Thursday May 2 2019

Reviewing The Death of The Calorie - Is it Time to Bury The Calorie?

Anishya Kumar

ANISHYA KUMAR | Founder and Managing Director of Zinda Foods Ltd

Reviewing The Death of The Calorie - Is it Time to Bury The Calorie?

The idea of counting calories was introduced by Wilbur Atwater, an American scientist, in the 1800's. He believed that "a calorie was a calorie" and this measure of engery transformed the way the public thought about food. By his reckoning it made no difference whether calories came from chocolate or spinach: if the body absorbed more energy than it burnt up in activity, then it would store the excess as body fat, causing you to put on weight. He concluded that 1g of either protein or carbohydrate provided 4 calories but that 1g of fat was 9 calories and this measure of 4-4-9 has been at the heart of calorie-counting hundreds of years later.

However a recent study by Peter Wilson - The Death of The Calorie -  writing in The Economist's 1843 concludes this outdated mode of watching our weight should be cast into the realms of history.  In 2002 the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that Atwater's 4-4-9 figures were a “a gross oversimplification” and so inaccurate that they could mislead consumers into choosing unhealthy products. This is something we see a lot on our shelves or by big brands telling us that a burger or huge sandwich has the same amount of calories as a salad with an oily dressing.

At Zinda Foods we have found that the labelling of food is often at fault. Susan Roberts, from Tufts University in Boston, discoveverd that labels on American packaged foods routinely miss their true calorie counts by an average of 8%. We were amazed that both UK and American government regulations allow this understating of calories and other unneccessary additives such as trans fats to continue.  Nutritionist Roberts found that the information on some processed frozen foods misstates their calorific content by as much as 70%.

But it's not just the poor labelling that means counting calories is outdated. Again as consumers we are increasingly aware that how we "store fat" and therefore how we lose weight is influenced by many other factors.

We all have friends who seem to be able to eat vast amounts of food yet remain slim. Yet many of us only have to look at cream cake to put on weight. More often than not this is down to our body make-up, our genes, how we sleep, the bacteria that live in our gut and even the size of our intestines!  Those friends who can "eat what they want and still not gain weight" may actually have shorter intestines meaning that they excrete more of the energy in food, putting on less weight. There are so many genetic factors outside of our control that have an effect on how we process calories. 

Yet this obsession with calories assumes that our bodies all react to calories in the same way AND that all calories are equal, when we know this is not the case.  Wilson writes "a growing body of research shows that when different people consume the same meal, the impact on each person’s blood sugar and fat formation will vary according to their genes, lifestyles and unique mix of gut bacteria."

Dr Salvador Camacho a researcher in public health who is at the heart of Peter Wilson's study says that calorie counting lets food producers off the hook: “They can say, ‘We’re not responsible for the unhealthy products we sell, we just have to list the calories and leave it to you to manage your own weight’.”  He argues that sugar and highly processed carbohydrates play havoc with our hormonal systems. Nutritionists have long known that sugar binges mean higher insulin levels and more energy is converted into fatty tissue. Less energy is then available to fuel the rest of the body.  Which turns into that vicious circle of a drive for even  more hunger and overeating.

All of this research leads us to agree with Peter Wilson's conclusions. "Many of us know instinctively that not all calories are the same. A lollipop and an apple may contain similar numbers of calories but the apple is clearly better for us." said Wilson. "But after a lifetime of hearing about the calorie and its role in supposedly foolproof diet advice we could be forgiven for being confused about how best to eat."

Is now the time to stop obsessing about calories, as many times we cannot trust the labels on food? Should we follow Camacho's "diet" and ditch heavily processed low-calorie products and focus on the quality of our food rather than quantity?

At Zinda Foods we propose a nutrient-dense diet rather than a nutrient-empty diet where the focus on calories is on quality and not quantity. We aim at achieving optimum energy balance with every product providing nourishment and energy. A more mindful way of approaching food and the way we eat today. 


"Should we follow Camacho's diet and ditch heavily processed low-calorie products and focus on the quality of our food rather than quantity?"
Anishya Kumar

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