A calorie is, incontrovertibly, now and forever, a calorie. Well, a kilocalorie actually. Back to that in a minute.
Not every gallon of gasoline poured into the tank of every car produces the same travel distance. But that does not induce us to ask: Is a gallon a gallon? Of course a gallon is a gallon; it is a precise and clearly defined unit of volume not up for debate. We recognize that variation in the fuel efficiency of cars can change what happens when a gallon of fuel is burned. But it was still a gallon of fuel.
A degree — on any given temperature scale — is a degree. That doesn’t mean every degree will FEEL the same to you or me, because we are more sensitive to temperature change in some parts of the range than others. We are unlikely to notice the difference, for instance, between 41 degrees below zero Fahrenheit and 42 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Both are so cold, who cares? But we might well notice the difference between 67 and 68 while sitting in an office if we happen to be a bit chilly at the former and comfortable at the latter. But still, a degree is a degree.
A mile is a mile. But walking one over flat ground when well-rested feels very different from climbing one up a mountain when exhausted. But the differences have to do with our condition, terrain and altitude — not distance. A mile is… a mile.
As noted above, the measure we actually use when talking about food is the kilocalorie. A kilocalorie (Europeans use the kilojoule, by the way) is the energy required to raise the temperature of one liter of water one degree Celsius at sea level. Does it sound as if that leaves much room for debate? It is a unit of energy, no more debatable than a unit of distance, temperature, volume or velocity.
Why, then, is there a cottage industry in questioning the calorie? And why am I so adamant that this cottage industry should be shut down? I will address these questions in turn.
Questioning the calorie sells. It sells books, articles, magazines, newspapers and air time. It exploits the difficulty so many of us have with weight control, and turns it into a dumbed-down pet theory, conspiracy theory, and/or magical thinking. It offers a false promise of weight loss independent of energy balance. And since real and keepable promises about weight loss require the actual effort involved in dealing with energy balance, false promises perennially appeal.
My adamant opposition to this industry relates to the fact that it is harmful to health — public and personal. The more time we spend debating what should not be debatable, the more time we spend with understanding, consensus, collective effort and resources diverted from where they could make a meaningful and positive difference. The more often we buy a new answer to the “Is a calorie a calorie?” question, the more time we spend mired in epidemic obesity. Those profiting from the confusion probably don’t mind, but you should.
“Is a calorie a calorie?” is the wrong question, obscuring all of the right questions and diverting our attention from what matters. It also is a classic example of creating confusion rather than alleviating it, by pretending to address a deep issue that is, in fact, profoundly trivial.
Here’s what I mean: You are a little bit hungry, and on two successive days you get to eat limitless amounts of one of two foods with the same exact calorie content. One tastes absolutely great, and the other tastes absolutely horrible. Do you think you will eat exactly the same amount of both?
Eating more of a food that tastes great (as in: “Betcha’ can’t eat just one!”) is NOT an invitation to question a basic law of physics. It’s obvious to the point of truly trivial. Food made to taste really good will likely goad us into eating more calories. Duh.
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