Calorie Counting Revisited: Why Trying to Cut Food Calories Could Make Us Fat and Sick

06/25/2015 12:47 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016


Within the last month, I agreed to become a member of the Scientific and Nutritional Advisory Board of Epicure, a Canadian food-product and cookware company dedicated to making convenient the consumption of healthy real food.

Epicure's CEO invited me to speak at the company's national conference in Montreal this July to discuss, "How calorie-focused thinking may mislead an harm public health." The talk will be based on points I have made with a co-author in: (1) an academic paper, (2) a related letter to the editor, and (3) an op-ed for the general public.

As I think about the forthcoming work with Epicure and my forthcoming talk to the company's membership, the case against calorie-focused thinking is worth revisiting. Perhaps most important to emphasize will be that trying to cut food calories -- intended to promote healthy weights and better health -- could actually have the opposite effect; it could make us fat and sick.

To explain, first consider that trying to consciously control calorie consumption, by regularly eating fewer calories than we burn, is entirely implausible. Even the best-educated and best-equipped individuals among us will find it near-impossible to determine their actual calorie intakes (not just ingested, but actually absorbed) -- or their actual calorie expenditures (not just in physical activity, but through countless unnoticeable internal metabolic reactions) -- with the necessary accuracy and precision to meaningfully guide behavioral decisions.

Moreover, calorie intakes and calorie expenditures are linked. In other words, they are matched, paired, or coupled, physiologically -- unconsciously. If we burn a quantity of calories through exercise, we will be hungrier and eat more to compensate. If we try to consume fewer calories than our bodies need, we will be fatigued (and hungry) and disinclined to activity as an offset. "Calories in" will match "calories out," unless some internal uncoupling occurs. Considering calories as undifferentiated units of energy does not get past this problem.

Yet undifferentiated units of energy is exactly the logic of the all-too-common teaching that "a calorie is a calorie." The idea is that "a rose is a rose" and type does not matter.

But type does matter (in food and in roses). A calorie worth of walnuts, for instance, is no more like a calorie worth of white cake than a wild prairie rose is like a Himalayan musk rose. Prairie roses and musk roses are different. And walnuts and white cake are different (specifically with regard to their effects on satiety, food consumption, weight maintenance, body composition, and metabolic health).

Whereas foods like walnuts are filling, helping to keep overall calorie intake for the day lower, processed products like white (refined) cake drive hunger and compel consumers to eat more (including more later in the day after eating the cake is long forgotten). In particular, appetites for additional refined carbohydrates (i.e., starches and sugars) increase following consumption of initial refined carbohydrates.

Products like white cake promote obesity and related diseases like diabetes. In contrast, foods like walnuts promote healthier metabolism and overall better health.

Nonetheless, healthy foods like walnuts are much higher in calories gram for gram than refined products like white cake. And this is the problem with calorie-focused thinking and calorie labeling more specifically: an inherent bias against fat-laden foods (regardless of how healthy those food are) since fat is the component of food with the greatest density of calories.

Fat bias leads to messages to decrease the intake of higher-calorie fattier foods, even though some higher-calorie fattier foods (and higher-calorie fattier diets) may produce and sustain as much or more weight loss than calorie-restricted or lower-fat diets, as well as promote better health and longer life.

For healthier weights and better health, consumers should choose real foods, irrespective of their natural fat content.

Unfortunately, policies directed at labeling calories, and campaigns directed at cutting calories, do not steer choice in this direction. Instead, these measures incentivize consumers to demand, and industry to design, products with lower amounts of fat/calories (usually with refined carbohydrates as replacements). Thus, we wind up driving food production and consumption away from healthful high-fat foods (like nuts) and towards processed refined products (like "low-fat" cakes), promoting -- as opposed to preventing -- increases in obesity and related diseases.

Focusing on calories (or fat) or any other food component that is not whole food misses the whole point. The calories in any given food are not what matters. What matters is how many calories people consume overall throughout the day, and the health implications of the various foods consumed.

Certainly, calories count. But consumers should not be counting calories. They should be eating foods that make better control of their calorie intake more possible -- unconsciously. They should be eating less of highly-processed items (like white cake... and white bread and sugary drinks and snack chips) and eating more whole foods (like walnuts... and fruits and vegetables and whole grains).

Calorie-focused thinking may have already exacerbated the epidemics of obesity and related diseases. This type of thinking has NOT put us on a path towards slimmer waists or better health.

We should not be trying to cut calories from available foods, we should be improving the quality of the foods available that provide our calories. Above all, we should be promoting foods (i.e., real whole foods) that do not prompt us to overeat, fatten, and sicken.

Healthy eating is about overall food quality, not food calories. That will be my message for Epicure. That's my message for the world.