A two-minute ad, “Coming Together,” highlights Coca-Cola’s “calories in, calories out” message: “Beating obesity will take action by all of us, based on one simple common-sense fact — all calories count, no matter where they come from, including Coca-Cola and everything else with calories. If you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you’ll gain weight.”
In order to escape responsibility for their primary role in the pandemic of metabolic disease that now affects the majority of the people on earth, food and beverage corporations divert the focus of responsibility to the consumer by hiding behind a concept they call “energy balance.” This erroneous and misleading piece of junk science is a cornerstone of the master narrative that has been used to dominate the conversation about food and fitness for decades. The so-called “science” being used to support this concept is so bad that you can’t even call it a hypothesis. It is just bunk. Furthermore, this same kind of thinking underlies common myths and misunderstandings about the global ecosystem and how it functions. *Systems level understanding of how the human metabolic system works can be generalized and lead to a deeper and more profound understanding of what is going on with the planet.
Most chronic diseases are related to metabolic dysfunction and account for a staggering 75 percent of the preventable chronic disease healthcare costs in the US. Sadly, unbiased and legitimate scientists, doctors, and registered dietitians who are working to expose the root causes of this pandemic of preventable disease find themselves outnumbered and by global corporations and pseudo-scientific organizations with big budgets. These interests have deep pockets and sophisticated marketing machines that feel entitled to dominate the field of nutrition with junk science, myths, and lies.
In order to deconstruct the energy balance myth, one must work through some basic science (physics, biology, chemistry). A little history doesn’t hurt either.
Beyond the science, it helps to know how propaganda works (also known as marketing or advertising). The marketing madmen rely on the classic propaganda principle that if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The so-called science around the idea of “energy balance” has been masterfully constructed using an ounce of truth and a pound of lies. Learning how to separate fact from fiction is essential if we are going to make any progress toward improving our collective health.
What is the energy balance concept?
Energy in (E+) + Energy out (E-) = Equilibrium or Change in Body Stores
The same amount of ENERGY IN (calories consumed) and ENERGY OUT
(calories burned) over time = body weight stays the same. More IN than OUT over time = weight gain. More OUT than IN over time = weight loss.
On the surface, this sounds like simple common sense – basic math really. Sadly, this oversimplification grossly exploits a grain of truth, and plays a leading role in the global health pandemic of diet related disease. Let’s gain a better understanding of our metabolic health using real science, not mythology.
E is for Energy, F is for Fuel
Let’s begin with the big E = Energy. In reality, when they say “energy”, they are actually referring to food. Is food energy? Here is where the “ounce of truth” comes in. Yes, food does contain energy. But, to be more accurate, food is fuel. The difference between fuel and energy is really important, especially if you know anything about physics.
What is energy? In physics, energy is a property of objects which can be transferred to other objects or converted into different forms, but cannot be created or destroyed. It is difficult to give one single comprehensive definition of energy because of its many forms.
The two main types of energy are kinetic and potential energy.
Kinetic energy is energy that is in motion. Moving water and wind are good examples of kinetic energy. Electricity is also kinetic energy because even though you can’t see it happen, electricity involves electrons moving along through conductors.
Potential energy is stored energy. Potential energy is measured in the amount of “work”it does. Examples of potential energy are oil sitting in a barrel, water in a lake, or food on your plate. This energy is referred to as potential energy, because if it were released, it would do a lot of work.
Other types of energy include:
- Mechanical energy – energy of motion that does the work, such the wind turning the windmill.
- Heat energy – energy that is pushed into motion by using heat, such as the fire burning in your fireplace.
- Chemical energy – energy caused by chemical reactions, such as when food is being cooked.
- Electrical energy – electricity creates motion, light or heat, such as the electric coils on your stove.
The processed food industry wants to us to call food energy because the concept of fuel would lead us down a critical thinking path that requires assembling a real formulafor nutrition and metabolism. That path would also lead to the inevitable conclusion that a calorie is not a calorie.
It is vital that we understand that energy and fuel are not the same.
Fuels are any materials that store potential energy in forms that can be released and used for work. In physics, work is the transfer of energy involved with the action of a force. This sounds a little tricky, so here is a good illustration of this – a pitcher throwing a ball:
Where does the pitcher get his fuel from?
The concept of fuel originally applied to materials that stored energy in the form of chemical energy that could be released through combustion. Examples of fuel are coal, wood, petrol, etc. In the case of the pitcher, his fuel comes from whatever he consumes. The question we must ask is how the potential of the energy in his food released and put to work?
Dropping the Bomb
The device for determining units of energy contained in food is something called the Bomb Calorimeter. Pierre Eugène Marcellin Berthelot (1827-1907), a French chemist, invented the bomb calorimeter in 1881. The bomb calorimeter determines the heat of combustion of food substances by burning it in a metal chamber that is placed in an insulated vessel of water. Heat generated by the burning is transferred to the water. The increase in temperature of the water and the measured weights of both the substance and the water are used to determine the heat released by the substance.
Image of a 19th Century Bomb Calorimeter:
The central unit of measurement for human nutrition, the calorie, is derived from a device invented in 1782 ago that burns things up in a small oven that heats a kilogram of water by one degree Celsius.
One doesn’t need an advanced science education to question why, in the year 2017, we use such an antiquated technology to play such a central role in the field of nutrition science.
Is the human body an oven? I think not.
The process by which food (fuel) is processed in the human body is not combustion.
It is called metabolism. In order to understand this process, one must apply nutritional biochemistry, which integrates various fields of science. Metabolism includes all the chemical reactions involved in maintaining our living cells and is divided into two categories:
- Catabolism – the breakdown of molecules to obtain energy
- Anabolism – the synthesis of all compounds needed for cell construction
Metabolism is closely linked to nutrition and the availability of nutrients. Bioenergeticsincludes the biochemical or metabolic pathways by which the cell ultimately obtains energy. Your metabolism is an ecosystem.
Modern nutrition science is debased by the simplistic notion that your body uses energy in ways similar to a combustion engine, or more specifically, a bomb calorimeter.
Let’s apply the rough analogy of a car. When you take crude oil out of the ground, process it into gasoline, and then put it in your car, you need an engine, oxygen, a spark, and a whole lot of other moving parts to release the energy potential of the fuel and to put it to work. The fuel efficiency of a car varies widely; an old clunker might get 14 mpg and spew lots of exhaust, while a new car might get 28 mpg and meet the latest in vehicle emission standards. Your ability to utilize the full potential of the fuel and transfer it to work varies significantly based upon fuel and the machine it is put into.
The human metabolic system processes fuel (food) in a much more complex way than your car processes fuel.
We are all familiar with the expression “You are what you eat.” If you understand how the metabolic system functions, then you will realize that it is more accurate to say “You are what you metabolize”. What you metabolize depends on many variables: the quality and contents of the food you eat, the status of your metabolic system, the flora in your gut, your stress levels, and even how much sleep you got last night.
The equivalent amounts of calories in a glass of milk and in sugary soda and are processed in very different ways in the human body. The sugars (lactose and fructose) are processed by distinct metabolic pathways. While one substance provides nourishment, the other delivers toxic energy devoid of nutrients. Free fructose is especially harmful to metabolic systems that are already compromised (e.g. Type 2 Diabetes, Fatty Liver Disease, etc.). Contrary to the energy balance myth, science says a calorie is not a calorie.
Energy without nutrients (such as sugar sweetened soda) is problematic, spikes negative insulin responses, overloads the liver, and results in unhealthy fat deposits. Not surprisingly, the processed food industry would like you to believe that a handful of Skittles is the same as a handful of almonds. The calories might be the same in a bomb calorimeter, but not in the human body. In the human body, all calories are not the same.
Therefore, a more accurate understanding is that food is not simply energy. Food is a substance that contains energy as well as other values (positive and negative) that can be transferred to a living organism (with harmful or helpful effects). This food is then metabolized in ways that vary widely depending on the quality of the food and the condition of the organism consuming it.
Food is more than the sum of its parts.
Food is more than fuel. Like gasoline, it is derived from plants and animals, but the similarities end there. Real food is alive and complex and contains macronutrients and bio-active molecules like fat, protein and carbohydrates (including fiber and sugar), and micronutrients including vitamins and minerals, along with millions of microorganisms.
Of course, the petrochemical industry would be delighted if we would didn’t differentiate between food and petroleum products. In fact, petrochemicals are now found in much of our food supply. Conventional (non organic) food often comes with the residues of the fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides that were applied during production. For example, alarming levels of glyphosate (Roundup) are now ubiquitous in our food supply. Then there are the preservatives and artificial colors added to make it more appealing and improve shelf-life, in addition to the plastic the food was packaged or stored in. Petrochemicals are also used as a wax coating on produce items such as cucumbers, bell peppers, eggplant, potatoes, and citrus. Petrochemicals along with antibiotics also enter our bodies through meat and dairy products because they accumulate in animal milk and flesh.
Many of these foreign chemical compounds are considered harmful to our metabolic system and are referred to as “endocrine disrupters” and “obesogens” that disrupt normal development and balance of lipid metabolism and may even contribute to cancer. Lipids are molecules that contain fats, waxes, sterols, fat-soluble vitamins (such as vitamins A, D, E, and K), monoglycerides, diglycerides, triglycerides, phospholipids, etc. and are essential parts of the structure and function of living cells.
The processed food industry often removes many of the beneficial components of food (fiber, nutrients, etc.) to increase shelf life and “palatability”. To make matters worse, the processed food industry uses thousands of “additives”. Look at the online databases called EAFUS (Everything Added to Food in the U.S.) and GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe). It is disturbing to review these long lists of exotic chemicals that now permeate our food supply.
The most dominant industrial chemical in the global food supply is sugar…not the intrinsic sugar found in fruits and vegetables, but the factory produced sugar from commodity crops such as beets, corn, and sugar cane. There is a huge difference between the two. The average American consumes 22.6 teaspoons of sugar per day. That’s 107 grams, half of which is fructose. Many Americans consume more than twice this amount.
Industrial sugar production is complex, requiring a chemical factory and processing that uses scary-sounding substances such as phosphoric acid and calcium hydroxide, which combine to precipitate calcium phosphate. After filtering out unwanted solids and virtually all nutrients, clarified syrups are decolorized by filtration through activated carbon made from animal bones or from coal. This purified syrup is then concentrated to supersaturation and repeatedly crystallized in a vacuum, to produce “refined” sugar. There are many processes that produce refined sugars, but the common denominators include removing fiber and nutrients, and concentrating the sugar to extreme levels. These forms of sugar have very different impacts in the human body than the sugar you get from eating an orange, and are now a leading cause of diet-related disease.
Let’s return to the metaphor of the car. Have you ever put cheap gasoline in your vehicle and noticed it chugging along or the engine making funny noises? Even in the world of gasoline, the quality of the fuel you use makes a big difference in the performance of the engine. We also know that cheap and dirty fuels expel more pollution than clean fuels.
So why do we let the food and beverage industry tell us that all calories are the same? “Calories in – Calories out” they say. “We eat too much and exercise too little.” The result is that we get overweight and then we blame the processed food industry. That is the problem you see, our lack of personal responsibility – not cheap and dirty fuel!
At the core of every human life is a metabolic system – a cellular engine that can be powerfully transformative and uplifting or degenerative and debilitating – killing us slowly and painfully over the course of our (shortened and degraded) lives. The metabolic system is comprised of several organs, hormones and enzymes that work together to digest, absorb, process, transport, and excrete the constituents that are essential to life. When this system becomes faulty, when you feed it with cheap and dirty fuel, metabolic health is compromised. It is the difference between wellness and illness.
Propagandists bank on you accepting false assertions as truth. The idea of “energy balance” is a powerful propaganda device that leads the public to accept a false proposition as science. The processed food industry thrives by side-stepping critical thought and un-biased science, using marketing and propaganda as tools for deception. There is no question that this strategy has worked for the last half century. Frankly, many scientists have been asleep at the wheel, or worse yet, bought out. If they were doing their job, a knuckle-dragging guy like me wouldn’t have to labor over writing articles like this.
The question now is whether discerning food consumers can muster enough science and critical thinking to see through the myths and lies of the processed food industry and restore their health by eating real food.
Wolfram Alderson is CEO of the Hypoglycemia Support Foundation and Global Education Director for Dr. Robert Lustig. He had his DNA analyzed by 23 & Me and discovered that an estimated 3.0% of his DNA is from Neanderthals, apparently higher than average. Despite the issue of his knuckles dragging, this fact hasn’t deterred him from cultivating a passionate interest in nutrition science. And despite the culinary proclivities of his ancestors, he doesn’t eat “Paleo”; he just eats real food.
*The generality of the metabolic paradigm: “The basic principles of physics, chemistry, and biology are encompassed in a common framework by the concept of metabolism (Brown et al, 2004). Metabolism provides a conceptual connection for the physiological processes characterizing the biology of all living things, spanning from individual organisms to the ecology of populations, communities, and finally whole ecosystems. This common framework allows investigating analogous processes taking place at different scales, making evident the underlying general principle or laws governing the nature of life.” –Ecological Processes Handbook by Luca Palmeri, Alberto Barausse, Sven Erik Jorgensen