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How the Calorie Theory of Obesity and Disease has Harmed Public Health

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Health Impact News Editor Comments

One of the most damaging theories in human nutrition espoused by government authorities such as the USDA, is that all calories are equal, and that watching one’s calorie intake has a positive effect on one’s health.

One look at the nation’s health and rising obesity rates should give us a pretty good clue that this theory is false.

A recently published article authored by Dr. Sean C Lucan from the Department of Family and Social Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center in New York, and Dr. James J DiNicolantonio from the Department of Preventive Cardiology, Mid America Heart Institute at Saint Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, exposes the fallacies of such thinking and public policy, and its harm on public health.

Their article, How calorie-focused thinking about obesity and related diseases may mislead and harm public health. An alternative, was published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

The “a calorie is a calorie” philosophy has led to some disastrous nutritional policies, particularly in regards to fats:

In particular, the authors consider how calorie-focused thinking is inherently biased against high-fat foods, many of which may be protective against obesity and related diseases, and supportive of starchy and sugary replacements, which are likely detrimental. Shifting the focus to qualitative food distinctions, a central argument of the paper is that obesity and related diseases are problems due largely to food-induced physiology (e.g. neurohormonal pathways) not addressable through arithmetic dieting (i.e. calorie counting).

Abstract

Prevailing thinking about obesity and related diseases holds that quantifying calories should be a principal concern and target for intervention. Part of this thinking is that consumed calories – regardless of their sources – are equivalent; i.e. ‘a calorie is a calorie’. The present commentary discusses various problems with the idea that ‘a calorie is a calorie’ and with a primarily quantitative focus on food calories. Instead, the authors argue for a greater qualitative focus on the sources of calories consumed (i.e. a greater focus on types of foods) and on the metabolic changes that result from consuming foods of different types. In particular, the authors consider how calorie-focused thinking is inherently biased against high-fat foods, many of which may be protective against obesity and related diseases, and supportive of starchy and sugary replacements, which are likely detrimental. Shifting the focus to qualitative food distinctions, a central argument of the paper is that obesity and related diseases are problems due largely to food-induced physiology (e.g. neurohormonal pathways) not addressable through arithmetic dieting (i.e. calorie counting). The paper considers potential harms of public health initiatives framed around calorie balance sheets – targeting ‘calories in’ and/or ‘calories out’ – that reinforce messages of overeating and inactivity as underlying causes, rather than intermediate effects, of obesity. Finally, the paper concludes that public health should work primarily to support the consumption of whole foods that help protect against obesity-promoting energy imbalance and metabolic dysfunction and not continue to promote calorie-directed messages that may create and blame victims and possibly exacerbate epidemics of obesity and related diseases.

Read the Full Study here [1].

Reference

How calorie-focused thinking about obesity and related diseases may mislead and harm public health. An alternative. Lucan SC, DiNicolantonio JJ – Public Health Nutr. 2014 Nov 24