- Some experts argue that calories are deceptive because they can be difficult to calculate.
- Calories can be useless because they do not measure the nutritional quality of foods.
- However, advocates say that calories are a tool for building a healthy relationship with food.
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, the conventional wisdom for decades has been to eat fewer calories and move more. But experts question this approach.
Increased high rates of chronic disease and obesity, which has not changed despite efforts to help people eat fewer calories, suggests that there is more to weight loss and health than caloric intake.
Dr. Robert Lustig, pediatric endocrinologist and author of “Metabolic,“A new book on the health risks of our industrialized food system told Insider that calorie intake is an obsolete and misleading concept for a healthy diet.
However, other nutrition experts say it is a powerful tool for some people to take control of their health and strengthen their relationship with food. While calories are a limited, sometimes inaccurate metric to assess food, the tool can help people understand what, and how much, they are eating.
Not all calories are the same
Relying on calories to manage weight and health is misleading, so it doesn’t account for the harmful effect that processed foods have on our bodies, according to Lustig.
“The whole disaster we’re dealing with is built on this notion that one calorie is one calorie. It’s not true,” he told Insider.
Lustig said processed foods, particularly refined sugar, can damage cells and cause inflammation, which can cause a multitude of potential health problems.
In contrast, healthy foods such as products contain compounds that reduce inflammation and prevent oxidation and stress.
The two types of foods can have the same number of calories, but dramatically different effects, making the concept of calories a useless way to distinguish healthy foods from unhealthy ones, according to Lustig.
Some of what we eat is actually due to our intestinal bacteria
Lustig argues that conventional science miscalculates how much energy we absorb from food. During digestion, our bodies rely on beneficial bacteria, known as intestinal microbiomes, to help process nutrients. A portion of what we eat feeds these microscopic creatures, helping them to thrive and stay healthy.
“How do you know if an individual molecule of nutrients is going to kill bacteria?” Lustig said.
She compared it to “eating for two” while she was pregnant – except in this case, each of us ate for 100 trillion friendly bacteria in our gut.
Calories can make you more aware of what you eat
While not all calories are equal from a health perspective, it’s not a reason to skip the whole system, according to Layne Norton, a nutrition and fitness trainer, bodybuilder and power lifter with a doctorate in nutrition.
“Calories are the same because calories are a unit of measurement. What’s different is that calorie sources are not the same as they influence energy intake and energy expenditure,” he said.
For example, a dieter may find that snacking on chips makes them feel hungry and tired, while the same amount of calories from chicken and broccoli is more filling and energizing. They may then change their habits accordingly.
Calories are a tool, not a solution
One of the main benefits of calories, according to Norton, is that it offers a neutral way for people to measure and evaluate their foods. Labeling foods as “good” or “bad” may be well-intentioned, but can result in excessive restraint and ultimately bingeing behaviors, he said.
Calorie data, combined with other information about food, can help people make a more informed decision about what works best for their unique lifestyle and goals.
“This is advice that no one wants to hear because it’s not sexy: you should choose the diet that is easiest for you to support in the long run, and that depends on the individual,” Norton said.