Science shows that calories are a dumb standard
A 2012 study led by a Harvard researcher tested the health impacts of various diets while keeping one variable the same: calories (surprise!). Using rigorous, state-of-the-art methods (stabilized isotopes anyone?), the study examined how the quality (not quantity) of calories might influence weight loss. Even at the same caloric intake, the low-carb diet was shown to burn 300 more calories than the low-fat diet. Further health implications unique to each diet led the researchers to conclude that “all calories are not created equal.”
A separate study led by Dr. Robert Lustig drives the point home. Once again, the participants consumed the same calories, but this time, only sugar was reduced. After only nine days, virtually every aspect of the participants’ metabolic health improved (some drastically). The study concluded that it wasn’t the calories causing damage, but the sugar, and they could see differences in less than two weeks. But since you’re now a fructose/glucose expert, you could probably already guess this.
So is there any reason to track calories?
Calories certainly can have a place in health management when viewed properly. If you consume more calories than you use, you‘ll gain weight. Period.
But the fixation on calories as the be-all, end-all of weight management isn’t just wrong, it’s harmful. It’s led to industry-funded research to emphasize that exercise can counteract calories consumed, in spite of all the evidence that calorie quality matters.
Calories can come from all kinds of places, and those places are more important than the calories themselves. Maybe it’s time for an update to our nutrition labels, so that we’re not using a unit from an era when heroin was considered a cough remedy.
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Nicholas Knock is a freelance writer for Thrillist who stopped giving heroin to children years ago. You can follow him on Twitter @nickaknock.