Why Calorie Counts on Food Labels Have It All Wrong

The calo­rie counts on food labels are all wrong.

The way we mea­sure the calo­ries in food goes back to the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry.  Here’s the basic method that’s been used (with only minor mod­i­fi­ca­tion) since then: you burn the food to a crisp and see how much chem­i­cal ener­gy is released.

The prob­lems with this over­sim­pli­fied method were described in the Sep­tem­ber, 2013 issue of Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can.  Based on the author’s analy­sis, the offi­cial calo­rie count of foods varies wild­ly from the num­ber of calo­ries actu­al­ly absorbed into your body.

Grow­ing, prepar­ing, and eat­ing food each involve many steps and each step intro­duces vari­ables. Here are some of the rea­sons that calo­rie counts can vary:

It’s a bat­tle: humans ver­sus plants.

Plants have to sur­vive, too.  Many plants have evolved a clever strat­e­gy — their seeds are designed to pass through the diges­tive tract of mam­mals unscathed.  That’s how the plant spreads its off­spring to new loca­tions. So grains, nuts and seeds have chem­i­cal defens­es that make them chal­leng­ing to digest.

We humans do our best to extract nutri­tion from these tough foods – we crush them, grind them, cook them, and fer­ment them. But our meth­ods aren’t per­fect.  As many as one third of the calo­ries in those almonds you snack on pass through your diges­tive tract unab­sorbed.

As a result, you take in few­er calo­ries than stat­ed on the prod­uct label, but still get many of the trace nutri­ents.  That may be one of the rea­sons that almonds (and nuts in gen­er­al) show up at the top of the charts of foods to include in your healthy diet.

Raw ver­sus cooked.

If you feed lab rats a diet of raw pota­toes, they’ll lose weight. But if you boil the pota­toes first, they’ll gain weight.  Offi­cial­ly, raw and cooked pota­toes have the same calo­rie count.  So what’s the dif­fer­ence?

It’s not that rats pre­fer grandma’s old fash­ioned mashed pota­toes.  It’s because each plant cell is sur­round­ed by a tough cell wall which is indi­gestible by rats (or humans.)  If you can’t chem­i­cal­ly process the cell wall, you can’t get at the nutri­ents inside. Cook­ing breaks down the cell wall and allows for a much high­er nutri­tion­al yield.

In fact, many sci­en­tists believe it was ear­ly human’s mas­tery of fire that allowed for bet­ter nutri­tion and spurred an evo­lu­tion­ary spike in brain size and cul­tur­al advance­ment.

Lots of chem­istry going on.

Once food hits your stom­ach you still have a lot of work to do.  Your enzymes have to break down the nutri­ents into small chunks in order for them to be absorbed.  That takes ener­gy.  And dif­fer­ent food com­po­nents take wide­ly vary­ing amounts of ener­gy.

The dietary rule of thumb is that one gram of fat and one gram of pro­tein each con­sti­tute nine calo­ries.  But pro­tein struc­ture is par­tic­u­lar­ly gnarly.  You have to uncoil long pro­tein chains and break down dif­fer­ent chem­i­cal bonds at each link between amino acids.  Chem­i­cal­ly speak­ing, fats are much sim­pler.  That means it takes five times more ener­gy to extract calo­ries from pro­tein as com­pared to fats.

So your net caloric gain from eat­ing pro­tein is far less than from eat­ing the same amount of fat. Oth­er cat­e­gories of food require vary­ing meta­bol­ic out­lays, too.   And with­in a food cat­e­go­ry, indi­vid­ual foods can dif­fer sub­stan­tial­ly as well.

It’s not just about you.

Your diges­tive tract is home to bil­lions of bac­te­ria.  They do lots of your diges­tive work for you. This affects your calo­rie bal­ance in two oppo­site ways.

First, your inter­nal bac­te­ria can break foods down to make calo­ries avail­able that wouldn’t oth­er­wise be acces­si­ble to you.  At the same time, bac­te­ria com­pete with the cells of your diges­tive tract to suck up nutri­ents once they’ve been bro­ken down.

The bal­ance of these two forces – which depends on your mix of intesti­nal flo­ra — can make a big dif­fer­ence in your over­all calo­rie intake.  In fact, sci­en­tists have iden­ti­fied spe­cif­ic dif­fer­ences in the inter­nal bio­ta between obese indi­vid­u­als and those of nor­mal weight.

Every­one is dif­fer­ent.

Everyone’s sys­tem process­es foods unique­ly.  You may be rich in cer­tain diges­tive enzymes but poor in oth­ers.  You may have sen­si­tiv­i­ty to gluten so that eat­ing wheat requires your immune sys­tem to expend ener­gy to neu­tral­ize it.  Or if you’re lac­tose intol­er­ant, you’ll be unable to absorb many of the calo­ries in milk.

Processed foods are “good” (?)

If you’re liv­ing on a sub­sis­tence lev­el, you need every extra calo­rie to sur­vive.  Processed foods are per­fect.  That’s because with mod­ern forms of food man­u­fac­tur­ing, every calo­rie has been bro­ken down into the sim­plest pos­si­ble form so it’s easy to absorb.

For­tu­nate­ly, most of us are not star­ing star­va­tion in the face on a dai­ly basis.  So for the major­i­ty, processed foods are a night­mare.  The calo­ries are absorbed too rapid­ly – before the brain has time to expe­ri­ence any feel­ing of sati­ety.  That means you keep eat­ing long after you’ve con­sumed all the calo­ries you need.

The bot­tom line

It still makes sense to con­trol your calo­rie intake.  But do it intel­li­gent­ly.  Offi­cial calo­rie counts are only a gen­er­al guide.  Stick with whole, unprocessed foods.  Include healthy pro­bi­otics or nat­u­ral­ly fer­ment­ed foods to pop­u­late your intes­tine with the good guys. Avoid antibi­otics that dev­as­tate your inter­nal flo­ra.  These changes alone can make a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence to your weight.

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About Ronald Lavine, D.C.

Dr. Lavine has more than thirty years' experience helping patients alleviate pain and restore health using diverse, scientifically-based manual therapy and therapeutic exercise and alignment methods.

His website, askdrlavine.com, provides more information about his approach.

Please contact him at drlavine@yourbodyofknowledge.com or at 212-400-9663.

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