The Calorie Myth
Calorie counting has become a religion in Western countries — but we’re getting it all wrong
Here’s a recipe: Take one bad idea, coat it with a veneer of science, and chow down heartily. It may taste great but the long-term effects on your health include serious indigestion.
The bad idea in this recipe is the calorie. On the surface, calories seem straightforward. You use them to measure how much fuel you put in your body and how much energy you use when you walk, run, or even just sit on the couch breathing. If you pump your body full of calories and leave it idle, all that extra fuel sloshes around inside you. It doesn’t get used and instead, it becomes the fat that pads your skin and engulfs your organs.
This is more or less the central myth of Western diet. The word “myth” here doesn’t necessarily mean that calories aren’t real. It just means that calories are a story around which we organize our Western beliefs and values — just like ancient societies that had their own culture-shaping myths about why it rained and which spiritual beings ran the show.
But here’s the problem: If you take even a moment to learn about how the calorie was invented, how calories are measured, or what they actually represent, the whole story starts to unravel — fast.
Inventing the calorie
The calorie was created in the early 1800s as a unit of energy measurement. If you’re a science nerd, you already know about the kilowatt hour, a unit commonly used to measure electrical energy. You’ve also probably heard of the all-purpose joule, which is used for just about everything a physicist touches. The calorie was created as a convenient unit for measuring thermal energy (in other words, heat). By definition, one calorie is the energy it takes to heat a kilogram of water by one degree Celsius.
How can a unit that measures the change of water temperature tell you something about food?
(Technically, I’ve just described a Calorie with a capital C. The original calorie with no capital C is the energy needed to heat a measly gram of water. But outside of academic papers, no one uses the tiny lowercase calorie…