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A cartoon almond character with flames on its head smiles next to the word "CALORIES" in capital letters, embodying a calorie-burning machine. In the bottom right corner, there is an image of ten almonds with the text "10 almonds.

Are You A Calorie-Burning Machine?

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Burn, Calorie, Burn

In Tuesday’s newsletter, we asked you whether you count calories, and got the above-depicted, below-described set of answers:

  • About 56% said “I am somewhat mindful of calories but keep only a rough tally”
  • About 32% said “I do not count calories / I don’t think it’s important for my health”
  • About 13% said “I rigorously check and record the calories of everything I consume”

So what does the science say, about the merits of all these positions?

A food’s calorie count is a good measure of how much energy we will, upon consuming the food, have to use or store: True or False?

False, broadly. It can be, at best, a rough guideline. Do you know what a calorie actually is, by the way? Most people don’t.

One thing to know before we get to that: there’s “cal” vs “kcal”. The latter is generally used when it comes to foodstuffs, and it’s what we’ll be meaning whenever we say “calorie” here. 1cal is 1/1000th of a kcal, that’s all.

Now, for what a calorie actually is:

A calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 liter of water by 1℃

Question: so, how to we measure how much food is needed to do that?

Answer: by using a bomb calorimeter! Which is the exciting name for the apparatus used to literally burn food and capture the heat produced to indeed raise the temperature of 1 liter of water by 1℃.

If you’re having trouble imagining such equipment, here it is:

Bomb Calorimeter: Definition, Construction, & Operation (with diagram and FAQs)

The unfortunate implication of the above information

A kilogram of sawdust contains about a 1000 kcal, give or take what wood was used and various other conditions.

However, that does not mean you can usefully eat the sawdust. In other words:

Calorie count tells us only how good something is at raising the temperature of water if physically burned.

Now do you see why oils and sugars have such comparably high calorie counts?

And while we may talk about “burning calories” as a metaphor, we do not, in fact, have a little wood stove inside us burning the food we eat.

A calorie is a calorie: True or False?

Definitely False! Building on from the above… We will get very little energy from sawdust; it’s not just that we can’t use it; we can’t store it either; it’ll mostly pass through as fiber.

(however, please do not use sawdust to get your daily dose of fiber either, as it is not safe for human consumption and may give you diseases, depending on what is lurking in it)

But let’s look at oil and sugar, two very high-calorie categories of food, because they’re really easy to physically burn and they give off a good flame.

A bomb calorimeter may treat them quite equally, but to our body, they are metabolically very different indeed.

For a start, most sugars will get absorbed and processed much more quickly than most oils, and that can overwhelm the liver (responsible for glycogen management), and lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, diabetes, and more. Metabolic syndrome in general, and if you keep it up too much and you may find it’s now a lottery between dying of NAFLD, diabetes, or heart disease (it’ll usually be the heart disease that kills).

See also:

Meanwhile, we know all about the different kinds of nutritional profiles that oils can have, and some can promote having high energy without putting on fat, while others can strain the heart. Not even “a fat is a fat”, so “a calorie is a calorie” doesn’t get much mileage outside of a bomb calorimeter!

See also:

A calorie-controlled / calorie-restricted diet is an effective weight loss strategy: True or False?

True, usually! Surprise!

  • On the one hand: calories are a wildly imprecise way to reckon the value of food, and using them as a guide to health can be dangerously misleading
  • On the other hand: the very activity of calorie-counting itself promotes mindful eating, which is very good for the health

There is a strong difference between the mind of somebody who is carefully logging their pre-bedtime piece of chocolate and reflecting on its nutritional value, vs someone who isn’t sure whether this is their second or third glass of wine, nor how much the glass contained.

So if you want to get most of the benefits of a calorie-controlled diet without counting calories, you may try taking a “mindful eating” approach to diet.

However! If you want to do this for weight loss, be aware, that you will have to practice it all the time, not just for one meal here and there.

You can read more on how to do “mindful eating” here:

Dr. Rupy Aujla: The Kitchen Doctor | Mindful Eating & Interoception

Take care!

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