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Can You Really Count Calories? (Part V of "There Is No Such Thing As A Calorie")
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July 31, 2013
6:18 am
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Caution: contains SCIENCE!

(This is a multi-part series. Go back to , , , or .)

We've already proven the following in , , and :

  • A calorie is not a calorie when you eat it at a different time of day.
  • A calorie is not a calorie when you eat it in a differently processed form.
  • A calorie is not a calorie when you eat it as a wholly different food.
  • A calorie is not a calorie when you eat it as protein, instead of…
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July 31, 2013
6:50 am
Alex
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Do you know how accurate the calorie counts are in the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference? That's the database used by nutritiondata.com and the various calorie counting websites.

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July 31, 2013
7:10 am
Tom Passin
Guest

In addition, the method of measuring the "calorie" value of foods is questionable. The time-honored way is to burn the food in a calorimeter and determine how much energy is released. But that's not how food is used by the body. The method only gives the maximum energy available chemically, if you could extract all of it.

The calorie counts are obtained by adjusting the calorimeter results by tabulated factors for different kinds of foods (e.g., fats). As I understand it, these factors were published over one hundred years ago.

When all is said and done, it seems that the accuracy of measurement of the calorie value of foodstuffs has got to be very questionable in terms of describing what energy value your body actually gets from the food you eat.

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July 31, 2013
7:21 am
Ash Simmonds
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As to the "3500 calories per lb of fat" thing, Zoe Harcombe did a brief overview on how absurd it is to take as gospel.

But bro - you can't say McDonald's are giving us extra unnecessary calories - they are the messiah of the greatest most bountiful source of nutrition. :p

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July 31, 2013
8:02 am
Bill Lagakos
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"Where Calories Are Hiding"
http://finance.yahoo.com/news/where-calories-hiding-032500693.html
This article describes how restaurants are trying to cut calories from their menu items. Out of the whole 1000+ word article, food quality got 1 sentence: "Calories are, of course, just one gauge of the healthfulness of a dish."
I guess it's better than nothing :/

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July 31, 2013
1:32 pm
Arturo
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You're a genius J. Stanton. Love every article on this website.

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July 31, 2013
10:58 pm
Fmgd
Guest

Ash Simmonds, I saw that a few days ago. Following the link we find out that "people who eat out tend to eat less at home that day". It's also nice how much praise the burger gets at "as little as $1.76 per 1,000 calories". I just wonder why they wouldn't mention shortening can go for about $0,35 per 1,000 calories (according to a quick online search on wallmart). Now that's a godsend.

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August 1, 2013
6:23 am
Beowulf
Guest

All of this would be so much simpler if people just quit viewing their bodies as machines and started seeing them as complex, biological organisms.

People get so stuck, though. I have an acquaintance right now that no amount of information seems to be able to dissuade from the CICO nonsense. Worst of all, she's miserably trying to eat bird-sized portions at every meal, is hungry and deprived all the time, and very frustrated that the weight just isn't coming off. You'd think she'd be open to a different interpretation, but it's like CICO has to be right for her worldview to continue. Very sad.

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August 1, 2013
6:51 am
eddie watts
Guest

great stuff, once i get home i will
explore the links too!

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August 1, 2013
9:08 am
tatertot
Guest

One really bad thing about using calories to decide what and how much to eat is it gives you a false target. I hear people say, 'I eat 1500 calories a day and can't lose weight', This post probably does more to explain that particular problem than the first 4 posts.

If you set a target of a certain number of calories per day, you are guaranteed to exceed it. A better plan is to eat almost to fullness and if you are still getting fatter, examine your food choices, amounts, and health.

I hope this series gets lots of attention. Thanks.

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August 1, 2013
9:18 am
Dave
Guest

I like to count calories. ;)

I look at the nutrition label (if it is packaged food) and buy the foods with the highests amount of calories from fats. In some foods, the calories seem to correspond pretty directly with the price of the product. For example, heavy cream is much more expensive and calorically dense than, say, half & half. A happy medium for me is usually light cream.

Other products seem to ignore this basic rule. 'Light' sour cream generally costs the same as full fat sour cream. I like a brand that give me well over 80% fat calories per serving. Their 'light' version costs the same. You know it has to be an inferior product, but they can get away with it because of fat phobia.

Speaking of fat phobia, I can't even get full fat plain Greek yogurt in my small town grocery stores. Most of the yogurt on the shelves is sugar laden junk food.

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August 1, 2013
1:39 pm
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Alex:

No, I don't...that would be interesting information indeed.

 

Tom Passin:

I've discussed those very subjects in the previous installments of this series.  Note: the adjustments you're referring to are "Atwater factors", which were discussed in the comments of Part I. 

And yes, you've grasped the point: once you multiply the intrinsic inaccuracy of "calories" by the known errors in measurement, the error term in the numbers you come up with is much larger than the changes you're attempting to track!

 

Ash:

That's interesting...the Harcombe article points out that "3500 calories per pound of body fat" is an approximation subject to great variation.  I wish she hadn't stopped there, though, as she's implying that the rest of "calorie math" is still valid!

I used to eat bunless McDoubles on the road...now I usually just plan ahead and bring food in a cooler.  Or, if I'm really caught short, I'll stop at a supermarket and make some steak tartare from meat, egg yolks, salt, and pepper.

 

Bill Lagakos:

That's actually why I don't support labeling laws: not only do they encourage minimizing the wrong things (e.g. saturated fat, cholesterol), they encourage restaurants to give me less food for my money. 

I've always thought "diet" TV dinners were a great scam: they turn tiny portions into a selling point.  "Spend the same amount of money and receive less food!"

 

Arturo:

Thank you for the vote of confidence!  Keep spreading the word.

 

More soon!

JS

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August 2, 2013
1:26 am
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Fmgd:

If you're talking calories per dollar, it's tough to beat seed oil...at least in America, where corn and soy are so heavily subsidized.

 

Beowulf:

CICO and calorie math are very seductive cognitive traps.  All you have to do is eat less and exercise more...it's a simple matter of negative energy balance.  That's PHYSICS -- and you can't argue with PHYSICS, because it's the most sciency of sciences.  Right?

I like Andreas Eenfeldt's analogy.  Constipation is just a problem of negative fecal balance -- so all you need to do is eat less and shit more.

 

eddie:

Thank you! 

 

tatertot:

Exactly.  The composition of the food you're eating controls your body composition -- through a combination of nutrient partitioning, and the other hormonal and metabolic effects caused by food ingestion. So the first thing to do is change your diet to eat foods that create the healthiest possible hormonal and metabolic environment for you.  Then, if you still aren't reaching your goal weight, start tricking your satiation reflexes (see Part V of "Why Are We Hungry?").  Then, if you're still not there, start restricting how much you eat.

 

Dave:

I agree.  All other things being equal, I look for the most saturated fat and cholesterol, and the least polyunsaturated fat, for my money.  (Keeping in mind that the healthiest foods are fresh and usually don't come with nutrition labels at all.)

 

Thanks, everyone, for your support!  CICO and "calorie math" are articles of religious faith to many...it's interesting how all the argumentative folks from Part I vanished once I started demolishing the faith with straightforward, peer-reviewed science.  The only arguing I've seen is from people on message boards and reddits -- who obviously haven't read past Part I, or at all.

 

JS

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August 2, 2013
11:07 pm
Sofia
Guest

Leaving calories behind when I discovered paleo has been one of the happiest things I've ever done. Lo and behold.....I'm NOT fatter. When people close to me continue to insist on CICO it drives me crazy. Question: steak tartare, since you mentioned eating it when caught short, that must mean you're just using ordinary grocery store ground beef and eggs, correct? Any worries about food poisoning or do you feel its pretty safe?

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August 3, 2013
10:34 am
Madison, WI, USA
Gnoll
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September 24, 2012
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Another thing nutrition labels don't take into account is how the preservation effects the nutritional content of a food.  Frozen broccoli would have more carbs then fresh broccoli as the freezing turns some of the starch to sugar.  Nutritional labels generally don't reflect this (at least not at Trader Joes).

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"Often we forget . . . the sky reaches to the ground . . . with each step . . . we fly."  ~We Fly, The House Jacks
August 3, 2013
10:44 pm
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Sofia:

First, I only make tartare with hamburger that comes from "shop trim", i.e. that has been ground from trimmings cut on site, unless it's a huge emergency. Some supermarkets label their shop trim, but with some you have to ask. If it's not labeled, I assume it's from a big plastic tube, reground to look fresh (which is where most of the "fresh" ground beef in the case comes from).

Keep in mind that no one in the USA has ever died from eating meat from the meat counter in a grocery store!  The majority of deaths come from contaminated fruits and vegetables (cantaloupe (53), fenugreek sprouts (30), spinach (3), green onions(3)), with one notable instance of dodgy Mexican cheese (~50).  The only deaths due to meat have been from industrially-packaged cold cuts (~40) or Jack in the Box (4), with one single exception: a 5-year-old child in Wales.  (Source.)  And I note that the E.coli outbreak in question was in school lunches, which are very well cooked.

That being said, I don't recommend it to anyone else, particularly anyone pregnant, very young, very old, or otherwise with a compromised immune system.

Jen W:

I believe you're correct: nutrition labels are generally for the food in its raw state.  For instance, bacon supposedly has ~90 calories per slice, 80 of fat...but a substantial amount of the fat is lost as it cooks.

JS

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August 4, 2013
8:29 pm
edster
Guest

Boom! You've nailed it. Thank you so much for shining a clear bright light on the broken CICO model. While one cannot sensibly deny the laws of thermodynamics, extrapolating them to regulated food labeling is just plain bonkers.

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August 7, 2013
1:01 pm
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edster:

Exactly.  CICO zealots often use that particular strawman: "You don't believe in BASIC PHYSICS." 

Of course I do! 

The difference is that I understand that the human body is not a heat engine that runs at a fixed rate and at fixed efficiency regardless of fuel source, genetic and epigenetic history, and environmental conditions. 

Furthermore, I understand that the combination of labeling and estimation errors cannot possibly produce a result accurate enough to produce the results predicted by the naive CICO model.

JS

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August 8, 2013
1:15 pm
Halifax, UK
Gnoll
Forum Posts: 365
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June 5, 2011
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Yes!

We are not robots. We are not machines.

We are an enormously adaptive organism that has weathered the changes in time, space and environments for millions of years. Only today are we meeting each other from across the whole world and finding out just how wonderfully different, yet so much the same as each we really are.

Wonderful, isn't it?

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Living in the Ice Age http://livingintheiceage.pjgh.co.uk
August 13, 2013
3:31 pm
tatertot
Guest

Oh, brother...someone is in serious need of this calorie series...http://freetheanimal.com/2013/08/the-perfect-person-for-the-job.html

Obama has hired a 27 year old lady to be the 'calorie czar' of America. http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/nudge_off_VIU0WQzeDw2DwAoy27T5HO/0

"Undeterred by science, President Obama is taking Bloomberg’s failed policy nationwide, mandating, as a provision of ObamaCare, that calorie counts be posted for every food item sold in chain restaurants with 20 or more locations — along with bakeries, grocery stores, convenience stores and coffee chains. That sounds pretty much like labeling every pear and bagel.

A spokesman for the industry group the Food Marketing Institute noted that large grocery stores might have to send thousands of food items out to be tested and relabeled. The head of the FDA has described the measure as “extremely thorny,” and said that though it sounds fine in principle, “in practice it really would be very hard.”

And for what?

A Carnegie Mellon study published in the American Journal of Public Health found posted calorie counts did little or nothing to change eating habits. Moreover, when informed that women should have no more than 2,000 calories and men no more than 2,400 calories a day, people actually consumed 49 calories more than if they weren’t given this information."

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