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There Is No Such Thing As A "Calorie" (To Your Body)
sp_BlogLink Read the original blog post
March 20, 2013
4:40 am
Forum Posts: 2045
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February 22, 2010
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Caution: contains SCIENCE!

A friend of mine once said "The problem with explaining complicated systems to the layman is this: it's easy to simplify a concept to the point that that it's no longer true."

To that end, I submit the following hypothesis:

The concept of the "calorie", as applied to nutrition, is an oversimplification so extreme as to be untrue in practice.

What Is A "Calorie", Anyway?

The dietary calorie is defined as "the amount of energy required to increase the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Kelvin."

The dietary calorie is actually a "kilocalorie" = 1000 calories, which is why…

March 20, 2013
6:32 am

I love waking up to a new Gnolls article. 🙂 Beware, a bit of a rant follows.

Breaking out of the CICO dogma seems to be a real key for heath. I am so tired of seeing overweight coworkers slowly nibbling on their "portion controlled" lunches consisting mostly of either pre-packaged or home-packaged "100 calorie packs," most of which is really junk food. I work in fitness, and I can't tell you how often I've heard from a potential client looking to lose weight, "I know what I need to do [eat less, move more]; I just have to do it." The more I know, the more I conclude that most people really DON'T know what to do.

I think CICO is so seductive because it says you can have anything you want as long as the portions are small enough. Want 200 calories of pie this evening? Well, just leave the cheese off your turkey sandwich and go walk a mile. Nutritional needs don't matter. Food quality doesn't matter. Just do your addition and subtraction based on a food label and you're good to go. You don't have to give up anything because "we all know" deprivation can never work. Yeah, I am SO deprived avoiding cookies and eating great quality meat instead. It's only deprivation if your body actually needs it.


March 20, 2013
6:32 am

I'm surprised that you didn't mention the most blatant "A calorie is not a calorie:" The thermal effect of food. (TEF)

Protein requires massive amounts of energy to get converted into the forms we can use. Depending on one's source citation, this is apparently about 23%. In other words, TEF strips one calorie of every four eaten. Truly a low calorie macronutrient!

There is very little TEF for fats or carbs, as I recall.

March 20, 2013
7:05 am

>There is no biochemical system in our bodies whose input is a “calorie”.

There is no system period, in which the primary input is a 'calorie' the calorie is a measurement of the energy contained within - the amount of heat something gives off through chemical processes.

You couldn't even get that right, your 'science' isn't that.

This is basically a long winded and poorly articulated argument for Keto/Paleo diets.

March 20, 2013
7:51 am
Brian Beaven

Another great article! I really liked the way you showed the many ways the macronutrients get processed. But, at the end of the day, it still remains that if you consume more energy than you expend, you will accummulate fat.

March 20, 2013
8:10 am

thorbreakbeatgod - Did you even read the article? This article doesn't even mention anything diet-related. It's solely on the dangerous shortcomings of simplifying human nutrition to a unit of energy. You've let hate close your mind and bias your thinking. That, my friend, is what is truly not science.

March 20, 2013
8:46 am
eddie watts

wow the haters are already here!
good article, my favourite thing over the last few days has been this:

so to lose a pound of fat you need to use 3500 calories?
and yet a pound of butter has more than 4000 calories?
therefore: you eat a pound of butter and end up with less calories: you've just destroyed matter!!

it's all a nonsense of course. keep them coming J 🙂

March 20, 2013
9:11 am
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June 14, 2011
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I've used the 'uncertainty principle' a few times myself - namely that you cannot tell the fate of a particular "calorie" and that CICO masks a host of complications.  My favoured example is that of two athletes on equi-caloric diets but one whose diet is 50:50 fat and carbohydrate, and another whose diet is 30:30:30 of protein, fat and CHO.  The ratios are unimportant rather than to illustrate that different macronutrients satisfy different demands in the body, and 'repair' from exercise induced damage is an obvious example.

Of course a picture paints a thousand words.

March 20, 2013
9:32 am

Excellent article. The fallacy of CICO has always been so apparent that I declined to count calories at all for a long time.

But there must be some measurement in order to calibrate a diet that will oxidize stored fat while sparing lean mass.

Counting macronutrients is more accurate, but "if it fits your macros" is just as bad a fallacy. JS is one of the only people writing about why. Insoluble fiber and fructose are both "carb"; trans fat and DHA are both "fat"; casein and L-Tyrosine are both "protein". Yet in each case the metabolic effects could not be more different and this must be understood for efficient dieting. It baffles me that so many people fail to do so.

Keep up the fab nutrition articles, JS, they're so much more enjoyable than reading biochemistry textbooks.

March 20, 2013
9:43 am

I really enjoy your articles; the more I read, the more I truly appreciate your writing style and message.

March 20, 2013
9:44 am

any hope that we will get articles related to the possible fates of each one?

also great article ive been saying this exact thing for awhile now but couldnt put it so eloquently

March 20, 2013
10:48 am

But I (and thousands of other women like me) am here to tell you that counting calories DOES work. Lunch: a bushel of iceberg lettuce topped with a whole can of water-packed tuna, drizzled with lemon juice. Dinner: a serving of elbow macaroni cooked together with a serving of frozen mixed vegetables until the creamy starch forms a sauce, topped with one slice of American cheese. Snack: Check the nutrition facts on the bag; immediately upon opening the package, take the appropriate number of zip-loc bags and divide the contents equally. . . The pounds just melted away. Every time. Was I hungry all the time? It's been over 30 years, so I don't really remember. I do remember being tickled pink to be fitting into smaller dresses and really liking the way I looked.

I also know that the suggestion to "eat less" is nothing new. I remember hearing about a doctor in the 1950s patronizingly telling women "just push yourself away from the table."

Arguing about whether calories count or not is probably not worth the effort, since women like [the much younger] me will continue to count calories and tell their friends of their successes. The message that's HUGELY important is all the ways the human body uses the calories it gets, only one of which is fat storage. With all the single-minded emphasis on obesity today, it would be good to see some articles in the popular press such as "Yes, too many calories can make you gain weight, but did you know that the calories you eat can also do these things. . .?"

March 20, 2013
11:06 am
Madison, WI, USA
Forum Posts: 75
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September 24, 2012
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@Marilyn: It seems to me that JS is NOT saying calorie counting doesn't work, but that it is an oversimplification of a very complex process.  If you only look at how many calories, and not what's in those calories and whether those "calories" produce a satiety response or not, then it is a short-sited way of thinking.  I think you should read JS's "Why We Get Hungry" series.  It should help you better understand where JS is coming from here.


@JS, thanks for another great article.

"Often we forget . . . the sky reaches to the ground . . . with each step . . . we fly."  ~We Fly, The House Jacks

March 20, 2013
1:01 pm

Superb essay, Sir. Superb.

March 20, 2013
1:51 pm
Carole AKA Carbsaner

Another excellent and balanced post J. I always look forward to them. I know that losing weight by restricting calories or fat is possible, I have done it before... but it was a grim experience, constant unbearable hunger, feeling faint, cold sweats, heart palpitations. I have been eating low carb for over 5 years now - losing weight that way was easy and painless and I've managed to stay at a sensible weight since.

March 20, 2013
2:10 pm
Keoni Galt

wow the haters are already here!

Haters? More likely paid shills and cognitive infiltrators. Remember one of the most important posts here at

"Simply by eating a paleo diet, we have made ourselves enemies of the establishment, and will be treated henceforth as dangerous radicals.

This is not a conspiracy theory. By eschewing commodity crops and advocating the consumption of grass-fed meat, pastured eggs, and local produce, we are making several very, very powerful enemies.

The medical and nutritional establishments hate paleo, because we’re exposing the fact that they’ve been wrong for decades and have killed millions of people with their bad advice.

The agribusinesses and industrial food processors hate paleo, because we’re hurting their business by not buying their highly profitable grain- and soy-based products.

The mainstream media hates paleo, because they profit handsomely from advertising those grain- and soy-based products.

The government hates paleo, because they’re the enforcement arm of big agribusinesses, industrial food processors, and mainstream media—and because their subsidy programs create mountains of surplus grain that must be consumed somehow."

You can bet your ass there are people who make a living doing exactly what the "haters" are doing in this thread. Not just the haters though. Look at the type of posts written here in which the person seems nice and friendly - but STILL pushes the CICO simplification as "correct" bullshit.

They're all over Mark's Daily Apple, too.

Ignore the shills, trolls and opinion whores.

March 20, 2013
2:16 pm

thanks for the clear illustration.

Sean also discussed that calories is not a viable measure of our energy input/output.

i like what Dr. Attia said re. CICO: it's "descriptive" but not "explanatory"

re. fructose, it also allows cancer cells to become prolific.
(sorry don't have citation' i'm just a layman)

although i think fructose that comes from real food (i.e., fruits) may be negated?


March 20, 2013
2:32 pm
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February 22, 2010
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"I think CICO is so seductive because it says you can have anything you want as long as the portions are small enough."

That's part of it: as you point out, 200 calories of cherry pie does not meet the same metabolic fate, or cause the same metabolic changes, as 200 calories of whole eggs!  Another reason it's seductive is that it's very simple, and the solution it offers ("just eat fewer calories") is simple.

Unfortunately, the evidence seems clear: that solution ("just eat fewer calories") is also wrong — because, to a first approximation, all diets fail, and people regain at least as much weight as they lost.  I think this article offers some insight as to why.



You're correct that the thermic effect of food (TEF) is important.  However, TEF isn't a magical property: it's a direct effect of the metabolic fates of food, as explained above.  For instance, when energy is "lost" due to inefficient conversion one form of food to another, e.g. protein to glucose via gluconeogenesis, the "lost" energy is dissipated as heat — increasing the "thermal effect" of protein.

Also note that TEF is an approximation, because those fates vary per individual and over time.



First, "Keto/Paleo" strongly implies that the two are equivalent, which they are not.  A ketogenic Paleo diet is quite possible, but non-ketogenic Paleo diets and non-Paleo ketogenic diets are more common.

Second, "the calorie is a measurement of the energy contained within — the amount of heat something gives off through chemical processes."   In other words, it's a unit of heat transfer, as I said.

There are reasonable arguments against my hypothesis, but these aren't two of them.


Brian Beaven:

"But, at the end of the day, it still remains that if you consume more energy than you expend, you will accummulate fat."

The problem is that the net heat produced by burning food in a bomb calorimeter ("calories") is not equivalent to the net energy produced by ingesting food — and the bewildering variety of metabolic fates of any specific molecule of food mean that the net energy in food isn't even a fixed value! 

For instance, as shown above, food that is used for raw materials actually has "negative calories", because not only is it not burned for energy — your cells require energy to synthesize molecules containing it.



I appreciate the support.  As Beowulf and I discussed above, "calories" are a very seductive oversimplification.


More coming soon!


March 20, 2013
3:00 pm

it's always a red-letter day for me when you post, J -- thanks, and keep up the good work!

best regards....

March 20, 2013
3:10 pm
Forum Posts: 2045
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February 22, 2010
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Exactly.  I challenge anyone to eat a pound of butter each day, for a week, and find that they've gained exactly seven pounds that week.



"different macronutrients satisfy different demands in the body, and 'repair' from exercise induced damage is an obvious example."

Exactly.  Olympic weightlifters in training can be in negative protein balance at 2g/kg/day (i.e. that amount is insufficient to repair all the damage and respond to the growth signals), whereas the average couch potato would be converting quite a bit of that to glucose.



"But there must be some measurement in order to calibrate a diet that will oxidize stored fat while sparing lean mass."

Fortunately, our bodies can usually tolerate a wide range of intakes, so it's often sufficient to know whether it's better to have too much or too little of something.  For example, on a "cutting" diet for someone who's already lean, I've seen people succeed with both low-fat (e.g. the standard bodybuilder diet of chicken breasts and broccoli) and ketogenic approaches, but rarely in between.



Thank you!  Please spread my articles around, and support me if you can.


That's not a bad idea, actually.



Thank you!  Your "Calorie Rants and Ketosis, Part 1" and "Calorie Rants and Ketosis, Part 2" helped inspire me to write this article...and I'll recommend them to my readers again, for the analogies as well as the real-world examples of the low-level phenomena described here.


More replies to come...


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