Book – Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics

Why Calories Count, by Marion Nestle

What is a calorie?  This seems a rather obvious question, but how well do you actually understand what a calorie is, how they are used by the body, why an abundance of calories causes weight gain while restricting calories causes weight loss, how different types of calories affect the body, and what our bodies do with calories?  Even if you feel you’re pretty well educated on nutrition, this book provides a detailed, but easy to understand, history of calories as well as delving into the science of calories and finally tackling the current issues surrounding obesity in modern society.

The overall message of the book is that calories do, in fact, count.  There are many forces at play that are causing us to eat more than we ever have before and many confusing messages that distract people from this basic fact. “Calorie distracters lull people into forgetting how much they are eating.  They convey the impression that what you eat matters more to body weight than how much you eat.  Conveying this impression is the basis of the flourishing diet industry.”  Nestle argues that despite smaller contributions from factors such as a lack of physical activity or the consumption of junk food, it is the quantity of food we consume that is leading to the lifestyle related diseases such as diabetes or obesity.

The book also contains many gems of knowledge about subjects related to calories such as Metabolism and BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate)

“Metabolism is the term given to the entire process of using the molecules in the food you eat to maintain your basic functions, build new molecules characteristic of your own body, use your muscles, and produce energy.”

“…the resting metabolism of small animals was higher than that of large animals.  The difference was not proportional to weight.  Instead, it was proportional to body surface area.  When scientists measured the heat produced by resting animals of any size, it turned out to be about 1,000 calories per day per square meter of body surface area.”

“Body fat is much less metabolically active than other body tissues, and its heat production accounts for only a small part of the BMR.  In one study, for example, body fat accounted for nearly 14 percent of body weight but only 4 percent of BMR.”

“There is not a whole lot you or anyone else can do to increase your BMR, except by developing a higher proportion of lean to fat tissue through physical activity.”

The most revealing parts to me were the parts about why we find ourselves in this predicament and why it is so difficult to change our habits of overeating in the current food environment, both from a political and biological perspective.  The political aspect is of particular interest to me as I am now in the position of wanting to work to change our society to make it easier for people to lead a healthy lifestyle.  As things stand, you have to go against social pressures to lead a healthy life, and it is needlessly difficult.  A few more highlights from the book:

“From a political standpoint, advice to move more is much less threatening than advice to eat less.  Moving more does not affect the economic interests of food companies or any other powerful industry.  In contrast, eating less is bad for business.  And advice to eat less raises uncomfortable questions about exactly what foods you are supposed to eat less of.  With that said, we must make it clear that we think it is important to be as physically active as possible, but mainly for health reasons that go beyond just balancing food calories.”

“The need for food is so basic to life that a physiological system centered in the brain evolved to control it.  To regulate eating behavior – hunger, the intake of food, and satiety – the brain responds to internal signals that tell it when more energy is needed and when it is not.”

“The ‘Shareholder Value’ Movement. The onset of a movement to force corporations to produce more immediate and higher returns on investment especially increased competitive pressures on food companies.  Compteitive pressures forced food companies to consolidate, become larger, and seek new markets and ways to expand sales in existing markets.  The collateral result was a changed society.  Today, in contrast with the early 1980s, it is socially acceptable to eat in more places, more frequently, and in larger amounts, and for children to regularly consume fast foods, snacks, and sodas – changes that singly and together promote higher calorie intakes. “

She goes on to describe some of the ways in which this changed food environment promotes overeating:

  • Foods away from Home,
  • New Products (20,000 new products introduced per year)
  • Larger Portions
  • Ubiquity (food everywhere)
  • Frequency (constant nibbling)
  • Proximity (location of fast food restaurants near schools increases consumption and incidence of overweight)
  • Low Prices (on a per calorie basis, junk foods are cheaper than healthier foods)
  • Marketing Health (Experiments show that people eat more calories from snack foods labeled low fat, no trans fat, or organic.)

“If like most people, you do not notice how food marketing affects your food choices, it is because you are not supposed to.  You are especially not supposed to notice how it affects your children.  If you want to eat less, eat better, and be more active, you must – on your own – find strategies for coping with the “eat more” pressures from food marketers and your own biology.”

Finally, she suggests and details strategies to do just that and suggests people should find strategies that work for them in their own lives:

  • Get organized
  • Get motivated
  • Monitor your weight
  • Find support
  • Eat less
  • Be aware of calories (Here is the only disagreement I have with her.  She suggests that calorie counting is simply too difficult for people to do it effectively.  I think that may have been true in the past, but websites and apps like MyFitnessPal make it really easy.  However, I do agree with her not to be obsessive.  You have to recognize that calorie counting is really calorie estimating.  A few hundred calories in either direction is well within the margin of error.  It’s not an exact science to count calories, but I found it extremely educational and now do not need it to maintain my weight.)
  • Pick a diet that works for you.  The best diet is the one that helps you eat less and eat better in whatever way you enjoy:
    • Low fat: restricts calories from meat, full fat dairy, and fried foods
    • Low carbohydrate: restricts calories from bread, potatoes, pastas, desserts, sodas
    • Low glycemic index: restricts calories from foods containing rapidly absorbable sugars and starches
    • Vegetarian, vegan: restricts calories from meat and dairy foods
    • No food mixing: restricts calories from one food or another group
    • Volumetric: requires eating more low calorie fruits and vegetables

“Whatever you do, try to make changes you will be able to live with for the long term.”

I highly recommend this book for my fellow skeptics and rational people who just want some straight answers about issues of diet without the hyperbole and hype.  This is not a diet book, although I think reading it could be very helpful to someone trying to lose weight.

4 thoughts on “Book – Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics

  1. Calories count but they will never be as important as nutrients. Nutrients count, and the extent to which we damage our nutrients before ingesting them is overwhelming and rarely discussed.
    More people have died from and been afflicted with, diseases because of malnutrition that obesity can ever claim. American has the great case of malnutrition. Places like Niger in africa have acute malnutrition whose ramifications are more immediate – either forms of bad nutrients are damaging (one just takes longer to set in, sometimes). Oliver

    1. Just to soften or expand on that statement; Of course it is important to lose weight – and that is one hel uv a journey for anyone (and a rewarding one). What can be misleading however is believing that once we are thin (or Thinner), that we are healthier.
      There are many skinny people with cancer, diabetes, lupus, heart disease, alzheimers, lime disease, parkinsons, aids and other immune diffecient disorders etc. There are about 12,000 diseases that skinny people are afflicted with. 12,000
      90 percent of them have all to do with our own bodies inability to ward off and fight or keep us immune to them. The reverse of course is done with a strong, resistant and resiliant immune system. An immune system and all body processes can only perform well when properly nutrated (given whole unadulterated nutrients).
      We’ve cut down on french fries and pie etc., but there are so many diet foods, or low calorie foods that don’t have nutrients in them yet the labels say that they do. All cereals for one. All breads for another. The list is long and includes many of our favorite healthy organic, low calorie items.

  2. Does this book discuss macronutrients or real food as far as quality of calories goes? For example, I believe a calorie is a calorie, and 3,500 excess calories equals a pound. But I also believe certain calories, while equal in weight gain or loss impact, affect you differently. For example, with satiety. I can eat 2,000 worth of chips, salsa, and a Mexican meal. However, if I sat down with 2,000 calories of, say, steak and vegetables, I would struggle to finish. Add in bread, and it’s much easier. I’m torn on whether this is macronutrients related (more protein), micronutrient related, or what. It’s not volume, because I can eat a lot more Mexican door or pizza, volume-wise. So something is causing it. I personally notice it more with protein, but know you’re vegetarian, and probably have seen the same thing, and wondered if you’ve pinpointed it. Part of me thinks the fairly nutrient-lacking foods don’t trigger a full response for whatever, or create a circular craving of some kind…

    Anyway, been working on figuring that out with my own trial and error, but haven’t made a lot of progress.

    Oh, and not only do I feel fuller faster, but stay fuller longer.

    And I’d like to footnote that by saying not everyone has the same reaction. I know some people who can eat a huge steak without blinking. For me, though, I physically cannot eat that much, whereas I can eat bread, chips, cereal, ice cream, etc until I want to be sick, but still want more and sometimes don’t feel full (despite the dull sugar-overload sick feeling).

    1. She does discuss that. And concludes just what you do- it’s different for each person. A person who has trouble limiting carbohydrates will naturally do better on a low carb diet because they will inevitably decrease their caloric intake because they are cutting out the foods they normally overeat. One could say the same thing about a low fat diet. However, when it comes to which diet is “better” overall, there’s basically no difference. It would be a matter of personal preference, or whatever works best for you in your life. Sounds to me you are on the right track with the trial and error approach. That’s also what worked for me. I think staying away from nutrient lacking foods is a good idea in general and even more important for those on a calorie restricted diet to ensure you are getting as much nutrition as possible from the foods you do eat.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s