Calorie craziness: dishing up the real dirt on CICO!

CaloriesWhat’s with our obsession with the calorie? Do we even really know what we are talking about when we fuss about calories? My favourite health blogger and ‘reluctant nutritionist’ Sammy Pepys dishes up the dirt on the CICO model – calories in, calories out. Here’s why calories can’t make you fat – even if they wanted to. And what you really need to fuss about. – Marika Sboros

By Sammy Pepys*

Have you been eating all those tasty calories again? Recent media headlines such as: Is it our fault if we eat too many calories? (an article in The Conversation) and Britons under-report calorie intake (on BBC TV show how the ‘C’ word dominates our thinking on diets, obesity and many other health matters. Let’s get some things straight about calories:

Nobody eats calories. Calories don’t make you fat. You can’t consume “too many” since a calorie is not a food or an ingredient. It is simply a unit of measurement.

It’s not the case in other fields, is it? You might well say you’d like to be taller, but you wouldn’t say: “I need more inches”. If you are hot or cold, you wouldn’t say you have too many “degrees” – or too few for that matter.

Yet health specialist and nutritionists have brought our understanding of food, weight and health down to this one rather unusual and somewhat inappropriate unit of measurement – the calorie.

What is a calorie anyway?

In human terms, a calorie is the measure of the burnable equivalent of what you put in your mouth and what you swallow. That’s assuming you don’t spit it out. Those who let calories rule their lives  consider you and your body in much the same way as a fireplace whose job is to simply generate heat. They don’t see you as the living, breathing, intelligent, hormonally driven animal with countless inter-communicating organs and a brain that you really are.

Yet when it comes to what we eat, health “experts” and  journalists always seem to zero in on the “C” word. Even the excellent website Authority Nutrition has a headline reading: How many calories should you eat per day to lose weight? Admittedly, they redeem themselves at the end of the story with the line: “If you stick to real foods, the exact composition of your diet becomes less important.”

But generally, the quantity-oriented calorie-counting message rules.

The American Heart Association says: “Use up at least as many calories as you take in.” In the UK, the NHS tells you to “cut down on your calories”. That implies  that the quantity is much more important than the quality of what you eat. But it’s not.

When did we begin to count calories?

Calorie counting concepts date back to the latter part of the 19th century. That was when scientists first analysed efficient and cheaper ways to feed animals. Their work progressed on to human subjects.

Officials used the information to ensure that World War 1 troops received enough to eat. Then it went  mainstream in the hands of Lulu Hunt Peters, the world’s very first diet guru.

Diet and Health She published her bestselling Diet and Health, With Key to the Calories in the US in 1918. Now, nearly 100 years later, dietary principles remain much the same. They are based on the approximation that one pound of fat on your body is the equivalent of 3,500 calories.

It follows that with dietary fat having a bit more than twice the food density of those other macronutrients, protein and carbohydrates, to lose weight means simply reducing your calorie intake by first and foremost eating less fat.

If we were indeed machines that ran on coal or electricity, that might be true. But we are complex beings. What we eat stimulates everything from hormone activity through localised body repair work, to growing hair and nails, helping fight off infection and, and…

There’s a fundamental truth somewhere here. We all know people who seem to stay thin whatever they eat. And those that do just the opposite. The thing is, we all react to food quantities somewhat differently.

In one famous study in 1999, researchers “overfed” 16 young men and women 1,000 calories per day in a strictly enforced “calorie-controlled” diet for eight entire weeks.  Mathematically, they should have each gained around 8kg.

Surprise, surprise: the average increase was just 4.7kg. This range from an increase of just 1.4kg in one test subject to a high of 7.2kg in another.

Are you surprised? Probably not. Yet most of us continue to accept the calorie mantra as if it were true.

What is true is that the weight of the food you eat plays a big role. You could of course just measure that. However, you’ll find most nutrition experts changing that weight into its calorific equivalents.

Eat a 25g slice of toast and they’ll say you consumed about 70 calories. Spread just 10 grams of butter on it and they’ll say, you’ve just doubled the number of calories. Ergo: You want to lose weight? Simply drop the butter (the saturated fat).

That, in a nutshell, is how today’s approach to dieting generally works.

Yet eating buttered toast also halves the so-called glycaemic index of your snack. That means your blood sugar will spike more slowly and the digestive process will change. Eating fat slows your digestion. As well as being essential for many bodily functions, it stimulates the hormones that make you feel full.

As an aside, if you were to stop eating fat completely, you wouldn’t live long. It’s an essential nutrient in your food.

On the other hand, carbohydrates such as bread and potatoes are not essential for your body.  But  they do represent the cheapest form of dietary energy.

That’s why processed food manufacturers are always coming up with new ways to get you to eat carbs. That’s whether it’s in the form of sugary drinks, breakfast cereals or energy bars.

Research also shows that you store  future reserves as body-fat more easily when you eat processed compared with whole/real foods. It’s a quality vs quantity thing.

“But as long as I eat complex carbs as opposed to sugary processed carbs, I’ll be fine,” I hear you say.

Not true.



Compare what happens when you eat a slice of white or brown bread to eating an authentic Mexican tortilla. (Scroll down for the best tortilla recipe ever.) The tortilla is digested more slowly because of its lower glycaemic index.

Is it the complex carbs? No; it’s because of the relatively high fat content (traditional recipes insist on lard vs vegetable oil) of real tortillas. This is not the  case with the many low-fat versions which dominate supermarket shelves today.

So why count calories then? Indeed. I mean, who cares how many there are in this or that food when the total calorie count has zilch to do with how your body digests food or benefits from eating it?

Counting calories and this obsessive focus on the macro-ingredients, fat, protein and carbs, have led us to compare products by their list of nutrients and calorie content. Instead, we should value much more important criteria such as whether food is fresh or minimally processed.



Compare 100g of boiled fresh corn, straight off the cob and containing just over 100 calories, with one serving (28g) of Corn Flakes. Their calorific and carbohydrates contents are roughly the same. In fact, to an orthodox nutritionist, they are pretty much identical. The Corn Flakes can also look like a superior source of nourishment because of fortification with various synthetic vitamins and iron.

What is not taken into consideration is that those Corn Flakes went through various industrial manufacturing processes. These include being boiled into a pulp and mixed with sugar and synthetic vitamins before extrusion through hot air dryers.

As an important aside, the US-based Environmental Working Group says “nearly half of American kids age eight and younger consume potentially harmful amounts of vitamin A, zinc and niacin because of excessive food fortification”. But that’s another matter.

It’s time to summarize.

Imagine on your road to weight-loss and better health, you come to a fork ahead. In one direction lies the path most trodden. This has led you to an obsession with calorie- counting. And an emphasis on food quantity over quality and a dramatic reduction in the amount of fat in your diet.


If you choose that path, your body may not even be able to absorb all those added vitamins in your Corn Flakes because they’re only soluble in fat. The reduced fat, lower calorie, skimmed milk you encounter along the way just doesn’t cut it.

I know. The  American Heart Association, the NHS and most Western government agencies enthusiastically endorse that well-trodden path. What they fail to tell you is that Big Food sponsors the same pathway. And as you will inevitably find out at a later life stage, Big Pharma too.

In spite of calorie-counting (or maybe because of it), it is sadly the pathway that leads to weight gain, insulin resistance and type-2 diabetes. It leads you to a future associated with an increasing number of daily pills.

The other pathway, slightly overgrown from lack of use, takes you to a world of fresh and frozen whole foods. It is one where you are in charge. Where you are more involved and where you consider what you eat to be a priority for healthy living.

It reminds you that the quality of the food you buy and cook with directly affects the quality of your life and those around you.

Fat is our FriendIt is not more expensive. However, it does require a bit more effort and time because it puts you firmly in the driving seat.  To quote Hippocrates, the founder of medicine as a rational science, and born nearly 2,500 years ago: “Let food be thy medicine.”

You can read more on this in Chapter 5 of my book Fat is our Friend. It’s a book that opens your eyes to what really makes you healthy and how to go about it.

NB: What we commonly call a ‘calorie’ is in fact 1,000 small ‘c’ calories and to be scientifically correct, should receive a capital ‘C’. In common with most writers today, I adopt the small ‘c’ spelling.

  • For more on the approximate nature of calorie counting read: the-3500- calorie-theory- come-from/
  • Real tortillas – the highest rated on-line recipe: tortillas/
  • Follow Sammy Pepys on Twitter@fatisourfriend