I have campaigned for years to get the government's Eatwell Guidelines abolished or replaced. But as of yet, my words are falling on deaf ears. Since they were introduced 50 years ago, we as a nation have got fatter and fatter, sicker and sicker.
And now matters are going from bad to worse, as restaurants are being forced to put calorie counts on all meals and foods. Yet another completely ill-guided piece of legislation, that will further increase obesity and diabetes rates for the next 50 years.
Let me explain why calorie counting is a complete red herring.
‘Move more, eat less.’ ‘Just ensure that the calories going in are less than we burn and then we will lose weight.’ You must have heard this all before; it’s an overgeneralisation that’s completely misleading.
What do amps, volts, watts, joules, and calories all have in common? They are all measurements of energy.
In the early 1800s, French physicist Nicolas Clément and his colleague Sadi Carnot developed a method to calculate the maximum amount of energy that could be obtained from a kilogram of coal to fuel a steam engine. The definition ‘calorie’ was used in the journal Le Producteur in 1824 and entered the French dictionary in around 1842. An article ‘History of the Calorie of Nutrition’ from the Journal of Nutrition defined a calorie as, ‘the quantity of heat needed to raise the temperature of 1 kg of water from 0 to 1 degree Celsius’1. There are actually different types of calories, depending on the amount of heat required to make calories at different temperatures. For example, the ‘15-degree calorie’ refers to the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water from 14.5 to 15.5 degrees Celsius.
A definition printed in Le Producteur 1825
As defined in the 1883 Imperial Dictionary
In thermochemistry, the term ‘joules’ is used – one calorie is the equivalent of 4.184 joules (a joule being a unit defined as the amount of work required to force one newton through one metre). Then there is also something called the ‘International Steam Table Calorie’ which differs slightly in numerical value.
When it comes to nutritional calories, you may have noticed under the ‘energy’ section of the nutritional table on food that both ‘kJ’ and ‘kcal’ are used. The equivalence between these two is a little tricky to understand, so I have tried my best to untangle it for you. Kcal actually stands for 'kilocalories' (sometimes referred to as a 'large calorie), which equates to 1000 of the calorie units defined by Clément and Cardot. In food, one calorie means one kcal, which equals 4.18 kJ or 4184 joules (J).
A large calorie (kcal) estimates the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 2.2 pounds of water by 1.8°F. A small calorie therefore estimates the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of 0.035 ounces of water by 1°C. OK, so I messed around with metrics and imperial there to further prove the point I am soon to make.
Depending where on the planet you live, a nutritional label could contain the energy value in calories, Calories, kcal, kJ, or a combination of them. In America and Canada they use calories, kJ and kcal in European countries, and Asia normally uses kJ. When I refer to ‘calories’ in this publication, I am referring to kilocalories or kcals as this is the standard terminology used in the UK.
Now, remember that the thermal calorie is a measurement of how much energy you will get from coal – although it turns out that it’s not even accurate calculating that. So much so that by 1880, Clément’s physicist colleagues had abandoned using the calorie. Not long after (in the late nineteenth century) over in America, an agricultural chemist by the name of Wilbur Atwater was looking at ways to prevent starvation in parts of the country with severe poverty. He modified something known as the bomb calorimeter – which originally measured the energy of coal – so that it could measure the energy of food. The same method for measuring the energy in coal was used to calculate the energy in food: in a small furnace they burnt different foods to ash and measured how much heat it produced. Calorimeters are used in much the same way today to measure calories… or should I say Calories? Or even kJ (!) today. His system – later named the Atwater system – would eventually use calories as its measurements and was designed to tell you effectively how much of a certain food you needed to eat. Its aim was to to help people on the breadline, so they would know which foods contained the most amount of energy for the least amount of money, so their bodies could be fuelled with enough energy. His logic was simple: the human body is like a steam engine that needs energy to keep all of its moving parts going. Food and coal are each providing energy; one to a furnace and one to a stomach.
The above figure is an extract from the 1887 periodical called The Century Magazine, where Walter Atwater introduced the calorie concept as a 'potential energy'. So even the chap that invented it to measure food, even 130 years ago, recognised it as only a 'potential'. On a subsequent page, he stated that the 'mechanical efficiency of machines was about 8% but that of humans and animals was about 20–30%'. In short, the point of his article was to explain the need to provide sufficient potential energy from food to support manual labour.
Getting to my point, a calorie (or whatever you want to call it!) is the amount of heat a food type gives off when burnt in a calorimeter. And that’s it. Period. Game over. Must be a useful measurement, because if you burn a banana in a calorimeter in Brazil and one in England, it’s going to give off the same heat. Right? Same with coal, of course. Burn a piece of coal, get a measurement of heat produced in the furnace. But when you eat that lump of coal, how much energy does it give off in the stomach? Nobody knows. Not just because you probably don’t want to eat the coal, but also because you couldn’t do the experiment within the stomach. You couldn’t do the same experiment in the stomach to get a measurement of the energy from a burger or a bag of peas. It is all just a theory, an idea, a guesstimate. And it’s not even very relevant, if at all. If it were, when you needed to fuel the body quickly you would eat coal and when you wanted to unload fuel, you would just not eat, or sip water.
Digesting and then releasing energy from food is a complex biological process, which bares virtually no resemblance to what goes on inside a chamber that was first built over 100 years ago and then measured in units designed by a physicist over 200 years ago who was originally looking to optimise coal to run steam engines. It’s bonkers and bizarre. It’s nuts.
In fact, let’s talk about nuts some more. If you ate 3000 calories of mixed, unprocessed, and totally natural nuts versus 3000 calories of McDonalds chicken nuggets repeatedly for 30 days – or even 3000 calories of coal – would you have gained the same energy? And if that energy was more than you needed to run your body – in other words you ate in excess of requirement– would you have stored the same amount of excess in the form of extra body weight? Put another way, would you have ended up storing more coal to fuel the steam train at a later time when you didn’t have access to coal? If you think the answer is that the body used the 3000 calories from eating the coal, chicken nuggets and nuts in exactly the same manner, then it’s time to stop reading this article and pick up your favourite fictional novel!
If the energy gained from eating 3000 calories of coal, nuts or highly processed chicken nuggets cooked in dangerous oils are not equal, then the whole theory of using calories as a measurement is flawed and should not be used.
Now, here is the interesting thing. If the calorie theory did work, then there would be merit in the fact that a gram of carbohydrates is only four calories and a gram of fat is more than double at nine calories. These numbers are true. Burn them in the calorimeter and your bread, pasta, and rice will only give you four calories per gram, whereas that piece of fat on your steak is going to give you nine calories of energy per gram. But in experiment after experiment, we are now seeing people who eat lots of Nature’s fats find it easier to lose weight than those who stuff their faces with nothing but highly processed carbohydrates. Yet the calorie theory would have you believe that – based on numbers alone – the fat eaters should be twice as heavy!
Treating all calories the same is like saying £100, $100, and 100 Euros are all the same. Yes, they are indeed the same number, but they will afford you totally different things. Eat 100 grams of coal, fat-laden natural nuts, or McDonald’s chicken nuggets and will your stomach convert the same energy? Of course not. It is irrelevant what the calorie count is. And if you are only looking at energy, do you derive the same benefits or suffer the same harm eating the coal, nuts, or McDonald’s chicken nuggets?
We have been obsessed with Low-Fat Diets for 50 years, for two prominent reasons. Firstly, we were told that eating saturated fats was a sure way of having a heart attack; secondly, because fat contains more calories per gram than carbohydrates, you should avoid fat if you want to lose weight. The truth is: both are wrong. It’s the carbohydrates that make you fat and are the only food group (other than fake fats) that contribute to heart attacks!
By the way, if you still buy into calories as a measurement and are looking to gain weight, then by all means eat lots of coal as per gram it gives off ten times more heat than even fat. And, of course you can swill it down with buckets of alcohol as that is high in calories too. In fact, anything that burns really easy like kindle: fire-lighters will obviously work too! (I am clearly joking here – we don’t recommend eating coal or fire lighters!)
But of course, that’s nonsense, because while coal is a rich source of energy, the body can’t digest it and therefore it’s not bioavailable. Even if we found it to be palatable, we would still get no benefit from it. And interestingly, there is an argument to say that alcohol, while high in calories, is not all that bioavailable either, but because it’s impossible to accurately measure, we are unlikely to ever know.
Let me make this really clear: it is a fundamental error to assume because a food burns in a furnace, the same calculation can be proportioned to measure the amount of energy provided by food in the human body. It’s complete nonsense. What we should be looking for is a scale to better measure ‘nutritional density’. What do I mean by that?
Well, is a meal comprising 2000 calories of organic mixed vegetables taken straight from the ground, lightly fried in olive oil, served with chicken breast from a free-roaming chicken going to have the same effect on the human body as 2000 calories from a highly processed, sugar-laden, chemically enhanced ready meal? Is eating 1000 calories of broccoli the same as drinking 1000 calories from a large glass of sugar-loaded fizzy pop?
Measure Nutritional Density
It is widely accepted that the human diet should include 13 vitamins, 14 minerals and roughly an equal number of phytonutrients and antioxidants. For simplicity sake, let’s just say there are 50 nutrients in total that are needed to be consumed to maintain a healthy human. Conversely, on the other side of the equation, there are now thousands of things we would be better avoiding to remain in good health.
Measure the nutritional value and forget the calorie. Even the French physicists stopped using the calorie within 50 years of its discovery, suggesting it wasn’t even that accurate to measure the energy generated from coal for powering a steam train.
At best, calories are only loosely relevant to how the body utilises food as energy. Instead, we need to shift focus to the quality of food. If not, the lies, disinformation, and hidden truth about the food-like substitutes that corporate food industries manufacture will continue for the financial benefit of a few, but increasingly create a health catastrophe for the many.
While we wait for the government to do something constructive around food advice, we have created food guidelines at Health Results, that have eight variants based on individualised health needs.