Calories, a scientific theory with an expiry date!

We all use scientific theories to predict and describe the world around us. Without them we would not be able to communicate what we are seeing and doing at any point in time or space. Scientific theories have been used to describe our world for hundreds of years; from gravitational laws by Newton to quantum concepts of light particles and waves by Planck.

Stephen Hawking defines a “simple-minded” view of a scientific theory as;

‘a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make.’

Throughout human existence our knowledge has grown and our ability to predict the future based on what we are observing today has become incredibly reliable. From thinking the world is flat until the 1800’s to being able to prove the universe is expanding outwards with the red shift theory. As we continually learn more about the world and the physical bodies we live in, theories need to adapt, grow or change so that they continually and accurately predict what we are observing and experiencing. So a theory can only hold if it predicts that which we actually observed in the real world.

Today, the human race is growing, not just in number but in individual physical size. We are currently experiencing the highest levels of obesity known in history. This comes at a time when we believe we know the most about nutrition, calories and weight loss. At present, calories are used to define the energy availability in the food we are eating. They are used on all packaging and we are told to watch and restrict how many calories we are eating. However, if we are observing a society increasing in physical size, to the point that the Government Office for Science predict half the population to be clinically obese by 2050, surely we must ask the question; are calories a true representation of what value food holds to the human body?  If they were a true representation surely we would be experiencing a time with the slimmest and healthiest population.

In this paper, I am going to attempt to show you why the calorie concept needs to be addressed as it does not accurately predict what the human body needs. To do this we must firstly asking the question, what is one calorie? Following this, it is imperative we understand where we have come from and why the human body needs fuel. This will lead to where I believe we are presently going wrong and in doing so answer the question; are calories a true representation of what value food holds to the human body? I will then propose a different scientific theory to take into account what the body needs and how society needs to view food from this day on.

What is a calorie?

A calorie is a unit of measurement used to define an amount of energy. It was first defined by Nicolas Clément in 1824 as a unit of heat, entering French and English dictionaries between 1841 and 1867. In most fields its use is archaic, having been replaced by the joule. However, in many countries it remains in common use as a unit of food energy.

The Calorie you see on a food package is actually a kilocalorie, or 1,000 calories. A Calorie (kcal) is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water 1oC.

The original method used to determine the number of kcals in a given food directly measured the energy it produced. The food was placed in a sealed container surrounded by water, an apparatus known as a bomb calorimeter. The food was completely burned and the resulting rise in water temperature was measured. This method is not frequently used today.  Instead they use indirect calorie estimations using the Atwater system. Rather than burning every food they instead calculate total calories by adding up the calories provided by the energy containing nutrients: protein, carbohydrate, fat and alcohol.

The Atwater system uses the average values of 4 Kcal/g for protein, 4 Kcal/g for carbohydrate, and 9 Kcal/g for fat. Alcohol is calculated at 7 Kcal/g. (These numbers were originally determined by burning and then averaging.) Thus the label on an energy bar that contains 10 g of protein, 20 g of carbohydrate and 9 g of fat would read 201 kcals or Calories.

The scientific theory of calories fit with Stephen Hawking view of what a scientific model is, in that it is a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make for energy. However, it only relates it to the way an object is burnt. It does not predict what will happen in the human body with food materials and their energy availability. Therefore calories, as a scientific theory, must be challenged so that as humans we get foods that will support and nourish us.

Where have we come from?

The first Homo sapiens emerged on this planet some 200,000 years ago. From then until approximately 10,000 years ago our ancestors used the land they lived on to survive, evolve and adapt.  They lived by hunting, fishing, and gathering plants and shell fish.

Change started to occur for the human race approximately 10,000 years ago with cereal farming, cattle being domesticated and people settling for the first time, ‘civilisation began’. This changed our diets, lifestyles and made us more sedentary.

Then in Britain, the Industrial Revolution began about 200 years ago, with transport and storage methods improving and supporting large cities which further lead to commercialised foods, chemicals (both added to foods and pharmaceutical) sedentary lifestyles and new psychological stress.

The human genome (the entirety of an organism’s hereditary information) has taken millions of years to evolve yet in the last 100-200 years our lifestyles and eating habits have drastically changed. The change has been that fast that the human genome has not had the chance to evolve. The disparity between the lifestyle and foods of today and our genetics has lead to the epidemics we face; obesity, type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease.

Through the natural selection process of evolution we have evolved as omnivores, we are designed to eat vegetables and animal tissue. We are not designed to eat highly processed, fast farmed, chemically enhanced and generally damaged ‘food’. We no longer eat a diet similar to the one with which we evolved. We have only changed one tenth of one percent since caveman days.

Why does the human body need fuel/food?

The human body needs fuel for two reasons; to have energy to move, from the heart beating to running a marathon, and to provide the body with the all the building blocks it needs to grow and survive.

The human body is made up of approximately one hundred thousand million cells. These cells are the building block of the human body and are constantly regenerating. The body can make up to 3 million cells per second. In an average lifetime, a person sheds 18-22kg of dead skin alone.

Human cells act as the chemical factory of the body, processing raw materials, in the form of amino acids, sugars and fats, into energy and useful materials to sustain and grow life.

To function and move, from our heart beating to lifting a glass, we require energy. This energy is produced in your body from oxidising food which is an exothermic reaction (releases energy in the form of heat). The body transports glucose and fats (predominately, although amino acids are also utilised under certain circumstances) to the cells in tissue and here they react with oxygen and enzymes to release energy, through a complex biochemical pathway.

It is important to note, at NO point in this process is direct heat (a flame) applied to the raw material to cause energy to be released. This only occurs in the laboratory when calculating calories. It is not heat that caused the reaction in the human body, heat is simply the by product of a chemical structure being oxidised, changed and utilised as Mother Nature intended it to be with the use of natural enzymes and transporters.

Our bodies require many different chemical compounds, vitamins, minerals and trace elements to survive. We are unable to make all these, therefore we need to put them in our body in the form of food. Like with energy creation, the raw materials, mostly amino acids, are taken to the cells and undergo complex biochemical processes allowing the body to create and take what it needs to repair the body and build new cells. So the very foods we are eating are used to create the next living cells.

Processed and packaged foods have been stripped of many if not all of their nutrients through the mechanical and heat processes they have been put through. These foods do not provide the body with the building blocks it needs leaving the body with insufficient vitamins, minerals and trace elements. This leaves us wanting more food and over eating more no nourishing foods.

So, as humans we need to consume foods that allow the body, through complex biochemical pathways, to repair and grow its self and create energy as it is required.

Answer the question; are calories a true representation of what value food holds for the human body.

Calories are NOT a true representation of what value food holds for the human body.

1. We are observing the greatest obesity epidemic at a time when we have the most information on calories and how many we should be eating.

The human body is clever but even it cannot count. The body does not say ‘2000 calories, thank you I am now full for the day’. The body does not care how many calories it eats, all food contains energy in the form of chemical bonds, what the body wants is nourishment to make the next ‘x’ million cells. Not all foods contain nourishment.

2. Wood contains calories, should we eat it?

The quantifiable concept of calories came from physics. It was used to calculate energy in material. For this reason we can calculate the calories in your dining room table. Does that mean we should eat it? Almost, everything (water does not) has a calorific content because we can set fire to it. This does not mean the item is good for us as humans to eat. Fast food burgers contain around 280 Calories. However, if you leave them on the side for a month they do not break down. No enzymes or bacteria attack it or try to feed on it. We rely on enzymes (along with other processes) as a human to break down food in the gut, surely we want to see the foods we are going to eat be broken down by natural bacteria and enzymes. If we left a banana out it would go black and break down. Is a fast food burger a better table than a food and is a table (wood) more nourishing than a fast food burger?

3. At no point does the human body set fire to the food it has eaten!

In the human body, the only time heat is present is as a by-product of the breakdown of materials in the cells. Rarely does the body rise above 37oC, it is not heat that causes the bonds to break, heat is merely a consequence of the biochemical process.  The fast food burger would break down in the flame but would not change in a room that was 37oC. Only enzymes, bacteria and microbes would cause a food to break down at 37oC. On the flip side, enzymes, bacteria and microbes would die, just like you or I would, if subjected to high levels of heat. We must recognize we are getting something incredibly wrong.

Burning foods to calculate calories only allows us to see what energy is available in a food when subjected to high heats. It does not allow us to see what energy is available when broken down my oxidation, enzymes, bacteria and microbes. If it was important to know energy availability of food we would have to know what energy was released with each biochemical process at 37oC. However, we know that all foods contain energy, what the body needs is nourishment, surely looking at what nourishment any food contains would give us a greater understanding of what the body truly needs and receives from the food we are eating.

Proposed Nourishment Theory

Knowing that a human body makes up to 3 million cells a second, throughout life and that our genome has not significantly changed in the last 10,000 years, we can create a model of what we need to eat to nourish and provide the body with all that it needs for a healthy existence.

The foods we eat need to nourish the body based on its genetic makeup. As hunter gathers we need to eat foods that our ancestors ate that still contain life and vitality. Today’s mechanical and fast food processes damage and kill much of the raw materials our bodies need.

The Nourishment Theory provides a simple approach to understanding which foods nourish the body and which don’t. The theory is based on the logical concept that the less manipulated, processed and chemically enhanced food provides more vitality, life and health for the human body.

All foods are given a rating of 10, with 10 being foods that are closest to Mother Nature and as far as possible unprocessed, tampered with and manipulated. As foods are subjected to processes their nourishment score decreases based on a set of Nourishment Scale rules.

The Nourishment Theory allows us to predict how natural any given food source is and therefore allows us to pick foods that are more suited to our genotype and how we should be as a hunter gather. This theory therefore fits Stephen Hawkins view of what a scientific theory is. Furthermore, it will allow the population as a whole to know what foods to eat to nourish their bodies so they may live a healthy and long life.

Limitations to the theory

The Nourishment Theory is in its raw state (maybe the best state in can be in) and I recognise that with this comes limitations and possible questions. The limitations and questions to this theory are:

  • Its simplicity.
  • How do we scientifically categorise how damaging a mechanical process is based on the nourishment of food?
  • How do we define which chemical is more damaging than another when we are unable to test the legally added 5,000 additives and preservatives in isolation?
  • How can we know if manmade chemicals can be effectively absorbed and utilised in the cells biochemical processes? When we only think we know 10% about the human body this may not be something we can ever answer at this time.
  • Is the soil we grow our food supply on sufficiently nutrient rich to provide us with all that we need?

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