Why you should stop counting calories – Part 1
This is a 2-part series on why we should stop counting calories. In part one, we will talk more about the history of the calorie and where it came from, and in part two we will discuss why counting calories as the primary means to guide you towards your health goals is misleading you.
“That [fill in the blank] has too many calories in it! I can’t eat it, because it must be bad for me.”
How often have you thought this, or worse yet, said it out loud?
Our society has been on a kick lately around counting calories for fat loss. Yes, it is the “socially acceptable” exchange tool that we use to tell us how much energy is in the food we eat, but to learn why we should all stop counting calories we need to learn how the heck (and why) we came up with a calorie as a unit of measure in the first place.
Benjamin Franklin never said “please pass me those low calorie cookies so I can finish up with these bifocals!” He never talked about calories, well, because they, like the bifocals were not even invented yet!
The calorie didn’t even come into existence until the 1800’s, and apparently humans fared pretty well without it. The calorie wasn’t even originally invented as a measurement tool for food. Wait, what?! Yep, that’s right.
Where the heck did the word “Calorie” come from anyway?!
The calorie was originally used as a measurement tool in physics and engineering and had nothing at all to do with nutritional science. Here’s the funny part: Nobody truly knows who came up with this unit of measurement, not even the historians of nutrition.
Despite the confusion over who invented the unit, the calorie as a nutritional unit came to the U.S. by way of an American Chemist named Wilbur Atwater in 1887. Shortly afterward, the science of nutrition began to take hold in the U.S.
US Popularized the calorie (1918)
A popular early nutrition text published in 1918 by Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters outlined the first methods of counting Calories. In her bestseller, “Diet and Health, with the Key to the Calories”, Peters outlined 100-Calorie portions of many foods and preached counting calories as a way to regulate weight. This book was a huge hit back then, mainly to women, selling over 2 million copies and it triggered a massive change in societies beliefs about food. It presented the concept of calorie reduction as the best form of weight loss/watching weight to American women, who were wanting to conform to the new-found body image “thin is in”.
In her book, Dr. Peters wanted people to start thinking of food merely as calories, and nothing else. For example, she wrote, “Hereafter you are going to eat calories of food. Instead of saying one slice of bread, or a piece of pie, you will say 100 calories of bread, (or) 350 calories of pie.” This shifted food to merely numbers and nothing else, and what a damaging shift it was.
Even back then, there was no distinction made between the actual quality of the food – it was merely only all about the calories inside the food. In her system outlined in her book, a person of the same height as her could eat whatever they wanted, as long as they ate a strict diet of 1,200 calories per day. But how accurate is calorie counting, anyway? We have to dig in a little deeper to truly understand how this measuring energy works in the first place.
Is a Calorie really a Calorie??
Ok. Pretend you are alive in the early 1900’s. This brand new way to measure what you eat is all the talk, so now you better start “watching what you eat!”
The commonly accepted unit for measuring the energy in food is the calorie. So how accurate is it, anyways?
Scientifically speaking, a calorie is a unit of energy, just like a foot is a unit of distance. One calorie is the amount of energy you need to heat up 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. So to measure the amount of calories in food, manufacturers needed to use what is called a bomb calorimeter. This device is used by placing the food source in a sealed container filled with water. Then you burn the food with electrical energy until the food completely incenerates, and then they measure the water temperature to see how many degrees it was raised. Based on how many degrees the water was raised, you can tell how many calories were supplied to do it.
Now, if you are not too familiar with your body and how it works, it definitely does not incinerate food once it enters your body (as much as it feels this way when I am Hangry, apparently it does not burn up inside me!). The way your body “burns” food is completely different from how the “bomb.com” calorimeter does it! One of the other major issues with the calorimeter is that it measures ALL the calories inside each product, but most foods contain indigestible food components (like fiber) that are not burned in the human digestive tract. But that’s not the only issue…There’s more…
The 1990 Nutritional Labeling and Education Act and the Atwater System
This bill passed in 1990 through congress because of the requirements the government wanted to have on food companies to label all of the nutrients and calories on foods. So instead of using the bomb calorimeter, since this became a much too tedious way to measure calories for food manufacturers, they switched to a much easier method – The Atwater System – to measure calories. This is the method that we are all super familiar with, and what I learned back in nutritional science courses back in college as the “end all, be all” for measuring calories in food. It was the Atwater System that allowed us to do some simple math, and wallah, your calorie count appeared!
Here are the calculations:
1 gram of protein = 4 calories
1 gram of carbohydrates = 4 calories
1 gram of fat = 9 calories
There you go, apparently that is all that matters! So, for example if you have one of those yummy bottled “Naked” fruit drinks (great marketing, by the way!) and it has 10 grams of protein, 40 grams of carbohydrates, and 6 grams of fat. Here is our calorie totals –
Protein- 10 grams x4 = 40 calories
Carbohydrates – 40 grams x4 = 160 calories
Fat – 6 grams x9 = 54 calories
Total Calories for your Naked drink = 254 calories, and that is what goes on the nutritional label. The calorie and nutritional label on ALL your foods is based on that and that alone. Now, if only your body was a machine and it took in all of these calories, utilized and “burned” them all, and you continued to eat a perfect balance of “calories in and calories out” and stayed at that ideal weight. But that is not what happens in the human body, and that is something we will be discussing WHY next.
Now that we have gone over the history of the calorie, in part 2 of this blog we will go over why using this gross estimate is one of the most misguided and inaccurate measurements you can use. There is so much more to the story of the calorie and how your body utilizes food for fuel. Keep an eye out for part two very soon!
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- Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters. “Diet and Health, With Key to the Calories”
- Wikipedia. “Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters”
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. “Discrepancy between the Atwater factor predicted and empirically measured energy values of almonds in human diets.”