Perhaps the concept of calories is similar to the symbolic concept of money. These concepts represent a standard currency of energy, resources, and value.
Just like money means different things to different people, calories contain various levels of value despite using the same numerations.
In this article, you will learn about:
- Purpose and historical context of calories
- Why modern humans have such deteriorating health
- Complexities of metabolism and benefits of real food
- Evidence of nutrients ability to burn fat (and limitations of calorie deficits)
- Possible route forward for your own health journey
Calories are utilized for the purpose of estimating total energy value of an edible item.
When applied to energy balance and weight loss, physicists teach us the basal metabolic rate (BMR) theory in which when you eat the equivalent calories to expenditure, then you maintain your mass . Thus, eating less calories than maintenance in theory will cause a decrease in mass while eating greater than maintenance causes an increase in mass for the organism.
It is often assumed that weight loss will absolutely lead to greater health outcomes.
In some cases, it’s quite normal that a person may begin their health journey through a period of weight loss and personal transformation. Yet the, “stairway to health,” likely transcends basic theories of energy balance for understanding the complexities of human metabolism such as growth, development, performance, disease, and genetic processes.
Even though a great many doctors advise weight loss for improving health outcomes, it doesn’t explain why so many normal weight people are suffering in America today . For example, there are many fit-looking people who experience horrible gut and intestinal distress on a regular basis  — and very well may be on track to or already have serious metabolic progressions such as cancer . I know this because I know these people personally or others who shared their stories.
There are many fit looking people who one would assume to have fit privilege and yet one of the reason’s their appearance is of a lean individual is because a lot calories don’t get absorbed. But, it comes at a cost due to chronic inflammation throughout the human metabolic system. If gut health reaches distress as part of daily living, it is a serious warning sign — and yet it’s difficult to know how to actually fix it. Sometimes a person treats the symptoms of the gut disease with medicine and then more drugs to treat the side effects of the medication.
“The person who takes medicine must recover twice… once from the disease and once from the medicine.” – Sir William Osler, M.D
- impaired fasting glucose (110–125 mg/dL)
- triglycerides level > 150 mg/dL
- blood pressure > 140/90 mmHg
- essential hypertension (under age 60 years)
- premature coronary heart disease (under age 60 years)
- low birth weight (<2.5 kg) inactivity (<90 min aerobic exercise/week) weight gain: >8 after 18 years for women and 21 years for men
- BMI: 25–27 kg/m2
- waist: >76.2 (30 inches) for women and >91.4 (36 inches) for men
- uric acid (>8 mg/dL)
- triglycerides level > 150 mg/dL and HDL cholesterol < 35 mg/dL type 2 diabetes mellitus or impaired glucose tolerance hypertriglyceridemia weight gain: >12 after 18 years for women and 21 years for men
- premature coronary heart disease
- type 2 diabetes mellitus **** major risk factor
- impaired glucose tolerance **** major risk factor
- polycystic ovaries **** major risk factor
Diabetes is commonly experienced by normal weight people and is a serious metabolic disease which is highly related to nutrition, genes, and environment. The ongoing stress of hyperglycemia may lead to dysfunction of the immune system as chronic inflammation causes damage from the inside out .
In living with metabolic disease, healing becomes more difficult and it’s easier to get more severe symptoms, and death from communicable diseases which may occur during pandemics. As a result, a person may have diminished resilience.
Non-healing wounds and amputations represent downstream progressions of the disease. Blood glucose plays a role in all of this. How your body tolerates glucose is of upmost importance for your health.
I want to drive home the point that metabolic obesity and issues with metabolism are likely the cause or contributor of nearly all age related diseases.
What is it that motivates you right now?
Whether it’s the anti-aging benefits, the physique benefits, or the disease benefits, use that to take action for the will of fresh, balanced, and nourishing traditions.
The good news is that diabetes can go into remission or be prevented through nutrition , and why should we examine the role that calories play beyond the function of weight management?
Understanding the Origin of Calories:
In the 18th century, “caloric” was thought to be a weightless gas causing of heat and combustion. This understanding was later replaced by the mechanical theory of heat in the 19th century.
Before nutrition, calories originated from the connection between mechanical work and heat. Caloric theory was once used to explain the operation of steam engines.
Does the heat definition of a calorie truly explain the body’s efficiency or the qualitative differences between calories from various sources, freshness, and timing though?
Bomb Calorimetry: A bomb calorimeter is a device that measures the heat of combustion of a sample. It’s a sealed chamber that’s filled with oxygen, in which a sample is burned. The heat produced is absorbed by surrounding water, and the temperature change is used to determine the caloric content.
A bomb calorimeter is a closed system of energy transfer for purposes of heat measurement. It is ideal for estimating power consumption needs of steam engines as it combines the mechanical power of the vessel with the heat producing potential of burning mass.
It’s an easy to measure closed system of energy transfer.
Are calorie counts accurate?
Calories labeled on boxes are arithmetic based estimates using the amount of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Food companies almost never actually measure calories directly.
Why is this problematic?
Because most food-like products (calories) consumed in America contain ingredients beyond macronutrients such as preservatives, fillers and lab chemicals.
Notable historical figures:
James Prescott Joule (1818-1889) is known for his experiments that quantified the relationship between heat and mechanical work.
While Joule’s experiments led to the idea of fuel burning being equivalent to physical work, using this principle to equate food energy directly to mechanical work VASTLY oversimplifies the complex metabolic processes in the human body.
A direct analogy can be fatally misleading. If a person living in a very large body is also malnourished, then what does that tell us about calories, health and energy balance (CICO)?
Nutrition pioneer, Wilbur Olin Atwater (1844-1907) was an American chemist known for his research in nutrition and human metabolism. He reduced the idea of food into heat energy from calories (often with a capital “C”, equivalent to 1000 small “c” calories, or a kilocalorie) to quantify the, “energy,” that humans could get from different foods.
He determined specific energy values for carbohydrates (4 kcal/g), proteins (4 kcal/g), and fats (9 kcal/g), which are known as the Atwater Factors. Almost all food labels provide estimates based on this rather than actual measurements of calories.
Atwater’s research was funded by government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, amongst other parties which may have contributed to the promotion of certain interests and various sectors within the agriculture and food industry.
Atwater’s focus on the caloric content of food as a primary measure of its value may be overly reductionist as it fails to consider the complex effects of various foods on health, metabolism, satiety, and especially long-term wellness. (Life without prescription drugs?)
Aside from calories being based on estimates rather than measurements, there may be valid criticism about the accuracy of calories in real metabolic scenarios.
By measuring the actual energy content of almonds within the context of a mixed diet, we have shown that the Atwater approach for calculating their energy content produce inaccurate results, in part attributable to lower digestibility of nut macronutrients.
These results also cast doubt on the ability of the Atwater factors to predict the energy value of other nuts, thus suggesting possible widespread inaccuracies in food labels.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3396444/
His legacy, while foundational, has perhaps steered nutrition science down a path where quantity (calories) overshadowed quality (nutrient density and food source) for much of the 20th century.
By emphasizing a system focused on caloric output, the food industry excessively markets ultra-processed and calorie-dense foods, which are often cheaper to produce and more addictive in nature while also being more toxic.
This may have directly led to the rise of disease in modern humans allegedly from the societal perpetuation of ultra processed food-like substances.
These sources of calories may contribute to all sorts of cancer and every possible ailment imaginable which there are a lot of and I’m sorry that I have to be the one to stand up here and say it.
Burning Calories: We need to continually reevaluate scientific consensus in light of new findings and understanding.
It’s commonly believed that humans use food for the purpose of creating heat, rather than understanding that heat is a byproduct of metabolism.
Consider that in many climates or during intense physical exercise scenarios, energy from nutrition is spent on cooling the body.
The term “burning calories” suggests a direct and efficient conversion of food into energy. In reality, metabolic processes like glycolysis are not 100% efficient, and energy is lost at various steps. Relying solely on calorie counts doesn’t provide insights into this inefficiency or other beneficial efficiencies like epigenetic activation (I’ll talk about it later related to fat loss).
Burning calories may be a misnomer. We don’t ignite food in our bodies as one might burn wood in a fire. By using this phrase, we might be unintentionally misleading people about how metabolism actually works, fostering a simplistic understanding and thus directing consumption to profitable boxes of ultra processed substances.
What about water?
Water molecules are involved in metabolic pathways like glycolysis. Water molecules are a key component in metabolism (used to slice chemical bonds), further reducing credibility to the concept of calorie, “burning.”
Framing just the caloric content of food may neglect the value of water and many other known or unknown non-caloric molecules in the story of human metabolism.
Focusing on calories can detract from other essential aspects of food, such as micronutrients, fiber content, and other beneficial compounds.
Two foods with the same caloric value can have vastly different nutritional profiles.
Caloric counts don’t consider individual metabolic rates, health conditions, or specific dietary needs. This generic approach can be misleading for individuals trying to make informed dietary choices.
In essence, while the concept of calories provides a basic framework for understanding food’s energy content, it’s a limited and often overly simplistic metric. The body’s metabolic processes, including glycolysis, are multifaceted and not entirely captured by the calorie-centric viewpoint.
A more holistic understanding of nutrition and metabolism would consider the quality, source, and preservation methods of food.
Many people believe that human metabolism is a closed system so that it applies accurately to the First Law of Thermodynamics. And yet, there is evidence to suggest that internal systems are impacted by external factors which may have cascading effects on human health, performance, function, longevity, and likely all disease outcomes .
Do molecules absorbed by the skin impact metabolism? Almost certainly.
Exacerbating the situation is that many molecules consumed unknowingly are extremely difficult to metabolize and process, which is likely why these molecules are stored away as fat to reduce the damage to other organs .
Pollutants bio-accumulate in adipose tissue, resulting in greater body burdens from a wide array of environmental toxicants with distinct mechanisms of action for expanding adipose tissue mass.
There is evidence to suggest many toxins play a significant role in the development of obesity, and in obesity-associated conditions such as type 2 diabetes.
Toxins in the fat are concerning.
I believe that it is why we should prioritize the mindset of nurturing high quality balanced fat inside our bodies rather than just, “burning,” it away. Weight loss may not be the best route for health — perhaps we should focus on organ health, the fat itself, transforming into a more suitable metabolic tissue that serves us.
If we can view body fat like an active essential organ rather than an energy reserve, then we can choose to honor the fat by healing the fat.
That’s why I just don’t care that much about the numbers on the box or the numbers on the chart — not even that on the scale.
Because if we heal the fat, it will construct the shape as it’s meant to be which is uniquely yours. Healthy fat serves you.
Calories In versus Calories Out: A Binary Perspective?
If we assume that all calories are equal, then doesn’t it give power to the owners, manufacturers and distributors of addictive food-like substances that are allegedly loaded with disease causing molecules even though the package says just 100 calories?
I’m not going to outright say that calories have turned into a tool of oppression by major corporations because I understand that you and many of my readers have had positive experiences with calories. I myself used calories to help me lose 50 pounds of weight before my first year at university.
Calories are already a very broad estimate and should probably not be taken as nutritional recommendations since everybody is biologically unique considering genetic and environmental factors. Surely, you’ve learned by now that health is not about calories.
We have to take responsibility for ourselves and others by demanding change as a society otherwise the problem will get worse and worse.
Healthcare is also infiltrated by the likes of private equity for the sole purpose of continuing to profit off of this disease cycle for many years to come. Don’t expect systemic change without a demand from the people.
It’s not easy to be a mindful consumer, and ultimately where your dollar goes does matter.
Alternatives to Calories or Life Post-Calorie Counting?
Even though I used calorie counting as a starting point for my weight loss journey, that doesn’t mean that my ~50lbs weight loss during my senior year of high school was using a healthy approach. In the years following my weight loss, I experienced a number of inflammatory related diseases that still impact me to this day.
Ultimately for me, it was having experienced nutritional healing first hand from a series of ailments during my late teens to early twenties that motivated me to value food quality and nutritional balance rather than seeking caloric deficits.
Honestly, I am still mentally, physically, and emotionally scarred from some of the events that I endured and I also feel let down by the system.
Along with having worked with many people who had similar or worse experiences early in my career, this is why I am so passionate about this concept of nutritional healing or nutritional therapy or nutritional intervention or whatever you want to call it.
How can you promote healthy, sustainable metabolism in every cell of your body?
I want to say healing without saying healing.
Basically, you can give your own unique body the nutrients to support normal or optimal organ function while avoiding the nutrients and stresses which cause toxicity in the system.
So there may be a path to recovery of healthy weight and function.
This path is different for all and highly related to environmental factors as well as childhood and teen experiences and nutritional history.
Ultimately, it’s about restoring nutritional balance and optimizing organ function, rather than creating deficits.
Consider Intuitive Eating…
Listen to your body: Recognize hunger, fullness and digestive or metabolic related cues.
Identify and nullify triggers that lead to eating patterns that you know do not serve you. By deactivating the trigger, the downstream behavior no longer has power over you.
Relish the taste, texture, and aroma of what you eat as you nourish your body.
Food Builds Community!
Fresh foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, tend to retain more nutrients and less waste products as there are no preservatives.
Fresh foods typically feature a more vibrant and rich flavor profile while gathering around to eat fosters community, conversation, and connection.
Food as Sacred and Fundamental.
Many cultures and religions assign spiritual significance to certain foods or the act of eating.
Approaching food with gratitude and mindfulness, savoring each bite, can transform the act of eating into a nourishing practice.
Not only that, food is essential to support your mission in life whatever that may be. It is theorized that our human bodies intuitively or instinctively have a feeling or knowing that there is some sort of necessary path to take which is more difficult than the instant gratification options provided by society.
Find Your Why: It may be that you already knew that you were meant to do something even though it was undefined. Recognizing and respecting this can help you stay motivated even when times are tough or when there are significant temptations.
Physical health is deeply intertwined with emotional and mental well-being, and food plays a crucial role in all these aspects.
We are what we metabolize.
The way our body processes food is complex. It’s not just about heat/mechanical energy (calories) but also about how various nutrients support different bodily functions.
Every person’s body is unique. What works for one person might not work for another due to metabolic differences.
Metabolism and Genetics, the Epigenome: How food influences genetics.
I want to spend a moment to speak about the biochemical processes occurring at the genetic level, impacting the function, formation, and action of all cells and how it relates to food. I’ll also give you information on which foods are more likely to initiate genetic expression for the benefit of fat loss.
The epigenome refers to chemical modifications to DNA that can modulate gene activity without altering the DNA sequence itself. These modifications can either activate or repress gene expression, acting as “switches” that determine which genes are turned on or off .
Foods, or more specifically, certain compounds found in foods, influence these epigenetic modifications, affecting various physiological processes, including metabolism, fat burning, and hormone regulation.
Nutrition goes far beyond calories is truly an understatement.
Ultra-processed food-like substances contain ingredients and molecules which disrupt the normal human metabolic and hormonal systems, thus no longer does the body produce fully functioning cells at every corner [16, 17].
In essence, corners are cut often because the information cannot be properly translated from the DNA instruction. With this food environment, there are a growing number of ways for our cells to become dysfunctional, destroying our metabolism.
Now, evidence suggests that food, via epigenetic pathways, can create an environment within the body that allows for the management of inflammation and the ability for fat cells to decrease in size [18, 19].
To burn fat, eating food is the actually best way to do that because fat burning requires genetic processes which can be activated by nutrients and lifestyle.
You need the hormone known as adiponectin, which genetic expression is correlated with a lean body.
Many people living in America tend to be carrying extra weight in undesirable areas or even consider themselves to be skinny-fat which is always representative of hormonal circumstances.
Good news though: lifestyle and nutritional intervention can promote the upregulation of desirable hormonal profiles , thus improving not only health outcomes, but also aesthetic benefits of appearing to be healthy.
Level of carbohydrate consumption may be higher or lower in a healthy person considering the quality and lifestyle activity, but in general it’s probably a good idea to reduce consumption of carbohydrates especially from wheat, rice and corn sources and particularly avoiding ultra-processed sources may be part of an excellent strategy for fat loss.
Regardless, choose the highest quality sources whenever possible. Most corn, wheat, and soy sold in food-like products are loaded in additional chemicals, though it could be possible to find high quality sources prepared using nourishing traditions. I sometimes eat those, but it does not represent the foundation of my eating, personally.
Adiponectin is a hormone produced and secreted exclusively by adipocytes (fat cells) that regulates the metabolism of lipids and glucose. Thus, it is extremely important for metabolizing and oxidizing fat.
Higher levels of adiponectin are linked to a reduced risk of metabolic diseases like type 2 diabetes. But more importantly is that higher adiponectin is associated with leanness, making it a desirable hormone to upregulate via nutritional strategies.
The body knows the way, it just needs to be nourished.
Several nutrients and bioactive food components have been researched for their potential to upregulate adiponectin expression:
How to Upregulate Your Adiponectin Hormone Level to Achieve a Lean, Healthy Body:
I have created a list of relatively easy to acquire nutrients that can promote fat loss. Indeed, there are a great many which are not listed because many different molecules whether from herbs or foods are capable of promoting a healthy hormonal balance in humans.
The purpose of this list is educational, to provide you with a perspective that food is incredibly powerful and important.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
Consumption of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), has been shown to increase adiponectin levels .
Found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, as well as in flaxseeds and chia seeds.
Higher magnesium intake is associated with increased adiponectin levels . Present in foods like avocado and leafy greens. Also, I speak about my favorite mineral supplement in the video below.
A polyphenol found in turmeric. Curcumin has been studied for its potential to boost adiponectin levels, as well as its anti-inflammatory properties .
Found in onions and several other plant foods.
Quercetin might help in upregulating adiponectin , though the exact mechanisms and effective doses need more research.
I didn’t always know that onions could be healing.
Speaking of energy though…
Some research suggests that a combination of caffeine and catechins, especially epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), might boost adiponectin levels . Found in green tea or matcha.
Way better than coffee.
Further epigenetic activity of foods:
Green Tea: The polyphenol epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) in green tea has been extensively researched for its potential cancer-preventing properties. It’s thought that EGCG can modulate epigenetic changes, especially in the context of cancer prevention .
Broccoli and Cruciferous Vegetables: These contain sulforaphane, a compound studied for its ability to inhibit histone deacetylases (HDACs) — enzymes that play a role in cancer development [27, 28, 29].
Sulforaphane may block the initiation stage in carcinogenesis by inhibiting enzymes that convert procarcinogens to carcinogens and inducing phase 2 enzymes that metabolize carcinogens to facilitate excretion.
Grapes: Resveratrol, found in grapes, has potential anti-cancer, anti-aging, and anti-inflammatory effects. Research suggests it might exert some of its effects by influencing epigenetic mechanisms .
Curcumin from Turmeric: Curcumin can influence various epigenetic processes. It has shown potential in reducing inflammation, cancer prevention, and neuroprotective effects .
Garlic: Compounds in garlic can inhibit or reduce the activity of HDACs, which might help in preventing cancer .
Folate-rich Foods: Folate is vital for DNA methylation, a primary epigenetic mechanism. Leafy greens, legumes, and some seeds and nuts are rich in folate .
Results not only confirm earlier findings of decreased risk of colorectal and esophageal cancers with a high dietary folate intake but also suggest decreased risk of several other cancers.
Berries: Anthocyanins, potent antioxidants in berries, have demonstrated the potential to reverse epigenetic modifications leading to cancer prevention .
Overwhelming evidence suggests that edible small and soft-fleshed berry fruits may have beneficial effects against several types of human cancers.
Create space for knowing and for unknowing, so that you may be open to wisdom and knowledge.
This food environment is no longer the one in which you could use your given sense such as sight, smell, taste and more.
So much is artificial, manufactured, engineered, and ultimately created purely for consumption without regard to the destructive impact on human health and society .
The consequence is massive profits for food companies in a similar vein to Big Tobacco companies who were some of the first to get involved the ultra-processed food market because they knew addiction when they saw it [36, 37, 38].
Of course the consumer is almost completely unaware of the immense psychological research which informs corporations ability to exploit the weakness and vulnerability in the human decision making system [39, 40].
While for most of existence on this planet, our ancestors could use food color as an indicator of nutrition. We still do, but now our senses are drawn to overly stimulating boxes and the pervasive use of food coloring chemicals inside the actual food product itself .
Exposure to these campaigns make intuitive eating much more difficult.
As a result of our freedoms, we are now stuck in a system in which the consumer is attached to the poison and the producers of the ultra-processed toxins also own drug companies which offer relief from the symptoms [42, 43, 44, 45,].
Yes, Nestle owns a company that sells drugs for IBS .
While it is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve the body of your dreams, or even just a body that you feel good in, there may be effective ways to encourage the natural process of healing and recovery.
It’s called Nutritional Therapy and anybody can do it.
Is Nutritional Therapy the most ideal alternative for individuals seeking health and fitness?
I have to say that nutritional therapy is the most important practice in my life.
And yet, even I fall off track and experience a type of relapse to ultra-processed foods full well knowing the negative effects on me. That is part of the bio-individuality aspect that we all come from different environments and backgrounds that influence relationships with food. Furthermore, that the unhealthy stuff is just far too prevalent in the current food environment.
It seems that society often downplays the dangers of the modern food environment despite preventable disease all around us. The concept of healthy eating has never been more confusing or complicated for the average person .
Allow me to introduce a foundational approach to nutrition, which emphasizes the body’s bio-individual needs and aims to balance body chemistry for optimal wellness, mental and physical performance.
Core Pillars of Health?
Digestion: Proper digestion is fundamental to health. Practitioners understand the importance of each stage of digestion and how to support optimal function throughout the digestive tract. We can test nutrients against your body for feedback of needs during each stage.
Blood Sugar Regulation: Dysregulation of blood sugar can lead to a host of health issues. Importance of maintaining stable blood sugar levels that support overall metabolic health, endocrine, and hormonal function. Truly, blood sugar regulation is of UPMOST importance for quality of life if you want to feel good without the instant/temporary highs that certain products sell you.
Mineral Balance: Minerals play crucial roles in most physiological processes. Ensuring a proper balance of essential minerals is vital for health and well-being. For example, magnesium is a common deficiency.
Fatty Acid Balance: Fats are extremely important and necessary for cellular function, hormone production, and overall health. To be healthy, you must consume balanced fats of high quality. Highly processed cooking oils are significant culprits of disease. Fats from food are stored in the fat for long durations (possibly years) before being oxidized. Additionally, the quality of fat from nutrition will directly relate to the quality of all of your cellular membranes.
Hydration: Proper hydration supports cellular function, detoxification, and overall vitality. Possibly consume clean water with natural electrolytes for hydration. Use carbon filters with drinking water or use pristine sources when possible. “Acceptable,” level of chemicals are in all municipal water supplies. Proceed with caution drinking tap water.
Nutrient Density: Whole-foods-based diet, rich in nutrient-dense foods that are bio-individual to each person’s unique needs. In general, you may need to increase Omega-3 consumption from wild fish or algae supplement, and most likely should reduce intake of ultra-processed vegetable oils and reduce intake of anything containing high fructose corn syrup, sugar, soybean oil, preservatives or emulsifiers.
I sincerely hope this post has given you food for thought.