flora. We simply need to eat nutritious food and have more active lifestyles.

  • He's collecting people's FACES? What a monster! Oh, theres just a superflous A in feces. How do you pronounce faeces, is it like fah-eh-ceez?

A penny saved is a penny to squander. -- Ambrose Bierce

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