On the history of empirical calorie counting


The calorie is not what’s broken.


The Huffington Post recently had an article that discussed the ways in which researchers measure calories in food. The story is great for the historical info and the descriptions of how researchers measure calories. Readers of this blog should click on over and read it. What follows requires that y’all have read the article first.

As I said, I love the discussion of the history on calorie research. I have a few disagreements that I think are worth noting. The authors often inaccurately state that a calorie is not a calorie, or that the calorie is broken. I do not agree with that.

The authors should say that the ways in which we measure calories are inaccurate. A calorie is literally still a calorie. That does not change just because we rely on inaccurate food labels to count them up or do not account for variations in the portion sizes at restaurants. When our bodies do not fully digest and absorb some foods, that does not mean the calories are broken. That means that we absorbed less of the calories. Just as well, inaccurate calorie labels is an issue with the labels, not the calories.

If we approach this topic like empiricists (as scientists do), then we update our understanding, our records, and we move on. We don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. For the foods that follow the almonds situation, we update our records/labels. We change the food labels to reflect our new understanding. We make edits to our personal counts. Etc. To this end, I like that the authors explored multiple ways in which we can gauge our food consumption without necessarily having a precise tally of calories.

The USDA and Atwater already understand that cooking methods change the bioavailability of calories in food. The USDA and Atwater reference systems already include that understanding and have for years. When you use the USDA food database, you have to specify the cooking method. Each method produces different nutrient breakdowns. Of course, new methods of cooking foods have been adopted since that database was populated, but that does not mean a calorie is not a calorie. It just means that the database needs to be updated with the new cooking methods and their changes to the nutrients.

Everyone I know agrees that each of us burns a different number of calories a day. That seems pretty basic. Something that many people may not know is that our basal metabolic rate can fluctuate throughout the day and what our bodies do with the parts of foods we consume can vary to some degree. This dynamic aspect of metabolism is called the processes of being alive and its implications on weight have been studied by researchers for decades and decades. Because I often see inaccurate statements in the popular media about the different aspects of metabolism and how dynamic it is, I was pleased to see that these authors discussed this topic a little.

I will agree that all of these issues with measuring calories can produce a margin of error that can be large. For those who are not precise enough or do not make large enough changes in their eating or activity, the error can be larger than the changes. That would stall attempts at weight loss. If that is the case, then I say again do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Become active enough to overcome that margin of error. Become more precise with food measurements and choosing values from the USDA database. Make different food choices. Do not throw your hands up, call it quits, and say the whole thing is broken. Approach this pragmatically and keep at it. Persistence is a large part of succeeding!

As the authors go on to discuss, there are other options available to us than blindly tallying up numbers. Given my empirical bent, I would like to add that an additional option is to continue to educate ourselves. Then we can make informed decisions that will more effectively help us become the healthy, fit person that we desire to be. All without thinking “the calorie is broken.”


If you have any questions about this study or anything I said, please feel free to leave a comment. I will get back to you and others may have insight to offer, too. If you have any questions or topic suggestions that you would like answered as a post, then please email me at robert@analyticfitness.com.

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