This subject is dear to my heart, as I have personally experienced a lifestyle based on calories. Having lived in New York I was totally trapped in the calorie web.. I drank diet coke instead of regular coke, I chose all low-fat, low-calorie products for my kitchen. Every time I looked at food, calories was all I saw. It was only when I understood nutrition that I saw the light.
India didn’t really face these issues till a few years back, but today our supermarkets are full of low-calorie butters, jams, sugar, oil, milk, cookies, and most people pick up these products with the best of intentions; keeping themselves and their families healthy.
It’s important you understand the origin and root of this. The “The Calorie Myth” is a brilliant article, and if I were to ever write one, this is how it would be.
THE CALORIE MYTH
The theory of slimming based on the low-calorie approach is without doubt the greatest scientific “fudge” of the twentieth century. It is nothing more than a snare, a deception, a dangerous and simplistic hypothesis, lacking any real scientific basis. And yet it has dictated our eating habits for over half a century. You have only to look around you to see that the more well upholstered, plump, fat or even obese people are, the more religiously they count the calories they consume. With very few exceptions, anything which has passed for a “diet” since the beginning of the century, has essentially been based on the low-calorie theory. How misguided can you be! No serious or long-term success can be achieved from such a method. Not to mention the side effects, which can be devastating. At the end of this chapter I will have more to say on the scandalous sociocultural phenomenon, which has built up around the subject of calories in food. For we have reached a point where what has happened can only be described as mass brainwashing.
THE ORIGINS OF THE CALORIE THEORY
In 1930 two American doctors, Newburgh and Johnson, of the University of Michigan, suggested in one of their papers that ”obesity results from a diet too high in calories, rather than from any metabolic deficiency”. Their study on energy balance was based on very limited data and, above all, had been conducted over too short a period to deserve serious scientific acceptance. This did not prevent their study from being immediately and widely acclaimed as irrefutable scientific truth, and it has been treated as ” gospel” ever since.
A few years later, however, Newburgh and Johnson, concerned at the publicity which had been given to their discovery, somewhat hesitantly published some serious reservations they had concerning their previous findings. These went entirely unnoticed. Their initial theory was already integrated into the syllabus of most Western medical schools, and there it remains to this day.
THE CALORIE THEORY
A calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water from 14° to 15° centigrade. The human body needs energy, first and foremost to maintain its body temperature at 98.6° Fahrenheit. But as soon as the body is active, it needs extra energy to stand vertical, to move, to speak, and so on. And on top of that yet more energy is needed to eat and digest food and carry out the basic activities of life. The body’s daily energy requirements vary according to the person’s age, sex and individual needs.
The calorie theory is as follows :
If a particular individual needs 2,500 calories a day and consumes only 2,000, a 500 calorie deficit results. To compensate for the deficit, the body will draw on its fat reserves to find an equivalent amount of energy, and weight loss will result.
If, on the other hand, an individual has a daily intake of 3,500 calories when only 2,500 are needed, the excess 1,000 calories will automatically be stored as body fat.
The theory is therefore based on the assumption that there is no loss of energy. It is purely mathematical, drawn directly from Lavoisier’s theory on the laws of thermodynamics.
At this point we may well be wondering how it was that prisoners in Nazi concentration camps managed to survive for almost five years on only 700 to 800 calories a day. If the calorie theory was correct, the prisoners should have died once their body fat was used up in other words, within a few months.
Similarly, we may wonder how people with big appetites who consume 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day are not fatter than they are (some even remain skinny). If the calorie theory was correct, these hearty eaters would come to weigh 60 to 80 stone within a few years. Furthermore, how can you explain why some people continue to put on weight even when they reduce their daily calorie intake by eating less? Thousands of people go on gaining weight like this while starving themselves to death.
The first question is: When the consumption of calories is reduced, why does weight loss not follow? Actually, weight loss does occur, but only temporarily. This is, in fact, where Newburgh and Johnson went wrong, in that they collected their data over much too short a period of time. The phenomenon works like this:
Suppose that an individual needs 2,500 calories a day and that, over a long period, he consumes accordingly. If, suddenly, the ration of calories drops to 2,000, the body will draw on an equivalent quantity of stored fat to compensate and weight loss will be seen to occur. However, if from now on the daily intake of calories is limited to 2,000, instead of the 2,500 previously consumed, the body’s survival instinct comes into play. It quickly adjusts its energy requirements to match the level of calorie intake: if it is only given 2,000 calories, it will only use up 2,000 calories. Weight loss will quickly cease. But the body does not stop there. Its instinct for survival will lead it to take greater precautions yet, and lay down reserves for possible future need. If from now on it is supplied with 2,000 calories, it will simply reduce its energy needs to, say, 1,700 calories and store the other 300 in the form of body fat.
So this is how we end up achieving the very opposite of the result we were aiming for. Paradoxically, although the subject is eating less, he will gradually put weight back on again.
In practice, the human body, constantly driven by its survival mechanisms, behaves no differently from the starving dog which buries its bone. Despite what we might think, it is when the dog is not fed regularly that it reverts to its inborn instincts and buries its food, saving it for the day when it may otherwise go hungry.
How many of you, I wonder, have fallen victim at one time or other to this unfounded theory of balancing calories? You will certainly have come across obese people who were actually starving themselves to death. This is especially common among women. Psychiatrists’ consulting-rooms are full of women being treated for depression induced by trying to follow such a diet. They have become dependent on this vicious circle, knowing that breaking away from it will only entail putting back on more weight than they have lost.
Most members of the ”medical” profession do not want to know. They do realize their patients are not losing weight, but they put it down to cheating and secret binges. Some slimming professionals even run group therapy sessions, at which members are applauded when they are able to show they have lost weight and made to feel ashamed of any gain. The mental cruelty involved in these practices is positively medieval. Moreover, stipulating a 1500 calorie diet without detailing what it is to contain is quite inadequate. It simply serves to focus on the energy value of foods without taking account of their nutritional value.
Apart from a few specialists, doctors tend to be disinclined to update their understanding of these matters and are usually not knowledgeable about them in the first place. Where nutrition is concerned, they seem to have little scientific understanding going beyond the commonly held views.
What is more, it is not a field in which doctors in general are particularly interested. I have noticed that of the twenty or so I have worked with on this book, all of them, without exception, were originally led to research and experiment in the field because they themselves had a serious weight problem to solve.
What is heart-rending, even scandalous, is the fact that the general public has been allowed to believe that the calorie theory was scientifically proven. It is sad that the theory became accepted and now constitutes one of the basic assumptions of western civilization.
Not a week goes by without one women’s magazine or another splashing an article on slimming. We are presented with the latest menus developed by some team of dietitians, based on the calorie theory and suggesting something along the lines of ”a tangerine for breakfast, a chick-pea for lunch and an olive in the evening…”
It is amazing how the low-calorie approach has managed to delude people for so long. There are two explanations, though. One is that a low-calorie diet invariably produces a result of sorts. Lack of food, which is the basis of the method, inevitably leads to some loss of weight. But the result, as we have seen, does not last. Not only is a return to square one inevitable, but in most cases more weight is gained than is lost. The second explanation is that ”low calorie” products today constitute a sizeable market sector. Exploitation of the theory, under the guidance of dietary ”experts”, has created such a market that vested interests now have to be contended with, principally those of the food industry and a few misguided chefs.
So the calorie theory is false and now you know why. But that is not the end of it. The theory is so ingrained in your mind that for some time to come you will catch yourself still eating according to its principles. If this happens, just re-read this article until everything is completely clear to you.
It can be seen that the more the number of permitted calories is reduced, the less effective the diet becomes and the more liable the body is not only to revert to its original weight but also to lay down additional reserves of fat.
Written by Sejal Vora
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