Jennifer Zhao ’18

With the holiday season in swing, perhaps you’re thinking about the friends and family you will meet. Perhaps you’re thinking about the delectable food you will eat at parties.

Perhaps you’re thinking farther ahead to the regrets you’ll have from overeating, and then you’ll make a New Year’s resolution to lose a few pounds through diet and exercise.

Perhaps. But if you are someone who has attempted to lose weight for years, yet the numbers on the scale still rise, you’re not alone. Recent research, as presented in the Mosaic, agrees that the calorie system is broken.

Over two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. This huge prevalence and associated consequences cost the United States over $147 billion in health care, as well as $4.3 billion in job absenteeism. Why doesn’t the simple weight loss formula – burn more calories than consumed – work in the fight against obesity?

Three important issues, per researchers, are at play. The first is the illusory precision in the calorie-counting process. Believe it or not, there is no fixed rule food companies must follow to count calories. They have three options:

  • Incinerate freeze-dried pellets of product in a bomb calorimeter;
  • Use the Atwater values developed in the late 1800s, which represent the available energy in each gram of protein, carbohydrate, and fat; or
  • Use a modified set of values published by the Department of Agriculture in 1955 that considers people’s ability to digest different foods in different ways.

Depending on the method used, a given serving of food can vary slightly in calorie count. While the information that a serving of spaghetti can contain between 200 to 210 calories is not wholly devastating, small uncertainties like this can add up for people who do not want to overshoot caloric limits.

The second issue is food preparation and serving size. Cooking unravels microscopic structures that bind energy to food, freeing up calories and the work our digestive system would otherwise have to do. As for serving size, food advertised to contain 500 calories can very easily hide 300 more due to local chefs heaping on extra French fries or dollops of sauce.

The third issue is the simple fact that no two people are identical. Two people of the same height, weight, and age will still differ in other factors that influence energy requirements to maintain basic bodily functions. The microbiome – microorganisms that reside in our stomachs – has been a hot topic in obesity research. We each host a unique set of microbes, which is easily influenced by our environment. Though still not fully understood, evidence strongly suggests that gut microbes may affect weight gain in humans as they do in lab animals.

A hundred years ago, nutritionists wanted to ensure that people were well-fed. Now that overweight problems strike more people than hunger does, the need for a new system of food accounting is critical.

Science agrees that calorie system is broken. Researchers propose that weight-loss plans focus on satiety or personal nutrition. Although change will be slow, ongoing work will for now serve as a reminder that there are other, more holistic ways, to measure food – ways that may be more useful for both weight loss and overall health.