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Many of us agree that experts generally cause more trouble than they are worth. The views they espouse often have more to do with ideology than with the subject matter about which they are expert. At the same time their expert status, often being based on some species of “science,” gives them a form of immunity to criticism, and immediately identifies their critics as Neanderthals (or worse, conservatives). Sooner or later, however, though it is often very much later, experts who base their views on ideology are defeated by actual facts, and if they are not entirely routed they will at least have to fall back into a more rearward trench.
The Progressive experts who in the 1970s foisted upon Americans the new dogma that low-fat diets are the means to prevent heart disease and cancer have been driven for a decade from their forward positions, and back into less substantial breastworks. As I pointed out in an earlier post, the latest rationale our dietary experts offer for insisting we continue avoiding at least saturated fat (if not all fat) is to fight global warming. (You may think this is not a very defensible position to be fighting from, but it is not as astounding as it first may seem, global warming being ultimately responsible for all of mankind’s ills.)
I would now like to point out another aspect of our dietary experts’ battle against dietary fat which you may not think can possibly have an ideological aspect, but which nonetheless does: The idea that a calorie is just a calorie.
A calorie is just a calorie, and whether we gain or lose weight is simply determined by the number of calories we eat compared to the number we burn off. So if we want to lose weight all we need is our Fitbit or Apple Watch to track calories in and out, and a bit of willpower.
Our national dietary experts (and not coincidentally, companies like the ones that make Fitbits and Apple Watches) very much like the idea that a calorie is a calorie. This idea has two virtues. First, it is true. Net calories, when you account for caloric intake, metabolism and exercise, determines whether we burn or store fat.
Second, it supports the idea of low-fat diets. Since fat contains 9 calories per gram compared to 4 calories per gram for carbs and protein, it is obvious that to maintain a healthy weight we should avoid fat. This rationale, in fact, was the original fall-back position of the McGovern Dietary Panel in 1977 when it was pointed out to them that there really wasn’t any evidence that a strict low-fat diet would improve cardiovascular outcomes. Well, the panel decided, while we’re proving we’re right about heart disease at least people will stop gaining weight by cutting back on fat.
To reiterate, the “all calories are alike” position is as follows: All we have to do to maintain a good weight is assure that, on average, we are taking in no more calories than we burn. Calories in, minus calories out, equals calories stored or lost. It’s a simple equation, simple thermodynamics. And this simple fact dictates that fat, with its high caloric density, should be avoided. Case closed.
But here’s the thing. While a calorie is indeed a calorie when it comes to how much energy you get when it’s burned, the form in which we take in our calories still makes a big difference in the outcome of that simple equation.
Human physiology interposes itself on straightforward thermodynamics. We might even consider that a chief characteristic of life itself is to rearrange straightforward thermodynamics (in particular, by reducing local entropy). So we are not simply absorbing the fat, protein and carbs we eat, burning what we must and storing the rest. Our bodies treat the food we eat not simply as a source of energy, but also as a source of information about our environment. And thus, our physiology changes and adjusts according to what we are putting into our mouths. These changes, again caused by what kind of food we’re eating, have a significant impact on how much fat we store, and how much we end up weighing.
Here are just a few examples:
- It costs more energy to digest protein than fat or carbs – this is the thermal effect of metabolism – so protein yields fewer usable calories per gram.
- Foods with a high glycemic index (generally, simple carbs) cause a large spike-and-drop in insulin levels. The insulin spike assures that lots of calories get stored as fat. The subsequent precipitous drop in insulin causes ravenous hunger a couple of hours after a high-carb meal. So we eat a bag of Oreos, and repeat the entire cycle.
- Some foods cause satiety much more than others. It is much easier to consume lots of calories by eating cookies, donuts and chips than it is by eating lots of eggs, meats, beans, and whole fruit.
- Eating protein suppresses the appetite (over and above any effect on immediate satiety). This is probably why people on low-carb diets often end up eating fewer calories without really trying to.
- Eating fructose (even as opposed to glucose) tends to stimulate the appetite, possibly by stimulating the hunger hormone ghrelin.
These illustrations make it clear that, while net calories indeed equals what we take in minus what we burn, what kind of food we choose to eat effects this simple equation in far more ways than merely the calorie count contained in that food. Food is data, and our bodies adjust to the data we give it by suppressing or stimulating our appetite, adjusting food absorption, and altering our metabolism.
Our national food experts have fought this idea because it implies that (and indeed helps explain why) a low-fat, high-carb diet is not good for us, and leads to obesity and heart disease – the opposite of what they have promised. “A calorie is just a calorie” on the other hand indicts fat, and justifies the increasingly bankrupt position that we should avoid it at all costs.
Who would have thought that “a calorie is a calorie” is just another Progressive slogan?Published in