The Truth About Calories

We often get this question from new customers: "Why do your meals have so few calories? I don't think they'll fuel my upcoming backpacking trip.."

Let's explore this very popular topic.

Caloric relevancy. Otherwise know as, The CALORIE …

How much do YOU rely on calorie counting as you seek to live a healthy lifestyle? It's time you understood the limitations of doing so. So, buckle up.

The "calorie equality" myth.

Here’s the myth – "a calorie is a calorie is a calorie!" This mantra has been preached to us, the public, with a strange orthodox fervor for decades. "All calories are equal!" goes the refrain.

Have we been dangerously mis-informed? Have we been misled? In a word, yes. The "calorie equality" belief needs to be permanently debunked.

Why? Let’s start with definitions again. What is meant by the credo "a calorie is a calorie?" According to the literature, the most common meaning is that two isocaloric diets (two diets having similar caloric values) cannot possibly create different weight loss results.

This is the falsehood.


1. Two Twinkies – 300 calories (see nutrition chart and ingredient list here)

• 9g of fat (Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable and/or Animal Shortening),
54g carbohydrates (enriched bleached wheat flour, corn syrup, sugar, high fructose corn syrup)
• 2g of protein

2. Elements’ Sesame Garlic Chicken meal – 310 calories
(see ingredient list and nutrition chart here)

• 9g fat (premium coconut fat)
• 27g carbohydrates (only vegetables)
• 29g of protein -- naturally raised chicken.

Okay. Go ahead and tell me honestly that "a calorie is a calorie" here. Tell me that there’s really no difference to your body between eating 2 Twinkies or an Elements meal – two isocaloric meals.

Calories and thermodynamics.

Supporters of the calorie equality myth say that their hypothesis that "weight gain or loss on isocaloric diets is and must always be the result of only calories consumed, is also supported by the first law of thermodynamics … the law of energy conservation. This first law holds that even though the form of energy may change, the total amount of energy is nevertheless always preserved.

But their hypothesis and conclusions are flawed because their analysis is incomplete. Specifically, they fail to account for the second law of thermodynamics, the dissipation law. The second law, which drives chemical reactions, holds that in any irreversible process (like human metabolism of food), entropy (energy loss) must irreversibly increase – balance is not expected. In short, the calorie equality myth violates the second law!

Gluconeogenesis. So what? Well, here’s one example.

The calorie equality myth argues that carbohydrate and protein are equivalent fuels – that they are energetically equivalent, i.e. 1 gram of protein contains the same amount of energy as 1 gram of carbohydrate. It is true that both these amounts have the same original energy value … 4 calories.

However, this argument fails to account for gluconeogenesis, the process by which protein is converted to carbohydrate – the formation of glucose from protein. Carbohydrates don’t require this conversion process. Moreover, gluconeogenesis requires energy, burning calories to convert protein to carbohydrate. To put a fine point on it, gluconeogenesis from one mole of alanine (a non-essential protein) requires about 6 ATP (energy). These basic facts prove that protein and carbohydrate are not equivalent fuels. They are not caloric equivalents.

Thermic dynamics of food.

Here’s more science on why the "a calorie is a calorie" mantra is false. The second law of thermodynamics says that no machine, including the highly complex biochemical human body, is completely efficient (see gluconeogenesis above).

Inefficiency means that some fuel (calories) is dissipated as heat and not available for performing the "work" the body needs. Macronutrients are processed by different metabolic pathways, each with varying degrees of efficiency.

The more efficient the pathway, the less energy is expended to digest, absorb and metabolize the food. The thermic effect of food is a measure of how much different foods increase energy expenditure, due to the energy required to digest, absorb and metabolize the nutrients. Here are the thermic effects of the different macronutrients:

Fat: 2-3% (extremely efficient)

Carbohydrate: 6-8% (less efficient than fat)

Protein: 25-30% (least efficient)

What does this mean? Protein requires much more energy to metabolize than carbohydrate or fat. Here’s the math: For every 100 calories of protein you consume, 75 calories are available for body work. Twenty-five (25) calories are dissipated as heat. In short, protein calories are less "fattening" than calories from carbohydrates and fat because protein takes more energy to metabolize.

So, can we finally put this "a calorie is a calorie" dogma in the dumpster?!

Next time you hear someone talking about "a calorie is a calorie," kindly raise the intelligence level of the conversation and share your more complete knowledge. Let’s guide others to a better understanding of food and nutrition.

Hey, you know what else takes more energy to digest and metabolize? WHOLE FOODS!

This is yet another of the dozens of benefits you enjoy when you eat Elements Meals!

Next week – the final chapter on calories. You’ll enjoy it. We’re going to dive into the history of vitamins … and why calories tell us nothing about them.


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