Calorie counting is so 20th century!
Metabolic science has evolved light years in it’s understanding of how the food we eat is digested and deployed for energy.
Merely counting calories based on food labels or calorie counting apps and books or through the myriad weight loss programs you can buy is an overly simplistic approach to eating a healthy diet.
Not all calories are created equal!
Counting calories does not necessarily improve your health, even if it helps you lose weight in the short term.
Instead we should think more carefully about the energy we derive from our food in the context of human biology.
Processed foods are very easily digested in your stomach and intestines. They give you a quick hit of energy for very little digestive effort.
In contrast, veggies, nuts and whole grains make your body work much harder to extract the energy it needs. These whole foods generally offer far more vitamins and nutrients than processed items. They keep our gut bacteria happy.
Food provides energy for your body.
Digestive enzymes in the mouth, stomach and intestines break up complex food molecules into simpler structures, such as sugars and amino acids. They travel through the bloodstream to all our tissues.
Your cells use the energy stored in the chemical bonds of these simpler molecules to power your body.
Since the late 19th century, we’ve been calculating the available energy in all foods with a unit known as the food calorie, or kilocalorie. That’s the amount of energy required to heat one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. More on that problematic approach further down below. Keep reading!
Fats provide approximately nine calories per gram. Carbohydrates and proteins deliver just four. Fiber offers a mere two calories because enzymes in the human digestive tract have great difficulty chopping it up into smaller molecules.
Every calorie count on every food label you have ever seen is based on these estimates or on some related modest derivations.
Yet these approximations assume that the 19th-century laboratory experiment on which they are based accurately reflect how much energy different people with different bodies derive from many different kinds of food.
Can you begin to see the outlines of the calorie counting problem?
New research shows that calorie assumptions are too simplistic.
To accurately calculate the total calories that someone gets out of a given food, you would have to take into account a vast array of factors.
These include whether that food has evolved to survive digestion. And how boiling, baking, microwaving or sautéing a food changes its structure and chemistry.
Add to that how much energy your unique body expends to break down different kinds of food. And add to that the extent to which the billions of bacteria in the gut aid human digestion and use some of those very same calories for their own survival.
Nutrition scientists are beginning to learn enough to hypothetically improve calorie labels. But, digestion turns out to be such a fantastically complex and messy process that we will probably never formulate an infallible system for counting calories.
The flaws in modern calorie counting originated in the 19th century.
That’s when American chemist Wilbur Olin Atwater developed a system, still used today, for calculating the average number of calories in one gram of fat, protein and carbohydrate.
While Atwater was trying his best, there’s no such thing as an average food. Every food is digested in its own way.
Vegetables vary in their digestibility.
We eat the stems, leaves and roots of hundreds of different plants.
The walls of plant cells in the stems and leaves of some species are much tougher than those in other species. Even within a single plant, the durability of cell walls can differ.
Older leaves tend to have sturdier cell walls than young ones. Generally speaking, the weaker or more degraded the cell walls in the plant material we eat, the more calories we absorb from them.
Cooking easily ruptures cells in spinach and zucchini. Cassava or Chinese water chestnuts are much more resistant. When cell walls hold strong, foods hoard their precious calories and they pass through our body intact. Think corn kernels.
Some plant parts have evolved to make themselves more appetizing or to evade digestion altogether.
Fruits and nuts first evolved between 145 and 65 million years ago. Not long after mammals began to roam the earth.
Evolution favored fruits that were both tasty and easy to digest to better attract animals that could help plants scatter seeds.
It also favored nuts and seeds that were hard to digest. After all, seeds and nuts need to survive the guts of birds, bats, rodents and monkeys to spread their genes.
Studies suggest that peanuts, pistachios and almonds are less completely digested than other foods with similar levels of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. This means they deliver fewer calories than one would expect.
A study by Janet A. Novotny found that when people eat almonds, they receive just 129 calories per serving rather than the 170 calories reported on the label. They reached this conclusion by asking people to follow the same exact diets—except for the amount of almonds they ate. They then measured the unused calories in their feces and urine.
Foods differ in their digestibility.
Proteins may require as much as five times more energy to digest as fats. That’s because our enzymes must unravel the tightly wound strands of amino acids from which proteins are built.
Yet food labels do not account for this energy expenditure.
Some foods, such as honey, are so readily digested that they break down in our stomach and easily cross the walls of our intestines into the bloodstream.
Some foods prompt the immune system to identify and deal with any tag-along pathogens. A somewhat raw piece of meat can harbor lots of potentially dangerous microbes. While research has not yet evaluated just how many calories this process involves, a good guess is that it’s probably quite a few.
Even if your immune system does not attack any of the pathogens in your food, it still uses up energy to take the first step of distinguishing friend from foe. And let’s not forget the significant calorie loss involved if a pathogen in uncooked meat leads to diarrhea.
Cooking effects how much energy your body can extract from food.
Every human culture in the world has technology for modifying food. We grind, we heat, we ferment.
When humans learned to cook food, particularly meat, they would have dramatically increased the number of calories they extracted from that food.
Heat speeds the unraveling of its protein strands which improves its digestibility. Heat kills bacteria, leading to the assumption that your immune system expends less energy to battle any invading pathogens.
Even if two people eat the same sweet potato or piece of meat cooked the same way, they will not get the same number of calories out of it.
Even gut size varies among people.
People differ in nearly all traits, including inconspicuous features, including the size of their digestive system
It was the craze among European scientists in the early 1900s to measure people’s colons. Don’t ask me how they did it, I couldn’t even begin to guess. Their studies discovered that certain Russian populations had large intestines. About 57 centimeters longer, on average, than those of certain Polish populations. Because the final stages of nutrient absorption occur in the large intestine, a Russian eating the same amount of food as a Pole is likely to absorb more calories from it. Therefore grow potentially fatter from the exact same amount of food.
People also vary in the particular enzymes they produce. By some measures, most adults do not produce the enzyme lactase, which is necessary to break down lactose sugars in milk. Just as you might imagine, one woman’s high-calorie latte is another’s low-calorie case of diarrhea.
Your unique microbiome plays a significant role in calorie absorption.
In research recently published in the journal Cell Host and Microbe, a team of scientists teased out a powerful mechanism by which animals regulate the amount of calories extracted from the food they consume.
In both human and animal models, when food is scarce, stomach and intestinal motility is diminished.
This provides more time for calories to be absorbed. This is a protective adaptation that served us well in our past.
During times of food abundance, you would expect food to move more quickly through the digestive tract so we wouldn’t absorb as many calories. But, unfortunately, that just isn’t the case.
What the researchers actually explored had to do with the signaling system that informed the intestines as to whether food was abundant or scarce.
Research revealed that it’s the gut bacteria, your microbiome, that communicated scarcity.
Not the volume of food you consumed.
Your gut bacteria play a key role in relaying this information to the rest of your digestive system.
When certain gut bacteria produced chemicals called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), they activated a signaling pathway telling the stomach and intestines that food was available.
This, in turn, increases digestive motility. Food moves through more quickly, providing less time for calorie extraction.
When short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) are low, gut motility slows down. This signals to your body that food is scarce and more calories need to be absorbed.
Your microbiome composition affects your calorie absorption.
In humans, two phyla of bacteria, Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes, dominate the gut.
Researchers have found that obese people have more Firmicutes in their intestines. They propose that some people are obese, in part, because the extra bacteria make them more efficient at metabolizing food. So instead of being lost as waste, more nutrients make their way into the circulation. If they go unused,they are stored as fat.
Other microbes turn up only in specific peoples. Some Japanese individuals, for example, have a microbe in their intestines that is particularly good at breaking down seaweed.
Calorie counts on food labels are not based on our current understanding of human digestion.
Even if we could entirely revamp calorie counts, they still would never be precisely accurate.
The amount of calories we extract from food depends on a complex interaction between food and the human body with its unique microbe composition.
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