Calorie Schmalarie

Did you know that the calorie counts provided for foods are probably wrong? There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main one is that the way calories for food are calculated from a method that originated in the 19th century.  It was from this method we got that carbohydrates and protein each have four calories per gram, fat has nine calories per gram and alcohol has seven calories per gram. What this formula doesn’t take into account is how our bodies process the food, how different cooking methods change how our bodies digest and absorb the food, how the food feeds the microbes in our guts, as well as individual that impact in how each of us digests and absorbs the food. I got this insight from reading an article called “Everything You Know About Calories is Wrong” in the September 2013 issue of the Scientific American.

The main point of the story is that the calorie counts we use aren’t necessarily right, and that there’s not a good way to know exactly how many calories each of our bodies derive from each food we eat. Some people (even if you’re the same size) have different size guts, may produce more or less digestive enzymes, as well as have more or less microbes that help with digesting your food. All of this can’t be controlled or easily accounted for. However, there is one thing that we can control for – a bit. How processed the foods we eat are.

How a food is cooked – simmered, grilled, boiled, etc. processes the food makes it easier for our bodies to get the calories out of the foods. The less processed the food – a raw piece of broccoli – the harder our bodies have to work to digest and absorb the food.  The article cites a study from 2010 that found people who ate whole-wheat bread “that included sunflower seeds, kernels of grain, and cheddar cheese expended twice as much energy to digest that food” as others who ate the same amount of white bread with “processed cheese product.” The study showed that those who ate the whole-wheat bread “obtained 10 percent fewer calories.” The harder your body has to work to process the food, the more calories that processing takes, the fewer calories your body absorbs.

I’m not advocating going “raw” or eating uncooked meats. I’m also NOT saying that the calorie counts on the boxes don’t matter (you just have to remember they are just a rough guide). What I am recommending is that you start thinking about including more unprocessed foods in your meals – more whole fruits and raw or lightly cooked veggies for example. Rather than reaching for the box of cookies – that is easy for your body to absorb which means a greater calorie impact – why not reach for an apple and cheese that is harder for your body to digest?


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