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Bowden: It's All About the Cals, Right? Not!


Dr. Jonny examines the myths and pitfalls of calorie counting. Read on for the straight dope on better eating.

Gather round, folks, because Im gonna tell you a story.

Once upon a time, around 1890 actually, a scientist named Wilbur Atwater got the bright idea of putting food into a special machine, burning it and measuring the amount of heat it produced. The machine was called a calorimeter. Old Wilbur decided to call the energy produced by burning the food into ash calories. Thus, he was able to figure how many calories were contained in just about any food you could imagine.

Shortly afterwards, scientists applied the same concept to exercise. Using a few calculations, they soon figured out how many calories were burned doing everything from sleeping to cross-country skiing.

Within no time, an idea was born: weight gain happened when a person took in more calories than he burned up. The body, it was reasoned, behaves like a calorimeter. Put in calories (from food.) Use up calories (from living, exercising, digesting, etc) and look at your balance sheet. If more is coming in than going out, you gain weight. If more goes out than came in, you lose. Simple. Especially if the body behaved like a calorimeter.

But it doesnt.

The people who sell empty, useless, nutritionally dead calories (sugar anyone?) love the calorie theory. According to them, sugar is perfectly acceptable since weight loss is only a matter of eating less calories. Just dont eat so many darn calories and you wont get fat. If you do, says the sugar industry, dont blame us. Sugar doesnt cause weight gain, as long as you dont eat more calories than you burn.

Course that ignores all the other things that sugar does beside providing (empty) calories. Sugar raises blood sugar, depresses the immune system, robs the body of calcium and uses up mineral stores. But thats another story.

The Body as a Laboratory
Then theres one other itty bitty problem: the body doesnt behave like a calorimeter. It behaves like a chemistry lab.

Heres an example: eat a bar thats 100 calories of sugar. Your blood sugar jumps up. The pancreas responds with a big shot of insulin, whose job it is to bring blood sugar down. In some people it doesnt do such a great job, leaving them with high blood sugar and high insulin, both risk factors for heart disease. In others it does the job fine, but the sugar winds up in the fat cells. Either way, you lose. And were not talking about losing fat!

On the other hand, lets say you eat a bar thatâ??s 100 calories of protein, fat and fiber. The protein provides nutrients necessary for the building of the bodys architecture- bones, muscles, enzymes, neurotransmitters. It also makes you feel full so youre less likely to overeat. The fiber slows the entrance of sugar into the bloodstream and also helps protect against cancer. The fat provides important building blocks for cell membranes and hormones. Protein has only a mild effect on blood sugar and insulin, and neither fiber nor fat have any effect at all. While both bars are equal from a caloric point of view, they are anything but equal from the point of view of hormones, fat storage and health.

The effect of different sources of calories on blood sugar and hormones like insulin is one of the most important concepts in nutrition, and one which dieticians still havent figured out.

The bottom line: eat foods that have the least impact on blood sugar - fiber, for example, and fat, along with green leafy vegetables, low sugar fruit and plenty of protein, all of which provide nutrients, building blocks and health benefits. Sugar, on the other hand, provides none of those. It will instead keep you on the blood sugar roller coaster that inevitably leads to health problems such as obesity.

If youre looking only at calories, youre missing the fine print. Take two typical â??low carb bars. While both have about 200 calories, Bar One has only 1 measly gram of fiber, 14 grams of protein, and 20 grams of sugar alcohols. Bar Two, on the other hand, has a whopping 10 grams of fiber, 19 grams of protein and a mere 4 grams of sugar alcohols, a sweetener which usually does not have a significant impact on blood sugar or insulin.

Thats the fine print thats missing if you only pay attention to calories. Calories do matter, but theyre very far from the whole story.

Remember, God is in the details or, in this case, in the fine print.


Interesting. I'm definitely going to read up on some more.


Are you suggesting that all sugars cause an insulin spike? If so, please get a biochemistry textbook, turn to the section on carbohydrates and read about fructose (which is not as evil as people think). The short version is this: fructose metabolism is completely independent of insulin.

Second, you seem to assume that all the carbs in a "bar" are from "sugar alcohols". For those of you that do not know what a sugar alcohol is, allow me to elucidate: sugar alcohol(polyhydric alcohol) is a hydrogenated form of carbohydrate whose carbonyl group (ketone or aldehyde, it doesn't matter) which has been reduced to either a primary or secondary hydroxyl(OH). It is used as an artificial sweetener and as such will only account for a small portion of the carbohydrates found in food if it is used at all.

Finally, you seem to think that all insulin spikes are bad. It is well known that liver and blood glucose is at it's lowest in the morning and after exercise. During these times it is cruicial to restore glucose levels to continue to operate at full capacity,I'massuming anyone on a bodybuilding website works out and as such would like to have the energy to give it their all in the gym. If you are mostly sedentary, feel free to never consume carbohydrates as they are not necessary)

However, I do agree that lipolysis is not always dependent on caloric intake and more people need to realize this (read 'thank you for guzzling corn syrup'). However, the idea that all carbs are evil and converted to fat is ridiculous.


Met-rx Protein Plus bars typically have around 32g of sugar alcohols if im not mistaken...
And most other bars do seem to have 15g's kinda worth



Met-rx Protein Plus bars contain 27 grams of polyhydric alcohols which if you are eating 2-3 at one sitting will lead to excess fat gain. However, protein bars in general are not the best choice for a snack (but still better than many alternatives) for other reasons, mostly the processing involved in making them converts a portion of Cis isomers to trans isomers. Homemade protein shakes are much better and there are some great recipes on this site. The main point I was trying to get across is that carbs are not universally evil and are necessary to perform at peak capacity.