Do Calories Even Matter Anymore?

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A panel of researchers declared that, “our current system for assessing calories is surely wrong” at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A growing body of evidence proves that certain types of foods are processed differently in the body, resulting in more or less calories being absorbed than expected. Australia has dropped the system of counting calories completely, and calories are no longer listed on most food packages now. Should America follow suit?

How your food is cooked and processed can have a large impact on how many of the calories you’ll actually absorb. Because cooked food is easier to chew and digest, and because the cooking process denatures protein, you usually absorb fewer calories from raw food versus cooked. Whole barley will take much longer to digest, and will use more calories, than eating ground barley that’s been formed into a processed breakfast cereal or energy bar will. However, if you look at the Nutrition Facts label, the calorie content will be identical. And if you eat a handful of almonds that contains 170 calories according to the label, you’ll only absorb 128 of them. Some researchers contend that protein can take 10 to 20 times more energy to digest compared to fat.

In one study, people who ate 600 or 800 calories from seeded whole-wheat bread along with real cheddar cheese expended twice as much energy digesting their meal compared to those participants who received the same amount of calories in white bread and a processed-cheese product. Here’s a universal truth: processed-cheese product is rarely a good idea.

Our genetic makeup might have a lot to do with how much of our food we metabolize. The digestive enzymes that we produce, the quantity and quality of the bacteria in our gut, and the length of our intestines, for example, matter.

Some have posited that our happy little mantras of “everything in moderation” and “there are no bad foods” have been taken too far and could potentially explain some of the obesity epidemic that we are now faced with. After all, French fries and other forms of potatoes, potato chips, sugar-sweetened drinks, red meat, processed meat, sweets and desserts, refined grains, other fried foods, 100% fruit juice, and butter are known to contribute to the greatest weight gain over time. Would it be a bad thing to just put them on the “forbidden list” and abstain completely? These foods are not only high-calorie, but most of them are also nutrient poor, so it’s hard to say what proportion of the weight gain comes from eating a ton of calories and what proportion comes from eating no fiber or other essential nutrients. Does it matter what the reason is? No. Most likely it’s the combination that is too blame.

We know that eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (especially vegetables) are critical to the maintenance of a healthy body weight. Would it be a tragedy to teach kids that these foods are “good”? Obviously, calorie counting hasn’t worked too well for our generation, so maybe we need to completely revise the ways that we talk about food, nutrition, and body weight with the next generation.

Studies prove that people are TERRIBLE at estimating their calorie intake; we way, way underestimate how much we actually eat. The bottom line is that you would have to eat 780 spears of asparagus for the same amount of calories in four large cheeseburgers, and that’s before taking energy expenditure from digestion into account. Calories are a nice starting point for someone just starting to learn about food and nutrition, but for those who’ve been watching what they eat for a long time, it’s probably time to look beyond the label.