Calories: Even Sneakier Than We Thought

So it's old news to many of you that all calories are NOT created equal. (Equal? Equally? Hmm, any English teachers or editors wanna help out here?)

Good Calories, Hooray!

This means there are obvious limitations to the traditional model of counting calories to achieve weight loss.

And yet, using calories a measurement is still one of the handiest tools we have for assessing the relative dietary impact of various foods and serving sizes.

For example, when you are contemplating a "healthy smoothie" at some new takeout place you've never heard of, does it make a difference if the smoothie comes in at 175 calories versus 935 calories? Well, for many of us: F--ck yeah! We may still reject the 175 calorie version if it's full of Bad Things, but I don't care how much seaweed or spirulina or other virtuous antioxidant-rich secret sauce is in the 935er, I ain't going there.

But sadly, even though many of us have had reasonable success in the past counting calories to lose weight, it turns out it's way more complicated than keeping a fastidious record of Ins and Outs. And new research has turned up even more reasons why that reassuring number on your Lean Cuisine lasagna or your Skinny Cow treat or your Expensive Organic Exotic Granola Bar may be full of crap.

On the other hand, it's not all bad news: there may be other stuff in your kitchen that you feel guilty about that you could be scarfing up gleefully.

Let's look at some interesting specifics, shall we?


I was recently alerted to some surprising new research in Scientific American (thanks Solarity!) about how we process calories.  Plus, a while back I did a review of The Smarter Science of Slim which had some fascinating info--and now the Fit Bottom Girls have reminded me of it with their own great review. (Plus they also have a poll on whether you give a sh-t about calories or not, if you want to "weigh in.")

So let's toss all these little tidbits together, plus haul out some leftovers from an old Calorie Counting article by Jane Brody in the New York Times, reheat, and serve!
Did People Really Eat this Sh-t On Purpose?
Let's start with a reminder of the some of the old stuff from the Times article:

  • Some foods are associated with more weight gain that their calorie counts would suggest.   These include French fries, potato chips, sugar-sweetened drinks, red meats and processed meats, other forms of potatoes, sweets and desserts, refined grains, fried foods, 100-percent fruit juice, and butter.  In other words, tasty stuff you already know can be Trouble.
  • Conversely, there are "good" foods that don't seem to contribute their fair share of calories bulging waistlines: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, yogurt, and nuts, including peanut butter. 
And echoing that, but with a little more detail and a few different conclusions, Jonathan Bailor who wrote the Smarter Science of Slim has a bunch of specifics on the different ways your body handles different kinds of foods, and the impact this has on weight gain.  Bottom line:

Regardless of calories, you just won't gain weight the same way from Virtuous Foods Like:
  • Non-starchy vegetables (leafy greens, mushrooms, peppers, broccoli, asparagus)
  • Nutrient-dense proteins (seafood, grass-fed beef, organ meats, free-range poultry, plain Greek yogurt)
  • Whole-food natural fats (nuts and seeds) and
  • Low-sugar fruits (strawberries, blueberries, oranges, grapefruits)

While you're screwed if your diet consists of:
  • corn and white potatoes and other forms of starch
  • oil
  • refined and even whole grains, and
  • sweets.
So what's the latest wrinkle?

Well it seems that clever scientists are finding more and more reasons why the calorie count on a label can be totally misleading. Here are some highlights taken from the Scientific American calorie article by Rob Dunn as totally butchered and distorted translated by Crabby.

  • The more a food is processed, the more calories we get from it.  This is obviously true of the stuff you get off the candy aisle, but also comes into play when you take a virtuous whole food and cook, grind, chop, or pound it.
  • Nuts are hard to digest, so whole peanuts, pistachios and almonds yield less protein, fat, carbohydrates and fiber than you'd think. A USDA study headed up by Janet Novotny found that when an “average” person eats almonds she receives just 128 calories per serving rather than the 170 calories on the label.
  • Proteins can require ten to twenty times as much heat-energy to digest as fats.
  • Cooked hamburger or other ground meat requires less energy to digest than equally sized slabs o' steak.
  • In order to fend off evil pathogens, our immune system needs to get involved during digestion of certain foods. No one knows how many calories this takes, but it could be substantial.  Thus a somewhat raw piece of meat could take more energy to digest, and yield fewer calories, especially if it ends up killing you... the ultimate weight loss plan!
  • Plus, bonus for folks who flirt with foods that can contain possibly poisonous pathogens: even if our immune system does not actually attack any, it uses up energy to distinguishing good bugs from bad ones.  (As someone who likes my meat on the rare side and frequently invokes the "5 second rule," but has not yet died, I appreciate this).
  • The friendly microbes that live in our gut also need to be fed and this takes up calories!  Complex foods that need help getting digested (like the aforementioned almonds) have to hook up with friendly bugs in our colon--which is apparently sort of like happy hour at a singles bar down in there. (Though I can't say I'd be diggin' the ambiance myself).  But anyway, the complex food's nutrients and calories are then shared liked platters of half-priced appetizers between our bodies and the trillions of greedy microbes that live within.  But the "official" calorie count you look up doesn't care about those hungry microbes and assumes you ate all those calories yourself.
  • An example: at study showed it took twice as much energy to digest a serving of whole wheat bread with nuts and seeds and cheddar cheese than the same calories in  white bread and “processed cheese product,” resulting in 10% fewer calories for the Real Food.
  • And peoples bodies are different!  Check this out: Russian intestines are about five feet longer than Italian intestines, so Russians eating the same amount of food as the Italians likely get more out of it.


Seems like lots of studies lately are reinforcing the notion that calories aren't handled the same by everyone. For example, I just saw one that showed overweight kids 9-17 years old actually consumed fewer calories per day than their healthy weight peers, which seems totally unfair, doesn't it? It was the reverse for younger kids.

And now, a quick quiz to see if you've been paying attention!

After reading this blog post, it is now clear you should:
  1. Eat lots of whole, unprocessed foods
  2. Gnaw on raw meat whenever you can
  3. Throw at least some of your food on a dirty floor before consuming it
  4. Check the black market for harvested organs to see if there are any Italian intestines to be had for cheap
  5. Starve your children if they're under 9 years old; when they're older hire zombies to chase them around.

Answer: if you take every word Cranky Fitness publishes seriously, then all of the above!  But if you're that easily persuaded, you've got a lot more than the accuracy of calorie counting to worry about.

 What do you guys think about calories, and the idea of counting them?

Photos: Apple FreeDigitalPhotos; Reheat and Serve lileks

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