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Let’s talk: Calorie Equations

Posted Sep 02 2010 4:07pm

*Disclaimer*: Everything I discuss is based off my own learning (in college courses). Although credible, I don’t provide links to sources.


*If you’ve learned anything about basic nutrition, you’ve probably heard the following:

A calorie is a calorie; no matter where it’s from.

     If you consume more calories than you burn, you will gain weight.

          If you consume less calories than you burn, you will lose weight.

                        balancing_your_diet (source)

This is the widely accepted logic that has served as the basis of many diet & exercise programs. It’s not really disputed because it uses such rational, mathematic principles.

However, I disagree.

I think the calorie equation makes the assumption that humans are like machines. We are similar to cars, aren’t we ? So, if we can calculate how much energy is needed to fuel this human being, and we put that amount of energy in their ‘tank’, then they will be able to operate accordingly.

But the thing is, humans are not machines. We are organisms. Our bodies don’t function as calculators, they function as a highly-adaptive, biological system.

humanmachine (source) humandigestivesystem_jpg (source)

“A calorie is a calorie.”

With this concept, person A could eat 2000 calories a day of kale and their twin, person B, could eat 2000 calories a day of doughnuts and they would both maintain their body weight.

But let’s first look at some facts:

  • Calories simply define how much energy is contained in a food. It does not consider how bioavailable this energy is or how your body will process it.
  • Just because a calorie was ingested, doesn’t mean it was absorbed by your body.

“Bioavailable” just refers to how easy it is for your body to acquire nutrients (or energy). Have you ever eaten something and [*ahem*] seen it come out the other end? Yeah, that wasn’t bioavailable ;)

A lot of people tend to assume that metabolism is a steady, concrete variable but it’s not. If you start depriving your body of energy, then it will adapt in order to sustain itself on low amounts of energy. In other words, your metabolism slows.

But the same holds true for the opposite. If your body has slowed it’s metabolism & you start consuming more calories, then it will adapt. You have a built-in buffer mechanism, so to speak.

It’s truly impossible to know exactly how many calories you’re burning and absorbing because your body does different things!


Here’s my theory:

I think if you’re used to eating simple, natural foods (which are nutrient-dense by nature), then your body will become accustomed to the steady inflow of bioavailable vitamins & minerals. Therefore, it can be more lenient (sort-of ‘pick & choose’) when/how much food to absorb to acquire energy.

However, if you’re accustomed to eating processed food (like doughnuts), you’re introducing something foreign to your body. It’s missing all those nutrients that are usually found in nature.

So, your body is going to get everything out of that food that it can (simple energy) and want to continue to absorb & utilize foods in an attempt to acquire the essential nutrients it needs to function.

Kind of like this:


*Nature + Nature = We’re in harmony*

*Nature + Huh? = Get everything you can*

Does that make any sense? haha ;)

So, in my opinion, you could eat a lot more “natural” calories and remain at the same weight than you could eat “processed” calories. This of course only applies if you are already at your body’s “healthy weight.”

What do you think? Are all calories created equal? Do you think the calorie equation is accurate?

Don’t be afraid to tell me my theory is bogus! I like hearing your opinions :D

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