Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics
By Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim
University of California Press, 2012
“People vary, diets vary, activity levels vary,” but calories don’t vary, say the authors, Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim, who are two “old schoolers” who cling tenaciously to the outdated and worn ideology of Frederick (“a calorie is a calorie”) Stare and Ancel (lipid hypothesis) Keys. They believe that “the only way to weight loss is through lower calorie intake based on foods of high nutritional and low caloric density.” (Do such foods exist?) Their advice to eat less, in smaller portions, exercise more, and thoroughly chew each mouthful has been less than helpful to the majority of people who struggle with weight problems. Years of obsessively counting calories have failed the American people. Obesity has increased nationwide, and the average American is now twenty pounds heavier than twenty years ago. As a nation we are eating less fat while obesity statistics continue to soar.
Although Americans continue to worship at the diet altar of low-calorie, less quantity, and especially less saturated fat, they are more overweight and obese than ever before. Despite this fact, the authors cling to the notion that a lowfat diet based on calorie counting has been a successful strategy and continues to be, since Frederick Stare, founder of the nutrition department of Harvard’s School of Public Health, coined the phrase, “A calorie is a calorie.” He also said, “Drink a cup of corn oil every day,” but that isn’t exactly smart either. No matter how you phrase it, however, a celery stalk or carrot stick cannot hold a flame next to a nicely prepared pasture-raised fatty beefsteak.
The authors contend that the purpose of their book is to give us a greater appreciation of calories because people are confused about them, and calories are poorly understood. Thus if you can understand calories, you can enjoy your food and “eat without having to think about it.”
Marion Nestle is the author of several books about food; the best known is Food Politics. She is also a professor in the Department of Nutrition at New York University. Malden Nesheim is former Director of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University. They previously wrote a book together on feeding pets.
A calorie is a measure of heat: the amount of energy that raises one gram of water one degree Celsius. The science of calories began basically as the work of one man employed by the USDA. Wilbur O. Atwater used his values obtained from burning food to predict the number of calories people ate. For at least 120 years, his paradigm remains unchallenged as the basis for weight control. Carbohydrates and protein contain four calories per gram; fat contains nine calories; and alcohol, seven calories per gram. Carbohydrates and protein are obviously not equal biochemically as each has a specific job and are considerably different from one another. But in the eyes of the authors they are indeed the same, at four calories per gram. And fat is condemned because of its high calorie content in comparison to protein and carbohydrates.
On the basis of the calorie, an entire food industry was built and continues to thrive because the public, with total faith in the calorie concept, continues to buy it.
Gary Taubes makes the argument in his books Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat that obesity is caused “by the quality of the calories rather than the quantity, and specifically by the effect of refined and easily digestible carbohydrates on the hormonal regulation of fat storage and metabolism.” Nestle and Nesheim devote about three-fourths of a page to Taubes’ books, and dismiss what they call his “reductionist view” because he emphasizes carbohydrates as “the primary driver behind weight gain.”
They blame obesity, however, on increased food production, which makes more calories available, and low food prices, which enable people to afford to eat more. Does that description fit a mindless beast who will eat until he drops? Nestle and Nesheim explain the political stakes and show how federal and corporate policies have come together to create an “eat more” environment.
Ben Pratt, a WAPF chapter leader from the UK and a fitness professional who presented a lecture at Wise Traditions 2011, in Dallas, on “Paradoxical Obesity,” included a thorough and extensive review of the literature on obesity in his talk. He demonstrated, without a doubt, that cutting calories plus eating less fat rarely equals successful weight loss, and that adding exercise is not always a successful strategy either. “Reduced fat and calorie intake and frequent use of low calorie food products have been associated with a paradoxical increase in the prevalence of obesity.” Moderate daily exercise may be a good practice but it won’t result in permanent fat loss. As Gary Taubes writes in Good Calories, Bad Calories, “Expending more energy than we consume does not lead to long-term weight loss; it leads to hunger.” You can work up a big appetite on the treadmill.
The calories in the food that Weston Price observed in the diets of healthy native populations were of a much different source from the calories eaten in the foods of ill populations that he documented in his book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.
In fact scientists are calling for a revision of the methods now used to measure calories because those methods may not be accurate when it comes to high fat and high fiber foods. Atwater’s methods are very dated, not up to today’s rigorous standards, and were tested on only three persons (his lab technicians), say his critics.
Novotny, Gebauer and Baer, scientists at the USDA, recently published (2012) a study that finds that almonds have about twenty percent fewer calories than determined by the Atwater method. They found that fat shows up in the feces of almond eaters, indicating that the human body does not absorb all the fat (or calories) that are found in the nuts they consumed. Who knows how many other Atwater values are inaccurate?
Even the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported in 2012 that, “The results of our study challenge the notion that a calorie is a calorie from a metabolic perspective.” Researchers found that volunteers on a very low carbohydrate diet with high fat burned up more energy than those on the lowfat, high-carb diets. Despite this recent evidence from the two 2012 studies on calories, Marion Nestle and her co-author defend their original positions in Why Calories Count in a PBS.org blog (09.20.2012). They conclude: “To lose weight, eat less; it works every time. Choose smaller portions.” (Smaller Twinkies?) And finally they state: “Until research convinces us otherwise, we believe a calorie is a calorie.”
But a very recent study published in PLoS One (an open access peer-reviewed scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science) on February 27, 2013, hammers a big nail in the coffin of the “calorie is a calorie” mantra. Researchers combined major international databases on food availability and diabetes prevalence to assess all sources of calories. They determined that “total caloric availability was unrelated to diabetes prevalence; for every extra 150 calories per day, diabetes prevalence rose by only 0.1 percent. But if those 150 calories per day happened to be in a can of soda, diabetes prevalence rose 11-fold, by 1.1 percent. This effect of sugar was exclusive of obesity and controlling for body mass index did not negate the effect.”
Despite all the tedium and reluctance to challenge their credo, the authors neverthelss have a few good things to say on other topics:
“We need a farm bill that’s designed from top to bottom to support healthier diets, one that supports growing fruits and vegetables and making them cheaper. We need to fix school lunches so they’re based on fresh foods, and fix food assistance programs so people have greater access to healthier foods. . . .Stop marketing food to kids. And get rid of health claims on food packages too.”
We just wonder how they define “healthier foods” considering that they recommend lowfat dairy products as nutrient-dense and good quality food.
This summer Coca-Cola released a twominute ad, “Coming Together,” in which they say that all calories count, no matter what the source, and that if you eat too many calories you gain weight. Coke points to their non-caloric drinks in school vending machines as a better choice for kids. But studies show that aspartame, the main non-caloric sweetener in the U.S. food supply, has the same effect on blood sugar as sucrose (table sugar), and an unhealthy effect on insulin levels. So it looks like aspartame-laden drinks should not be considered a healthy choice despite their no-calorie content. It would seem that Marion Nestle, her co-author and Coca-Cola have become strange bedfellows in the ongoing conversation about calories.
This book contributes very little to present knowledge on the subject of calories, weight control and obesity, but only attempts to explain and reinforce outdated knowledge without consideration of new research or creative thought. We give Why Calories Count a definitive thumbs down.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2013.