Demystifying the calorie



This may come as a shock to many weight watchers but; ladies and gentlemen, not all calories are created equal. As many people have noticed counting calories very much takes the joy out of eating. I hope with this article we shall either stop counting calories or just count them in a more informed manner.

So first things first, what is a calorie? The conventional definition is: “The energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water through 1 °C, equal to one thousand small calories and often used to measure the energy value of foods.” Marinade on that phrase a little bit. How exercise scientist measure calories is in a little device called a “bomb calorimeter”. An amount of food, say a couple of grams of wheat flour is put inside the bomb calorimeter and incinerated to ash. The heat generated by this is measured and that is the number of calories in the said food.

By this same measure: 230ml of petrol, 19.4 tablespoons of mayonnaise, 500grams of sugar, 800grams of lean meat are all about 2000 calories. This is the usual recommended hypo-caloric intake for the average adult. Assuming we had four test subjects and put them on the above mentioned portions for thirty days… The subject on 230ml of petrol would die after the first meal and the rest would not lose weight uniformly.

The reason exercise scientists and nutritionists use the calorie as a universal measure and assume that all calories are equal is because: it’s easier to conduct research. If you assume that all calories are equal it then becomes very easy to weigh, measure and log your data in SPSS. By the time your research is done you can produce nice graphs, scatter plots and T-tests to prove a hypothesis.

The calorie is another case where the laziness and inefficiency of scientists has spawned myths and bad practice.

So ladies and gentlemen, enjoy your meals, exercise to be healthy and eat to be happy half the time you can ignore that calorie label on the pack.


Cedric Gitura

Realist, optimist, all out adventurer.

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