Throughout the history of humankind and including our technologically impressive 21st century world; our perception of the natural world has been one of balanced tension. Good and evil, God and devil, hot and cold, hunter and hunted, even down to the microcosm of meat and veg on our plate; we explore, devour and seek to understand this seemingly universal law of opposites and interaction. These aspects of positive and negative, invaluable and inutile, yin and yang, also apply to The Fallacy of the Calorie.
The yin facet is the fallacy of the negative calorie. The story of the negative calorie is like some episode of bizarro Superman. The plot line goes that such “negative calorie foods” contain less calories than the metabolic cost you expend in digesting them. Eating them is the energy equivalent of binging on your Visa and making the minimum payment each month; you run a caloric deficit. But in this case it’s your waistline that slims down and not your wallet.
While such beasts, like unicorns, are theoretically possible; according to W. Tim Garvey, MD and chair of the department of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama, Birmingham “In actuality there are no negative-calorie foods.” A sentiment echoed more succinctly by the esteemed nutritionist Dr. Marion Nestle, “Total myth. Nothing else to be said.”[i]
Many of the foods that are labeled as such have a high water and fiber content. Since we do not digest fiber, the caloric energy value of these carbohydrates are not included in the calculation of that particular food’s calorie count. However, that soluble fiber is the natural prebiotic that is consumed by our intestinal bacteria or gut microbiome. Here it produces energy that we readily absorb. This is yet another potential mechanism as to why unicorns don’t exist.
There are innumerable sites and books available on the web that promise miraculous results based on the “negative calorie food” concept. But while the Internet is a well-known landmine of misinformation and makes surfing a truly caveat emptor exercise; it speaks to a whole new level of idiocy when such veritable tripe (by the way not ever considered a negative calorie food) is sold as science fact on television news. When physicians defer to the dietary digressions of Rocco Dispirito to appease the gods of ratings hype, can the apocalypse be far off?
This is especially dispiriting because the physician is often accepted as the arbitrator of health fact versus fiction. On a major news network, an “A-Team” physician regaled us with tales of svelte wellness that ten miraculous negative calorie foods would bestow upon those that would consume them. Those top ten were cucumbers, asparagus, cauliflower, celery, chicken breast, tomatoes, papaya, chili, apples, and coffee.
Extrapolating the hypothesis as presented to its logical endpoint results in an untenable conclusion. If one consumed: a salad of cucumbers, celery and tomatoes; followed by an entre of chili spiced grilled chicken breast served with cauliflower and asparagus; some chopped apple and papaya for dessert and quaffed black coffee along the way for every meal every day; you would die of starvation in no short order. Spending your days looking up someone’s urethra’s does not qualify you as a culinary critic or healthy eating expert; even if you can tell they just ate the asparagus.
Here’s another helping of reality. There is absolutely no credible or reliable scientific research to suggest any foods burn more calories than they create. At most, it is estimated that about 5 to 10 percent of total daily energy expenditure goes to digesting and storing the nutrients in the food we consume. We receive more than that from our symbiotic gut microbiome as they process our indigestible remnants.
Nature is all about balance. Our diets should reflect the same picking from among a variety of components; the only sameness should be that they are fresh, wholesome and quality ingredients. Extreme positions and diets that promote eating only a few foods based on specious reasoning and faulty logic can have profoundly negative consequences. Such is the fallacy of the calorie in all its guises; let tasty be your new guide to healthy.
Part Two, The Yang of the Fallacy of the Calorie, will follow.
[i] (Dailey, 2013)