Are All Calories Created Equal?
Before beginning our discussion, let us technically establish what a calorie is. A calorie is expressed in the scientific community as kilocalorie (KCAL). A KCAL is established as the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water 1°C.
It has always been believed that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. Talk to anyone associated with the health and fitness industry, dieticians and nutritionists in particular, and they will steadfastly stand by this age-old adage. On the surface, who would – indeed who could – argue? After all, a calorie is a unit of energy derived from food. As such, a calorie of protein would be the same as a calorie from carbohydrate and would be the same as a calorie from fat. One might equate this sage with the children’s catch quiz, “What weighs more, a ton of feathers or a ton of bricks?” The equation does not work with reference to the unit of measure of the calorie. In other words, a calorie is not necessarily the equivalent of another calorie. It depends upon the source of that calorie. It has been shown that an individual who obtains his/her calories from fat as opposed to carbohydrates or proteins will carry more fat. (Wade G.N. Physiol. Behavior; 1983; 29: 710). This might also make sense. Why complicate matters? Eat fat, get fat. This simple application would appear to contradict scientific data which states that “a calorie is a calorie”. Does it contradict science or does it not? Let us examine the misconceptions surrounding the apparent myth of the calorie equality theory.
Basic concept explored
Everyone involved in the health and fitness industry, including personal trainers, establishes their dietary programming through a caloric count. Depending how knowledgeable they are about the field of ergo physiology, they might also provide a breakdown of those calories into carbohydrates, proteins and fats. They might also consider the when of eating. That is, determining at what times the various nutrients should be ingested. Counting calories is not only unnecessary, it is in fact not recommended. Perhaps I should repeat, counting calories is not recommended. Of course, indiscriminate gorging of food is not being suggested here as a viable approach to proper eating. That point should be obvious. However, what is not so obvious is that relying on supposed measures of accuracy (in this case the caloric value of the food) can be extremely misleading.
Counting calories compared to a “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”
Counting calories, while seemingly irrefutable as a manner in which to establish a solid nutritional guideline, is actually a “cop-out”. In the same way that a scale cannot possibly measure one’s body composition but only mere weight, the calorie counter can only provide a general guideline and not a succinct dietary schema. The problem here rests with the fact that the public is fooled into thinking that the caloric value approach is accurately based, when in truth it is far from it. What is not obvious–and remains a hidden peril–is the fact that the counting of calories is a subtle, but potentially highly dangerous oversight of huge dimension. At the very best, it can stand in the way of true scientific application. The fitness professional should be cognizant of this point when establishing nutritional guidance programs.
The myth of the benefits of calorie counting exposed
Two key questions should be asked in effort to clarify the problems with across-the-board caloric content proposals. How accurate are the actual measures? How are these values established? The second question actually serves to answer the first. Calorie values for food are calculated from the burning of the foods in a contraption called a bomb calorimeter. When the foods are burned, the heat energy produced is measured and a value is then given to that food. This would appear to be an undeniably reliable form of founding an accurate caloric measure. What could be more accurate? Pure science, right? Perhaps not. The approach to providing distinct and accurate measure of the caloric value of food might be compared to that of comparing the breathing capacities and measures of a breathing machine versus the mechanics of human ventilation. I can remember writing a particularly gruesome exam in ergo physiology. The question dealt with the issues of oxygen capacities at high altitude. I worked the figures over and over and came out with the same result time and time again. I can remember the result I arrived at zero. Zero! Not humanly possible! Time was running out so I handed in my paper. I dashed back to my locker to check the text and to check my equations. What had I missed? Well perhaps I would receive some points for the work shown. I met my professor in the hallway that afternoon. I gave him an “I give up” expression. He smiled broadly knowing exactly my unspoken question. He called out, “Breathing machine!” as he passed by. He seemed pleased with himself. So was I, although duped to a large degree. The zero value was accurate via the equations used. The “impossibility” of the value as pertaining to the human condition was also eliminated with the trickery (utilization) of the breathing machine as opposed to the human response mechanism.
The issue being addressed here is that man-made machines and human “machinery” do not work with the same “efficiency.” The requirement of efficient program design should be based upon the human condition and not on results compiled from machines. The value of food -as indicated by the burning of food in a calorimeter- does not even approximate anywhere near approximating the values yield from the human burning machine (metabolism). One cannot be assumed to duplicate the other. This is the main point of our discussion and, in fact, holds the key to our understanding of the pitfalls associated with pre-determined calorie counting and the reliance upon those “guessed at” calorie counts to provide accurate measures of energy for both muscle building and fat reducing.
How accurate are the long-established caloric values
For the approximate duration of a century, the established caloric values attributed to the food categories were as follows. Proteins 5.2 calories, carbohydrates 4.8 calories and fats 9 calories. These values appear carved in stone. After all, who could argue them? However, it can be stated that for every scientific finding, there can be supporting and/or refuting testimony. While it might be seen as difficult (or impossible) to refute the established norms attributed to the caloric values of the foods that we eat, a deeper probing into the issue will reveal some startling findings. One keynote consideration is the fact that these caloric values are approximations and not as succinctly accurate as they are thought to–and ought to–be. It has been discovered that more succinct measures are needed before the caloric values can be carved in stone and quoted for use. We shall outline the energy yield of each of the macronutrients in upcoming sections.