Photo by Caitlin Abrams
We are fully into the season of eggnog and cookie trays. But as we are less than a month from New Year’s resolution madness, and as 2016 will be the year that all chain restaurants and coffee shops will have to disclose their menu-items calorie counts—it seems pertinent to ask: Is counting a calorie any good?
The answer is: No.
First, a little history lesson. Calories are fully the product of the mid-nineteenth century, when a bunch of guys with bunsen burners were coming up with the best ideas of their time. Their best idea was that to measure the energy inherent in a food, you get it dry enough to burn, stuff it into a sealed chamber called a “bomb calorimeter,” and set fire to it. The amount of heat it generates are “calories”. (Most calorie counts on today’s menus are done not by fire, but by software which uses the figures procured by bomb calorimeter fire a long, long time ago.)
Now, take what you know about fire. If you were going to use food we eat to set fires, what would give you the greatest heat? Of course it would be alcohol or oil, and those are the “highest calorie” items. How would you set fire to a fresh cob of corn? Of course you couldn’t, you’d have to dry it, grind it up—you’d need corn flour. Now let’s talk about actual human bodies: They’re full of microbes that do much of the actual work of digestion. They find different foods to be different to digest, that is, to turn into usable sugars, fats, and proteins: A chunk of raw steak is hard to digest, a Coke is easy to digest. Scientific American did a great story a few years ago getting in to some of the detail—I seriously recommend you read it.
If you’re not going to read it, I’ll give you a rough summary: Calorie counts are all wrong. Things that are hard to digest—especially whole foods high in fiber, like nuts, vegetables, and legumes—all have fewer accessible calories than you think. Things that are easy to digest—highly processed sugars and flours especially—probably have what is in effect more. But the metabolic effects of sugar probably have more to do with hormones than calories anyway—see the great and detailed work of Michael Moss and his terrific 2013 book Salt Sugar Fat. The hormonal effects of sugar have never been more important than now, when 74 percent of the U.S. food supply has added sugar.
So what have I got that’s better than calories? The same boring advice that everyone’s been doling out for years: Eat real foods. For me, I now tell people to think about food Socrates or George Washington would have had access to, food you cook.
Move. Sleep. Experience joy, connection, your loved ones, and your friends. And above all don’t stress out about calorie counts. Stress has its own bad metabolic effects, and calorie counts—which in 2016 are going to be more present than ever before—are not really any good at all.