Thinking beyond calories

Did you ever think where our concept of calories comes from? What does calorie actually mean? Many of us are counting calories, reading labels, and calculating the numbers, but do you really know the concept behind it? What is a calorie?

The concept of the calorie has been around for quite some time. The word calorie, from the French word meaning a unit of heat, has been in use since 1824. It was defined as the amount of energy that is required to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, studied specific heats of water and other materials and conducted some of the earliest experiments involving direct and indirect calorimetry.

Eventually, the calorie was adopted for the nutrition facts panels on food labels. Food is a source of energy, and our body’s metabolism converts that energy into the heat that our body needs. In our foods, certain macronutrients contain different calories — one gram of carbohydrate or protein contains 4 calories, while one gram of fat contains 9 calories.

The body’s metabolism is regulated by our genes, muscle contraction, moods, digestion, immune system, circulations, reproduction, and more. All of these can effect how we use this energy that we consume in our food, and how we turn it into heat for our body.

Of course, we are all different, so one person may be processing it very differently that an other. And while the food that we eat will certainly affect our metabolism, the conditions under which we are eating will too. So counting calories alone will not tell us how things are really working, and the unique impact that their energy is having on our body.

After the 2017 CrossFit Foundation Academic Conference, the researchers asked the question “Are all calories equal with regards to effects on cardiometabolic disease and obesity?”. A new research study with 22 nutrition researchers concluded that no, not all calories are equal, some are more harmful than others as they significantly increased cardiometabolic risk.

Calories from any food have the potential to increase risk for obesity and cardiometabolic disease, because all calories can directly contribute to positive energy balance and fat gain.

However, various dietary components or patterns may promote obesity and cardiometabolic disease by additional mechanisms that are not controlled solely by caloric content. We all know that too many calories from any food have the potential to increase our risk for obesity and cardio-metabolic diseases.

Of course, a high energy intake, combined with a sedentary lifestyle, is still the main driver of the obesity and cardiometabolic epidemics. However, research has now shown that various dietary components or patterns may promote disease by additional mechanisms that are not mediated solely by caloric content.

For example, consuming processed foods and a diet that is high in both fat and sugar alters the structure and function of the gut microbiome.

So now that we know that it’s not enough to just count the calories, what is the answer? Personalized nutrition means that each person’s individual situation and needs are considered when defining a healthy diet.

For example, the optimal diet for weight control may depend on the individual’s glucose metabolism, genetics, their microbiome, what stage of life they are in (pregnancy, infancy, early childhood, old age), their culture, or their dietary preferences and weaknesses (for example “is the brain reward region more activated by sweet candy bars or salty potato chips?”). All of these and more should be considered when determining a person’s optimal diet pattern.

I personally believe, and I apply this in my own life and my practice, that it’s the wrong approach to count calories but not focus on the quality of the food that we are eating. I always try to listen to how my body reacts after eating a certain food, and I try to communicate.

Food is not just calories, it is the nutrients that give every cell in our body their commands, like the conductor of an orchestra. Food is information!


Ayda Ersoy is a nutrition and fitness director at The Diet Doc Hawaii. She can be reached at, or (808) 276-6892

  1. Charlie Chimknee January 31, 2019 8:01 am Reply

    The article mentions several things that regulate metabolism, but let’s not forget that our nervous system regulates all of those entities mentioned above in the article.

    The brain stem’s Reticular System has ultimate coordinated control over metabolism. Even the other vertebrate animals have this same neurological counterpart.

    Our central and peripheral nervous systems are under the control of our innate or inborn intelligence passed onto us throughout the GodZillions of years of evolution of our Nervous Systems adapting our internal environment to our external environment.

    Our Nervous System needs no help in regulating our bodies, what it does need is no interference. Interferences are drugs, medicine, poison, chemicals, and their subcategories as wel as structural displacement of its “housing”..

    A Health Concept to determine what to eat is to not eat food with any man made chemicals in or on them…that is why you must read the labels and learn what are man made chemicals that food manufacturers add to your food.

    Unfortunately for the people, food manufacturers and distributors are not mandated to put what poisons are in or on the food.

    Buyer beware, shopping for food, your health and life longevity depend on it.

    If you and others stop buying chemical ridden foods, if they don’t sell, the stores will stop selling it.

    There are many cow milk alternatives these days: almond, soy, cashew, coconut milks, etc., and that is because people are turning away from milk due to cows on antibiotics and steroids, dairy protein being a cause of cancer, dairy and constipation, and so alternative milks are being manufactured and sold more and more. But even then read their labels and protect yourself.

    More fruits and veggies and grains are being sold as people are learning that animal meat with its fat /lard/ grease accumulates in the body’s blood vessels and heart muscle until the build up causes heart failure and brain strokes and other organ problems.

    As a food uneducated civilian you need to at least educate yourself to the contents of your foods and what is put in the food from the farm to the table…chemical preservatives…even GMO foods now are altered for longer lasting but apparently ill “banefits”.

    A simple example is corn tortillas. The ingredients used to say only CORN, WATER, LIME…now it is same PLUS many chemicals.

    The founder of the American Cancer Society, Dr.Hoffman, said a 100 years ago that the chemicals and too much food at a meal were causes of cancer. He has been ignored by doctors, hospitals, food manufacturers, pharmaceutical petrochemical drug industry, and ourselves eating until we are stuffed”. Just look around at all the obese people.

    Someone’s not paying attention to your health, but they are paying attention to their profits.

    The primary basic to reading labels is to know what are the chemicals.

    For example, Thiamine is Vitamin B6…sounds Healthy, but Thiamine Mononitrate is a chemical made from petroleum, yeah, oil. You want that in your body? Petroleum, oil, is carcinogenic…cancer causing.

    Well you better read the labels esp. breads and pastries where Thiamine Mononitrate has become rampant.

    You ask why would they put carcinogenic petrochemical oil products in our food? Well one doctor said that it is cheaper to put in the chemicals and sugars too, than it is to put in the actual basic food like corn in a tortilla. Saving $$$ is Capitalism, our country is Capitalistic, capitalizing on ideas that make $$$ But at the expense of our Health leading us into Disease and the risky side effects of more chemical treatments.

    Multiply that by all the kinds of food and you realize you are being perhaps being used as a chemical dump.



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