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 DietDocHawaii.com, Ayda@DietDocHawaii.com or (808) 276-6892