It's apples and oranges

There are more factors involved in weight regulation than reducing calorie intake. Mark Bittman writes.

india Updated: Mar 21, 2012 23:25 IST

I was looking forward to Why Calories Count, the new book by Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim. I figured gaining an advanced education in calories might allow me to better understand diet and weight gain. But, of course, there is more to weight gain than the calorie.

This was obvious from the moment I asked Nestle a key question: "Is a calorie a calorie?" It might help to first define a calorie, and that's easy: it's a measure of the energy derived from a food source. A gram of fat has been determined to have nine calories and a gram of protein or carbohydrate four calories; so for any given measure, fat has more than twice as many calories as protein or carbs.

A food isn't a food, they're all different. But since a calorie is just a measurement of energy, how can it vary? When I asked my question, Nestle's answer was confounding: "Yes and no," she said. Because calories change as they enter the body, the nine grams for fat and four for everything else turn out to be not accurate measures at all; besides, foods are only rarely one thing or another. Here's what is true, she said: "The studies that have measured calorie intake, that have put people on calorie-reduced diets and measured what happened, show no difference in weight loss based on composition of the diet." When all intake is weighed and measured, people will lose weight if the calories in their diets are reduced - regardless of the composition of the diet. "But no one lives under experimental conditions, and foods are complicated mixtures," she said.

The 'calorie is a calorie' argument is widely used by the processed food industry to explain that weight loss isn't really about what you eat but about how many calories you eat. But if it were just about calories, you could eat only sugar and be fine. In fact, you'd die: sugar lacks essential nutrients. That's an obvious case. But there are other factors involved. For one thing, says Nestle: "There are dozens of factors involved in weight regulation. It's hard to lose weight, because the body is set up to defend fat, so you don't starve to death; the body doesn't work as well to tell people to stop eating as when to tell them when to start." An important question, then, is really something like: 'What can I eat to keep from putting on weight?' and here the answer turns out to be not only easy but also expected. "If you're eating a lot of fruits and vegetables," Nestle says, "you're not taking in as many calories as you would if you were eating fast food and sodas." Yes, that's a calorie issue; the latter group is way higher in calories than the former. But though there's a difference between eat less and eating better, "Eating better makes it much easier to eat less."

When I asked Nestle what she would do, given that people in the US were eating too many calories, she answered: "We need a farm bill that's designed from top to bottom to support healthier diets, one that supports growing fruits and vegetables and making them cheaper. We need to fix school lunches so they're based on fresh foods, and fix food assis-tance programmes so people have greater access to healthier foods." Her list goes on: fix the food-safety system; make it possible for people to get into farming; fix front-of-packaging labeling. And a couple of big ones: "Stop marketing food to kids. Period." And get rid of health claims on food packages too."

Even if a calorie is a calorie, the situation is not so simple.

First Published: Mar 21, 2012 23:23 IST