Friday, May 28, 2010

The Calories that Count

By Dr. Susan Rubin

Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. When it comes to food, we’ve been counting calories for years expecting a weight loss result that hasn’t materialized. While the food industry would like us to believe that ‘’energy balance” is all that really matters, it's time for us to take a good long look at the mythology behind calories in our food.

Morgan Spurlock demonstrated in his movie Super Size Me that most Americans don’t have a clue as to what a calorie is. A calorie is a measure of heat. It’s the amount of energy necessary to raise 1 gram of water 1 degree Celcius.

Based on the laws of thermodynamics, we are led to believe that the food we eat contains a certain amount of calories and that these calories are “burned” based on a set daily rate that depends on our activity level. In other words, you can “burn” more calories by exercising. Theoretically, if we eat less and exercise more, we will lose weight.

Of course, the food industry loves to make you feel guilty about not exercising enough. It helps to reinforce this false belief that it all comes down to calories. PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi recently stated, “If all consumers exercised, did what they had to do, the problem of obesity wouldn't exist.”

The science behind calorie burning works in a closed system such as a lab in which all factors can be isolated and measured. Our bodies are not simple machines that take calories in and burn them in a straightforward fashion. We are highly complex biological and energetic systems, not closed systems like those found in a science lab. It is virtually impossible to calculate how we burn calories because many variables impact our metabolic rate. This is one of the reasons that more than 80% of all diet strategies fail.

Common sense would tell you that 100 calories of sugar water is not the same as 100 calories of sautéed kale. Our bodies are way smarter than what the food industry would like us to believe. Changing portion sizes and creating “better for you” packaged processed foods is simply a Ponzi scheme that keeps everyone from realizing the big picture. Calorie cuts won’t solve the obesity crisis, but it will continue to create healthy profits for the food industry. The 1.5 trillion calorie cut recently pledged by the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation in response to the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity is a fancy ploy to avoid legislation that might keep these money-making products out of schools.

There is another calorie count that is far more important than the food industry’s smoke and mirrors. Right now, 10 calories of fossil fuel are required to make every 1 calorie of industrialized food. Considering we now consume six barrels of oil for every one barrel we discover, we need to understand that we’ve got to create ways to produce food using less oil. The underwater oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico is a grim reminder that the era of easy oil is over. Let’s consider just some of the ways the food industry burns calories.

Fertilizers and pesticides used to grow food are derived from natural gas and petroleum. Machinery used in planting and harvesting industrial food guzzle large quantities of fossil fuels. Packaging utilizes plastics, another petroleum product. Most food products travel thousands of miles en route to their final destination burning more fuel. Some are refrigerated or frozen, burning yet more calories of energy so we can conveniently buy these foods and beverages everywhere. Burning these calories results in more CO2 in the atmosphere and pushes us closer to peak oil.

When we start to consider how many resources are used to produce those “low calorie” edible food-like substances, we end up with real costs to our health, our wallets and our environment. How do we produce food that supports our health and burns fewer fossil fuels? The best food is closest to home: backyard gardens are the answer to both. The White House Task Force on Obesity should recommend gardens be placed in every schoolyard and outside every town hall. This strategy would cut trillions of calories and put better food on our tables.

Dr. Susan Rubin is a nutritionist, former dentist and organizer of Better School Food.

1 comment:

  1. Do you have an estimate of how many gallons of water are used to produce each calorie of industrialized food?

    Water scarcity is a looming global crisis, especially in the face of global climate change. Americans truly do not understand this; we have a virtually unlimited supply of pristine water from our taps, and the cost is so low that we consider it free.