Exploring the Concept and Flawed Application of the Caloric Measure

Sometimes it’s good to take a step back, check our logic and assumptions on a topic, and make sure our basic understanding still holds water.  Kinda like checking for that weak link in your strength chain.  A sanity check every now and then can save us from wandering lemming-like over the cliff of smug confidence.  And what could be more at the root, in reference to our understanding of diet, than checking our assumptions about the basic unit of nutritional measure, the calorie.

Well, not much of a surprise in this instance; the calorie – the unit measurement standard of nutritional science — is still a lousy standard for measuring human fueling requirements; a little like trying to accurately measure in inches with a metric ruler.

So here’s one major problem (among many) with mainstream nutritional science; in fact, I believe this problem to be, ultimately, the “shifting sands” that has bedeviled mainstream nutritional science’s foundation from the get-go: the concept of the calorie as being an accurate measure of the human body’s energy metabolism.  The problem is, of course, that the body does not “burn” fuel in the same way as does, say, an internal combustion engine.  And that single misstep – that simpleton way of thinking about human metabolism — drives the entire “all calories are treated equally in the body” mindset.  It’s an “error carried forward” that mucks-up the entire science.

The problem, of course, is that the body is not a simple, thermodynamic entity, but is more akin to a highly, highly complicated biochemical reactor; a calorie-equivalent amount of fat and carbohydrate will undergo radically different processes within the body, and result in two totally different metabolic outcomes.

Sanity check?  Yeah, we’re still on the right track.  It’s not the amount of fuel so much as the content that matters.

Carl Lanore, of Superhuman Radio, recently interviewed Dr. Peter Rouse (who wrote a guest post with respect to the “calorie standard flaw” on Carl’s blog, here).  Nothing new to those of us who’ve busted free of the “all calories are created equal” mindset, but an interesting interview and blog post nonetheless.

Thursday Night’s Beat the Storm Workout –

…another from the “it ain’t gotta be complicated to be effective” files…

Living in eastern North Carolina has hardened me to the scare tactics of Doppler RADAR, as a check of the region’s conditions on The Weather Channel for any given summer evening will reveal shifting splotches of greens, yellows, oranges and reds – enough to keep any (sane) rider from venturing out.  Not me, I saddle-up and hit the road anyway.  Last night, though, was different, as Doppler RADAR revealed the leading edge of a cold front marching west-to-east across the region.  Severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings began rolling in from counties to the west.  So what to do?  Drive to the gym?  Yeah, right.  What, and miss out on such great incentive?  I did what any true fixie man would do – I saddled-up and hit some serious sprints toward the gym.  And that hard tailwind had me feeling like superhuman – until I remembered that I’d have to fight the same wind on the return trip.  Oh well…

My idea here was to blast through these 4 sets as fast as humanly possible, then saddle back up and make the mad dash for home, hopefully beating the storm.  Autoregulation at the 6-rep range.  Only enough rest between exercises to allow for shifting stations.

deadlift (over/under grip): 225 x 10; 315 x 6; 365 x 6, 5

weighted dips: 45 x 10; 70 x 6; 90 x 6, 7

Nothing at all pretty here, but damn if it wasn’t metabolically taxing.  This was completed, door-to-door, in just under 40 minutes.  2.5 miles of fixed-speed intermittent sprinting, the blistering super-set, and a 2.5 mile sprint (with urgency!) back home.  The headwinds from the approaching storm had to be topping 40 mph, and that sprint home – especially on the heels of that dips/DL superset — was punishing.  The reward?  Watching the storm rage while frying up some post-workout NY strips 🙂

10 responses to “Exploring the Concept and Flawed Application of the Caloric Measure

  1. “The problem, of course, is that the body is not a simple, thermodynamic entity, but is more akin to a highly, highly complicated biochemical reactor; a calorie-equivalent amount of fat and carbohydrate will undergo radically different processes within the body, and result in two totally different metabolic outcomes.”

    Well said! Sadly we do live in a world right now that is TRULY stuck in a low fat/ low calorie mindset. Meanwhile people all around me try to convince me that my eating is not healthy. And I think, “really, as you sit there and eat a bag of Doritos – you think I’M eating unhealthy.” Another friend (and I use that term loosely) called my diet, “a heart attack waiting to happen.” I guess we’ll see who has the last laugh there.

  2. Keith,

    I would take this to another level. Food is not for only energy(caloric) purposes. All this talk of calories obscures from our vision that food contains the building blocks for our bodies, whether it be muscle, bone, brain, what have you. Fat and protein are building blocks. If anything, it is a waste to think of protein as primarily an energy source! If we started looking at things this way then we would be searching for highly nutritious foods that aid us in building and repair, not just in a search to balance our expenditure.

    This is why it gets me upset when people feed their children garbage. For them, above all, they need building blocks, not just energy as their bodies are getting built over the course of nearly 2 decades. I saw my brother feeding his daughter fig newtons for breakfast and had a strong emotional reaction. To him, his daughter isn’t overweight so why does it matter? It matters because food is more than just energy.

    You are on a roll with awesome, thoughtful posts. Keep it up!


    • Exactly right, Jeff. It has always struck me as a bit odd that someone would stress over the quality of gasoline going in their car while hoovering a Taco Bell lunch.

  3. Clearly there’s no simple calories in = calories out equation for the human body, but quantity has got to come into the discussion for people looking to lose weight. For the average person on the SAD I’m sure an increase in quality of food (like a switch to a primal/paleo approach) would produce great results, but as an athlete with a pretty clean diet I’ve never been able to lean out without careful caloric considerations. Of course I’m not losing 1lb for every 3,500 calories in my defecit, but I do need to track calories in vs. calories out to really influence my weight.

    Surely those of us not looking to build strength/mass can all benefit from eating less anyway?

    • No doubt. For example, at 20% bodyfat, calories are of little importance, and content rules; plunge down to the single-digits (low teens for females), and it’s a whole different story. Content still matters greatly, of course, but fuel volume does then become more and more of a factor, as does frequency, cycling, IF, and a host of other variables that, at previously high BF levels, are rendered essentially inconsequential.

  4. As much as I’ve bagged on the alternate theory of obesity before (or at least parts of it), I don’t think this is an either/or scenario. Individuals who are overfat/obese do have a hormonal situation where they no longer recognize leptin signaling, insulin sensitivity is severely blunted, insulin is elevated nearly chronically, and FFA use is compromised as a result. That fits the notion of “cellular starvation” to a T.

    That said, we have decades of contest lean natural bodybuilders who got to that level by reducing calories and increasing expenditure. So why not recognize both models as having validity? If you’re over 20%, increasing food quality and generally reducing carbohydrates is going to solve half of the equation. As you get leaner you will have to pay attention to how much you shove down your neck but at that point you have a “real” appetite and you’re eating high quality foods so satiation is drastically improved.

    Note: I wrote this about 5 hours ago and see some responses that are similar. I’m being redundant. 😮

    • So true. We do ourselves a severe disservice when we stick to the “calories don’t matter” mantra, and then have to account for someone like Lance Armstrong (or any endurance athlete for that matter). Few people, of course, have the patience for long, drawn-out discussions and explanations; everyone wants sound-bite answers. Unfortunately, this is not a topic (is there a topic??) that can be adequately handled in a simple sound-bite. And, too, controversy, bluster, and claiming a single-sided stance sells. Thorough examination of a topic is considered wishy-washy and not to be trusted. But hey, that’s fine by me. Being “Wishy-washy” has enabled me, now at 45, to remain strong, healthy and with single-digit bodyfat levels. If I ever get a tattoo, I’m opting for “the only dogma is that there is no dogma” 🙂

  5. Nice one again Keith. I still have people argue with me on this one. I usually hit them with this logic:
    “So you believe that if you ate what you think is 1000 ‘calories’ of pasta, 1000 ‘calories’ of ribeye, or 1000 ‘calories’ of spinach, they all deliver your body the same amount of energy?”

    This usually gets them to stop and think. If this doesn’t work, and my arguing skills lapse, I simply tell them to eat like a diabetic so they don’t become one!

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