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Uselessness Of A Calorie Counter

By Dr. Mary Butler

Toss out your calorie counter. Pay no attention to the calorie count on food labels. Counting calories is a useless and simple-minded way to decide what you eat. How come? Firstly, a calorie is a unit of heat. Heat does not directly guide metabolism. When caloric heat is released, nothing will put it back.

Scientists have a very specific definition of a calorie. The simplest one is that a calorie is the amount of heat that is required to raise a cubic centimeter (milliliter) of water one degree Celsius, at room temperature and at sea level. Saying that you can consume calories is like saying that you can eat heat.

Nutritionists, medical doctors, fitness trainers, and many other experts who should know better, incorrectly equate food calories to metabolism. This simple-minded reasoning goes something like this: The calories contained in the food you eat provide energy, in the form of calories, for you to live. Not so!

Now that you know what calories really are (i.e, heat), you can understand that the only thing they can do is effect temperature. They are important for maintaining body temperature, but that is all.

It is helpful to know how food calories are really measured. It is done by completely incinerating the food in an instrument called a bomb calorimeter. In so doing, when only the charred remains are left, it has lost whatever calories it originally contained. The bomb calorimeter measures the amount of heat lost and expresses them as calories released.

In a bomb calorimeter, carbohydrates yield 4 calories per gram, proteins yield 4 calories per gram, and fats yield 9 calories per gram. However, it is nonsense to suggest that these food groups provide you with anywhere near the amount of heat that they yield in a bomb calorimeter. You can see why the whole business of keeping track of food calories, as measured in a bomb calorimeter, for weight loss is so misleading as to be ridiculous.

If your body was really like a furnace, then the calorie count of foods, such as on nutrition labels and in food lists, would have more meaning. Your body, however, has nothing to do with how a furnace works.

In the first place, you can only harvest 10 or 20 percent of the calories from food, maybe up to 30 percent on the high end. Some foods will yield no calories at all, regardless of what they yield in a bomb calorimeter. A calorie counter does you no good whatsoever in evaluating different foods for their metabolic value.

Consider this comparison: starch vs. cellulose. Cellulose is indigestible fiber, whereas starch is a source of food energy for humans. However, gram for gram, they both yield the same exact number of calories in a bomb calorimeter.

Likewise, a calorimeter will derive the same number of calories from equivalent amounts of celery and potato, after correcting for water content. Obviously, your body could not possibly do that.

Instead of comparing the metabolism of food to a furnace or calorimeter, it is much more meaningful to talk about what happens to different foods when they are digested, how they get into different kinds of cells (e.g., fat vs. muscle), and what happens to them once they are there.

It may surprise you, for example, to compare two well-known and nearly identical sugars, fructose and glucose. Their caloric yield is exactly the same in a bomb calorimeter. However, glucose goes through the liver into many different tissues, most notably brain and muscle, and fructose never escapes intact from the liver. Counting calories tells you nothing about these two different metabolic fates.

The consequences of the different metabolic fates of glucose vs. fructose are tremendous. Glucose serves your entire body, whereas fructose has to be converted to something else before it can move through your liver. That something else is largely fat. A simple way to look at it is that fructose will make you fat much faster than glucose will. The caloric potential of these two sugars is irrelevant.

By the way, once you understand how misleading the calorie count is for different foods, you will be clearer about why calories have almost nothing to do with being overweight. Now chew on that concept for a while (pardon my pun), because it is the kind of clear thinking that will help you be truly successful in whatever weight management or fitness program that will work for you for a lifetime.

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