March 3, 2022
[00:00:51] Podcast Sponsors
[00:04:44] Guest Introduction
[00:06:55] What's a calorie?
[00:13:41] The A-B-C Equation Of Measuring Calories In Food
[00:19:0] The Problem With Atwater's Factors
[00:27:18] What's a DIT value and why does it matter?
[00:30:18] Podcast Sponsors
[00:34:55] Did we get it right when it comes to labeling our food?
[00:37:55] Why We're Terrible Judges Of Calorie Counting
[00:48:34] Advice for a good macronutrient ratio with minimal ultra-processed food in the diet
[00:57:39] Closing the Podcast
[00:58:26] Legal Disclaimer
Ben: On this episode of the Ben Greenfield Fitness Podcast.
Giles: The problem with portion sizes is it doesn't, to my mind at least, reflect the everyday reality of how much people eat.
Ben: When you eat a meat-based protein, it's going to have a different thermic cost of digestion compared to a vegetable, or a cereal, or a legume-based protein, right?
Giles: This is the bottom line. You walk into any supermarket, because they're industrially processed, there's economies of scale, they're long shelf life. So, the tragedy of it is this.
Ben: Health, performance, nutrition, longevity, ancestral living, biohacking, and much more. My name is Ben Greenfield. Welcome to the show.
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Alright. So, I recently read this book called “Why Calories Don't Count.” And, I kind of thought it was going to be a kind of a ho-hum treatise of, well, maybe what you measure in a protein doesn't exactly pan out based on what it takes for the body to digest the protein or something like that. But gosh, this book took a deep dive into some really, really useful things when it comes to everything from food labels to calories. And, it's written in a very entertaining manner. I really enjoyed reading it. And, if you look around on packaged food which I hope you don't have too much of in your diet anyways, or restaurant menus, or online recipes, you're going to see all these authoritative numbers that tell you that the calorie count of what you're about to consume is exactly what's written on that label. And, a lot of us will treat those numbers as gospel where we're counting, and cutting, and consuming, and kind of following this general advice that calories in equals calories out, which is it's a decent place to start but it's definitely not the whole story, especially when you consider the fact that my guest on today's podcast says that basically, all of the calorie counts that you see everywhere today are basically wrong, fully inaccurate.
My guest is named Giles. Dr. Giles Yeo. He is an obesity researcher at Cambridge University. And, he totally challenges the conventional model in his new book called “Why Calories Don't Count: How We Got the Science of Weight Loss Wrong.” He demonstrates really well that all calories are not created equal. And then, he gets into some really, really great advice for what you can do as far as the way you eat based on what you learn in the book. And, I have so many pages folded over and things I wanted to ask Giles about that I figured I'd get him on the show. And, I don't know if he's over there mowing down a cheeseburger or something because obviously the calories and cheeseburger don't count. I'll put a stick of butter in my coffee, and you and I can just basically sit here and stuff our face with calories the whole time we record, right?
Giles: Absolutely, Ben. Thanks for having me on.
Ben: So, that's the takeaway of the whole book, eat as much as you want. It doesn't matter. No, but seriously, I think this is going to be super fun to talk about.
And, where I would love to dive in obviously since we're going to be talking about them for a little while here, I would love for you to tell me and my audience how you would actually define a so-called calorie.
Giles: So, the calorie was initially a measure of heat. In fact, it still is a measure of heat. And so, the first iteration of the calorie, the calorie spelled with a small c is the amount of heat it takes to raise the temperature of 1 milliliter of water, 1 mL of water, 1 degree Celsius at sea level. So, that's a heat calorie.
Giles: But, that's not the calories we're dealing with. So, the food calorie, when we say calorie, A, it's spelled with a capital C, which is ridiculous because a capital C, Calorie and a small c, calory both sounds like calorie. But, in effect, it's 1,000 heat calories. So, it is the amount of heat it takes to raise 1 liter of water, 1 degree Celsius at sea level. That is a calorie.
Ben: Okay. So, explain that to me the big C versus the little c thing.
Giles: So, “calor” comes from the Latin, I think, heat. And, in effect, calorie is just a unit of heat. It was really, really small. 1 milliliter is just 1 mL, it's just not a lot of water. And so, when they actually then begin to measure food, food contains a lot more than just that little bit of calories, they started to realize that, oh, actually there's a lot more calories in food. And so, you need a thousand of these little small heat calories. And so, they figured out, you know what, instead of changing the name, we're going to just spell it with a capital C. In the UK, which is where I live at the moment, they call it the kilocalorie or the Kcal. And then, obviously, you can also convert that to joules, which is the SI unit if you wish as well.
Ben: Okay, got it. So, if we were using the little c and somebody picked up an energy bar that had 250 calories in it, technically it would say 25,000 calories, and I just might freak people out and perhaps use up a little bit of extra printing space on the label, right?
Giles: That's right. Too many zeros. They could be doing that, yeah.
Ben: Yeah. That might be a good weight loss hack though if we just told people to start using the little c instead of the big C, but be like, “That has a hell of a lot of calories in it.”
Okay. So, where did we get to the point where we actually started measuring calories in food? Kind of a big question, I know, because I'm almost asking for the history of the calorie. But, I'd love to hear you unpack that a little bit.
Giles: Okay. So, the first people actually to use calories as an indicator of the amount of food were actually German farmers. I know, it's just going back probably into the early 1800s. And look, what is that farmer interested in? We're talking livestock farming, okay? A farmer is acutely aware how much food or needs to be acutely aware how much food he feeds the cows, or the chickens, or the sheep because every penny he puts in to feeding the animal, he wants good quality meat, good quality produce out the other side. And so, the farmers needed a way of measuring exactly what they were feeding the animals and exactly what was coming out the other side of the animals. So, farmers knew in the early 1800s that animals didn't absorb all the calories. And so, that was the first iteration of calories as accounting of food in agriculture. And, it was only lately, probably late 1800s when a couple of scientists, in particular, named Atwater, Wilbur Atwater, was an American professor.
Ben: Yeah, I've heard of that guy before.
Giles: That's right. Who too did a sabbatical. I think hit a sabbatical in Germany, and learned about this calorie, and learned about the way to measure calories. And then, when he went back to the states, then this would have been 1880. So, this is really quite old science if you think about it. He then began to be interested and was, “Okay, well, we're not cows. But, how efficient are human beings when we eat, how much food do we absorb, how much comes up?” And so, Atwater then began to take human-type foods. So, rather than just hay or whatever they fed animals at the time, he began to calculate the total number of calories in regular normal food we eat; steak, corn, celery, carrots, and began to try and figure out how much the human beings would absorb. He was probably the father of, not calorie-counting, that comes later, but of applying the word calorie to the amount of energy present in a food or at least something that humans would recognize as food.
Ben: Okay, got it. And, the way that he actually measured that, was he the first guy who used this bomb calorimeter?
Giles: He was the first guy to use bomb calorimetry for food.
Ben: Okay. Can you explain what a bomb calorimeter is?
Giles: Oh, yeah. So, a bomb, the eponymous bomb, there is a sealed container. Alright, now it's pressurized with 30 atmospheres of oxygen. And, the reason why it's so highly pressurized with this oxygen is so that when you put in a piece of food, a piece of anything, to be honest, but a piece of food, and you burnt the food, because of the high pressure of oxygen, everything gets carbonized. The food turns to, it goes completely black.
So now, around this bomb, the sealed container is then a water jacket. It's a known volume of water with a thermometer in it. And, all you do is you put in, whatever, X grams of food, dried food, I want to point out because water has no energy value to human beings. If we were nuclear reactors, we would, but we're not. And then, you burn the food and measure the amount of temperature given off by the burning food. And, that is the number of calories, total number of calories within the food.
Ben: Okay. Now, I think that's where the disconnect begins to lie is that the human body does not necessarily operate the same as a bomb calorimeter, right?
Giles: It doesn't at all. So, we don't just torch our food because obviously digestion, which is how we extract the energy from food. The first step of how we extract energy from food is actually relatively gentle. Okay, you don't want to stick your hand into the stomach, which is like battery acid. But otherwise, it's one long chemical reaction that takes place over 24 hours when you eat, and by the time it comes out the other side. And, it's just a whole bunch of enzymes and biochemistry. It's relatively gentle. We don't burn the food. And so, we work to get the food out. It takes time to get the calories up. It takes time.
Ben: Right, right. We have all these different enzymatic reactions. And, there's a lot of things that go on that don't occur inside a bomb calorimeter, which I think leads to the equation that pops up over and over again in your book.
And, I think this might be a perfect place for you to begin to kind of outline your philosophy here. This equation A-B-C, they say multiple times in the book, you say A, the number of calories actually in food does not equal B, the number of calories on the side of the pack does not equal C, the number of usable calories we finally get out of food. Can you walk me through that equation and what you mean by that?
Giles: Okay. So, A is what I've just described. So, A is the total number of calories within the food if you actually burnt it. There's no digestion involved because you're just putting intense heat to it. So, that's the total number of calories within the food. But, because human beings are not bomb calorimeters, we cannot extract all of the calories in the food. So, the one example I always use is if you eat corn on the cob, we call it sweet corn in the UK, I think it's corn on a cob in the U.S. You know when you eat corn and the next day, you're sat on the porcelain throne and you look down, it's clear, you haven't absorbed a whole bunch of food corn. So, stuff goes right through us.
And so, what happened with Atwater? So, we have to go back to Atwater now. He realized this phenomenon. He realized this phenomenon that humans didn't absorb everything–
Ben: One day, Atwater was looking at the corn in his crap and–
Giles: Exactly, exactly. And, what he did was between 1880 and 1900 roughly in Connecticut, he then spent 20 years. And, I want everyone to think about this before you complain about your job. What he did was he burnt loads of food in a bomb calorimeter, lots of different types of food. And so, he made these tables of steak per 100 grams, how much calories were in it. He made just these huge thousands upon thousands of foods. But, here's the critical bit of the experiment. He then got volunteers and fed people the items of food, and then he burnt their poop. Pretty much, yeah.
Ben: In a bomb calorimeter?
Giles: In a bomb calorimeter. In a bomb calorimeter. And so, now he realize–
Ben: Kind of makes me wonder how the poop got from the anus to the bomb calorimeter if he actually designed a bomb calorimetry toilet or which would be a great invention by the way, if anybody is looking to get on Shark Tank, or how he actually wound up doing that logistically. But anyways, maybe that doesn't matter. Go ahead.
Giles: So, he didn't realize how much went in the top end, how much we ate, and how much comes out the other side. So, you can then subtract one from the other. And, he then came up with the number of calories in any given food that a human being would absorb. Okay, he fed a number of different people. And then, he then threw a whole bunch of math, then came up with the famous general Atwater factors. And so, general Atwater factors dealt primarily with the three macronutrients; the protein, carbs, fats. And, he was the one that came up with the numbers that there's 9 calories for every gram of fat, 4 calories for every gram of protein, and 4 calories for every gram of carb. And, he published this probably, yeah, in 1900 actually. I went online and I managed to pick up the original copy of the book. Well, not the original copy, a print of the book. And, I read it through and it's all there. And, every calorie count that we see today is still based on these three numbers. Incidentally, alcohol for those of you who want to know is 7 calories for every gram of alcohol.
Now, when you guys go and look at the back of the pack and try and calculate this to see if I'm lying, you'll see a wobble. So, it's not perfectly 9-4-4. And, the reason why it's not perfect, it's because of different manufacturers have different ways of estimating how much protein there is in food. And, because people use different equations, there is a wobble factor as to how many calories on the side of your snickers bar, for example.
Ben: So, based on the first law of thermodynamics, which would be that the first–I'm trying to remember the exact way the first law of thermodynamics is stated–
Giles: Conservation of energy.
Ben: Yeah, the conservation of energy. Basically, everything that goes in should be equal to everything that comes out with no loss of energy. Did that water actually demonstrate that the first law of thermodynamics is functioning when we consume food? Or, did he address that at all?
Giles: He did actually address that. He was able to in human beings less well than he did with animals. And, only because animals are smaller and it is easier to measure. And, what he did was he realized that he fed human beings a certain amount of food, then the amount of energy X, 100 calories of food, then what came out the other side, and what came off in the water vapor, and in the heat that you actually gave off, and the amount of food you actually absorb was equal. He actually managed to demonstrate that there was this conservation of energy in human beings. It was demonstrated in animals before, but human beings, we think we're better than everything else. And so, we think, well, it can't be true in humans. And, he actually demonstrated that this thing which farmers knew happened in cows and dogs also happened in animals. Probably also happened in humans, pardon me.
Ben: Okay. But, there were some flaws with the whole Atwater factors that when you open up just about any food app or the government database on food that all these calorie calculations are based off of. There were some pretty significant flaws that you bring up in the book. I think the first one was about the protein and nitrogen relationship. Can you get into that?
Giles: So, fat and carbs are made entirely of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms just in different configurations. And so, when we actually deal with fat and carbs, we can deal with it relatively. Our body can deal with it relatively efficiently because they're the same three atoms just moving around. The problem with protein is not a problem, but protein in addition to having carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen also has nitrogen in addition to other things, but quite a lot of nitrogen actually. On average, 16% of a protein is going to be nitrogen.
And so, the issue with protein is this. Unlike fat, which we store and carbs in which we can store as glycogen or as fat, there is no store of protein in our body that is inert. So, in other words, all the protein in our body is active. It's there to repair or if you're lifting to build. But, if it's not used immediately, it has to be stored. And, protein cannot be stored as muscle, protein has to be stored as fat. And so, when you're actually then converting protein into something that can be stored as fat, you have to remove the nitrogen. Okay. And so, that, it's a lot of energy in nitrogen that comes out in your wee, in your pee typically, but it also costs energy. It also takes energy in order to do this, to actually perform this whole process. And, it's cost heat in effect.
Ben: Right, right. What we would call the thermic cost of digestion.
Giles: That's it. That's it. And, it's waste energy in very many ways because yes, sometimes we use it to heat ourselves, but it's energy we don't actually utilize to move or to do anything. It keeps us warm. That's about the only thing it does.
Ben: Okay. So basically, when we look at the nitrogen content of proteins, it widely varies as well. Isn't that another issue?
Giles: That is another issue. Look, fat, I guess, of different chains and sugars, but they all roughly have the same proportion of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The problem with protein is they are made of amino acids and there are 20 different amino acids. And so, depending on the amino acid you're talking about, they have different number of nitrogen atoms in them. And so, depending on your protein, depending what you're talking about, there is probably a 5% swing in the amount of the percentage of protein in any given type of food. And so, when you actually just take an average, which most people take an average of 16%. How most people calculate how much protein there is in food is by measuring the percentage of nitrogen. Okay. Because it has to come from protein.
And so, they measure it and then they use that assuming that 16% of protein is nitrogen. They measure the amount of nitrogen. They do the maths and they predict how much protein there is in a food. That's how it's done even today.
Ben: Right. But, 16%, from what I understand after reading your book is the average amino acid composition of meat. But, in reality, if you look at other proteins like cereal or legume, or vegetable-based proteins, that factor varies quite a bit dictating that you're going to have very different total protein amounts and different calorie counts that are going to vary quite a bit from that factor. Meaning, when you eat a meat-based protein, it's going to have a different thermic cost of digestion compared to a vegetable or cereal, or a legume-based protein.
Giles: Absolutely, absolutely. And so, not only is there different thermic capacity, this difference in the amount of protein found in a vegetable versus a meat, it's not truly reflected, it's just all estimated. The numbers are wrong even just taking a look at the percentage of protein, let alone not counting the thermic effect of protein.
Ben: Okay. So, that's the first flaw is the protein values are based off of an inaccurate calculation. And then, the second flaw I think had to do with carbs.
Giles: It does. So, the second flaw has to do with carbs. In particular, it has to do with the presence of fiber. Because now, the problem with fiber, as we know, depends whether we're talking about insoluble fiber, which is the majority of fiber. And, that's what we consider fiber. It causes the sweet corn effect, celery, that kind of thing, and soluble fiber.
The problem is that fiber really messes up the calculations of compared to burning sugar, for example, or burning a refined carbohydrate without the fiber present. And so, the presence of fiber was a big mitigating factor in accurately trying to calculate the percentage of carbohydrates that is there and also the thermic effects of it.
Ben: Right. Because if a piece of say white Wonder Bread, maybe that's close to the 4 calories per gram of carbs. But then, something high in dietary fiber like the same gram of, let's say, kale or green beans or something like that, that's going to be closer to, I think, it's like 2 calories per gram once you add in the fiber. So again, you can't say that 100 grams of, let's say, potato is equal to 100 grams of kale.
Giles: Not at all. And, that is the second big problem. Protein and fiber, those are the two big problems. They're not problems, they're good for you. But, that's the problem with the calculation.
Ben: Okay. And then, I think the last one had to do with the heat of combustion or something like that.
Giles: So, the last thing is the most difficult. And, even towards the end of my book, I never get to the bottom of this. And, the last thing has to do with the fact that how you combine the foods together, what percentage of fat versus protein, versus carbs, and the fiber, and how they're put together would in of itself also influence the heat of combustion. Now, that is very, very difficult to try and predict because that would mean that every configuration of food you could think of, is it beef in a burger, beef in a lasagna, will have to be calculated individually to see the thermic effect.
Ben: Right. So, to truly know how many calories are in that Pad Thai that you had, you would technically have to take the rice noodles, put them in a bomb calorimeter, take the egg, put that in, take the oil, put that–but, what you're saying is that you can't just slap a whole platter of Pad Thai into a bomb calorimeter and expect an accurate result.
Giles: Well, you will get an accurate result, but it's just more difficult. So, this is the problem. If you took out the noodles, the peanuts, the egg and burn each individually and add them up, alright, they're not going to equal if you just put the whole plate of Pad Thai into the bomb calorimeter and burn it, they'd be close but it wouldn't be equal. Because what they're next to, how much protein, and fat, and carbs, and how they're interacting, how you cooked it will also influence the thermic effect of food. And, this is the most of all of everything I've just said, this is the most complex of all because obviously there's infinite number of ways in which we put together food. And, we eat food, we don't eat macronutrients, right?
Giles: And so, that's the critical thing. We eat food.
Ben: Right, exactly. And furthermore, if you were to have, let's say, prior to consuming your plate of Pad Thai, I don't know, like some chia seed gel or something like that, a whole bunch of fiber, you would technically be decreasing the amount of calories that you might absorb from the Pad Thai because of the fiber that's present in your system.
Giles: That's correct. Absolutely correct.
Ben: Yeah, yeah. How about this DIT value? What's the DIT value that you get into?
Giles: So, the DIT value, which stands for diet-induced thermogenesis, the heat that you actually gives off when you actually eat is the cost of metabolism. Now, digestion is when you take your food and convert them into the primary macronutrients. So, glucose, fatty acids, and amino acids. Okay. But, those are not energy, they cross the gut wall into your blood and get transported to whatever cell you're going to use that's going to use the energy. Then, what then happens is you have to metabolize those nutrients, those intermediate nutrients. And, that costs energy. And, that is where we actually lose the energy from protein compared to fat and carbs. So, if you actually ate 100 calories of pure protein, which I know we don't do, but if you did, then actually we as human beings can only ever absorb, on average, 70 calories after 100 calories. So, 70% of the calories we eat off of the protein calories we eat we can absorb and use, 30% is given off as heat. And, Atwater never took that into account. So, those 30% of protein calories are 30% wrong everywhere.
Ben: Right. So, when we come back to your equation then, the energy that is consumed, we have some calories that are lost through fecal matter and then we have digestion, the thermic cost of digestion, and then we have nitrogen loss through the urine dictating that the number of calories that are reported to be in the food aren't going to be the same once they get into the actual human digestive system. So, you have diet-induced thermogenesis, you have nitrogen loss through the urine, you have calories lost through fecal matter, and then you also have your potential metabolic rate. We didn't get into this, your thyroid hormone activity, or your endocrine system activity overall. The amount of physical activity that you may or may not be doing during the day including fidgeting, going to the gym, taking the stairs inside the elevator, et cetera, et cetera, dictating that if you look at, let's say, a so-called nutrition expert these days who might be saying that if it fits your macros, it's all calories and equals calories out. Therefore, 2,000 calories of pop-tarts on any given day is going to be the same as 2,000 calories of chicken and green beans and sweet potato. That's just seriously flawed. I mean, the latter scenario would not only result in better satiety but actually in fewer calories overall absorbed. That's what you're getting at.
Giles: And, that is 100% correct. And, I end the book by saying, “Because we eat food and we don't eat calories.” So, we need to think about the quality of the food rather than the total number of calories per se.
Now, look, I understand that 200 calories of potato chips is twice the portion of 100 calories of potato chips, of course. But so is 200 grams of potato chips, more than 100 grams of potato chips. And, no one is trying to compare 200 grams of potato chips to 200 grams of carrots. That's the kind of the equivalent comparison we're trying to make here.
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Okay. So, when you look at food labels, whether it's UK food label or U.S. food label, do you think that we should be basically going about the process of labeling in a different way?
Giles: I think so. I mean, look, I don't want to prescribe my own solution to it. I do think so. Information is good, but I think, look, when I go shopping, I don't bring my reading glasses. And so, I'm here, I'm trying to look at the back of the pack, I can't see what the nutritional counts are, so I just kind of pick it up and walk away. And so, I think we need to highlight the critical elements in the food better. And, I think the amount of protein and the amount of fiber and probably the amount of sugar are free added sugars are the three items that I want to see highlighted like traffic lights on the front of the pack of any food because it would allow us to make better decisions rather than simply just the calories. And actually, even simply just the amount of fat. What kind of fat are we talking about?
Ben: Yeah, yeah. And then, the other problem is portion sizes.
Giles: I never understood portion sizes. Who are the people that decide what portion sizes are? So, in this country, I don't know what it is in the States, a portion of pasta is 75 grams. I have never measured pasta in my life. I just kind of tip some in.
Ben: Right. The only people I know, by the way, that actually have the jewelry scales and the food scales like the bodybuilders, and honestly it sucks a ton of the enjoyment out of food to have to weigh every single thing to see if you're actually getting what's written on the portion size on a label.
Giles: I mean, okay, professional athletes, bodybuilders, people competing in the Olympics at the moment, they probably or their nutritionists, I want to point out, probably do weigh out their foods. And then, when you look at the portion size and when you go to the hotels, okay, and they give you a little tiny pack of cereal of cheerios or whatever, that is meant to be a portion size. When you pour into the bowl and I look at that going, “This is not how much of my cereal I pour in the morning when I used the big box.” And so, I think the problem with portion sizes is it doesn't, to my mind at least, reflect the everyday reality of how much people eat.
Ben: No. And, a lot of people don't even look at that. You go buy a kombucha at your health food store and a lot of people suck down the bottle. They'll look at the label and they'll be like, “Yeah, there's 60 calories.” But, some people don't look carefully. Some of those things, it's three portions in one bottle. You're drinking 180 calories, you don't even realize it because the portion size on the label is a third of the bottle. I don't know a lot of people will buy a bottle of kombucha and drink a third of it, and then set the rest in the refrigerator, then drink a third later on, and a third later on. They usually down the whole bottle.
Giles: They down the whole bottle. And, this is going to be true for most things, for OJ, for soda, for most things. And, very, very few items aside from when you go to the hotel and they're trying to save money are given to you in one portion sizes. And, you're right, no one puts half a bottle of kombucha back in the fridge. And, why would you? It's just silly.
Ben: So, let's say that we weren't getting away our food and we were just going to kind of try to approximately judge the calorie content in foods specifically foods that contain fat or carbs. You have an intriguing section in your book where you talk about how crappy a judge we are as humans of the actual calorie content in foods. Can you get into that?
Giles: So, this was actually work that was done by a colleague of mine, Professor Dana Small who's a professor at Yale, very smart woman. She was interested in two things. She was interested in how good human beings were at estimating calories and metaphorically how much we were willing to pay for the food. And so, she set up the experiment in which human beings were volunteers, were meant to try and estimate how much fat there were. So, a food that was high in fat–butter, for example. Okay. How much calories were there in butter or a piece of fatty meat, versus how much there was in a carb, whatever it is, pasta or potato, versus when you mix the two together, when you actually mix fat and carbs together?
Now, what is really interesting in the natural world very, very, very few things naturally occur that are high in fat and carbs together. Yes, you cook things, we do fry a potato, but that's not in a natural world. In fact, the only thing that we actually have that is high in fat and carbs naturally or one of the only things is milk, okay, mother's milk.
Ben: Right, like breast milk. That's why I tell people if you want to get fat, one of the best things to do is to consume a lot of dairy because, A, it was designed to turn a small mammal into a big mammal and B, it's incredibly hyper-palatable because of that blend of fat and carbs. I mean, it was kind of engineered for a baby to keep coming back for more.
Giles: Exactly. Because the baby doesn't know what else he's eating at the time. You're right. Otherwise, the baby becomes tiger food. So, the baby needs to eat as much of it as possible. But, the intriguing thing is humans are very good at estimating how many calories, what the energy content of fat is. Okay. So, on average, we get it pretty right. We're less good at estimating how much calories there are in a carb, in a potato, for example. Less good. Okay. But, when you mix the two together, when you mix fat and carbs together, we have no idea. It's just a complete guess. And, she tested hundreds of people. It's a complete guess as to how many calories there are in foods that are mixed with fat and carbs, which is a lot of what we eat today. So, that's a problem. Of modern foods that are available now, human beings are terrible at trying to judge how many calories there actually are in them.
Ben: Right. And, it's kind of a one-two combo whammy because not only do we really crave that hedonistic combination of fat and carbohydrates, but then a lot of times we don't even realize how many freaking calories we're able to consume of that before we realize that we've had too many of those calories.
Giles: Absolutely. Now, the second part of the experiment which she did was she then scanned everyone's brains when we were doing this. I wasn't doing it, when her volunteers were doing this. And, when they ate a fat, the reward elements of the brain lit up, “Ooh, fat.” And, when they ate carbs, they went, “Ooh, carbs.” But, when they ate the fat and carb, potato chips, chocolate, pizza together, their reward element of the brain lit up like a Christmas tree. It was super boosted.
And so, probably to go back to mother's milk because it was so hyper-palatable, it was meant to be, it's designed to be for the baby to do so, but now we're eating all of these foods that don't naturally occur and high in fat and carbs but that's a lot of what we eat today. So, the foods we actually eat today are, I don't know if they're designed necessarily to be hyper-palatable. They probably are.
Ben: Yeah. Some of the corporate executives at Nestle if they're actually designed to keep people coming back for more. And, I'm guessing they'd probably have an internal response.
Giles: I mean, they probably knew these results. So, my colleague at Yale, she obviously is an academic, she does the research, she publishes the work. I'm almost certain that these results were already realized internally in the major food manufacturers today before she published the work.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. And, it's, of course, a total evolutionary mismatch for us to have this contemporary environment, rich in all these ultra-processed foods that are high in fat and carbs that we do a very poor job calculating the calories of anyways. But then, you throw into that the fact that many of these foods like when you combine a fat with a carb, you're increasing the potential for lipopolysaccharides and toxins to cross from the gut into the blood, you're increasing the potential for inflammatory cytokines that could impact thyroid hormone and metabolism. And so, there's all these downstream consequences that could further lower the metabolic rate or impair nutrient absorption that dictates that eating out of packages in general, especially via food that's been ultra-processed is definitely a fast track to fat gain. And, you cannot say that the number of calories derived from these ultra-processed foods is going to be the same again not to kick this horse to death as the number of calories you might get from eating close to earth and having a high amount of fiber and a decent amount of protein and trying to as much as you can kind of separate fat and carbs especially when they're in an ultra-process scenario.
Giles: Aside from everything you've mentioned, the key problem with ultra-processed foods because they've been–I just want to clarify ultra-processed for your listeners, maybe they do know. I'm not talking about processed foods. So, processed foods is cooking something, fermenting something. Yogurt is a processed food. Bread is a processed food. Ultra-processed, we cannot replicate in our house. Okay. Domestically, we can't do it. Ultra-processed foods are industrially processed foods that we just cannot replicate. The problem with this heavy industrial processing is it typically strips out protein and/or fiber. So, these foods are low in protein and low in fiber anyway increasing the availability of the calories. And, because they lack flavor, you have to add flavor back in. And, flavor comes from the holy trinity of sugar, salt and fat. So, these foods, you could add this back in. And so, ultra-processed foods tend to be lower in protein and fiber and high in salt, sugar and fat. That's why they're not so good for you.
Ben: Yeah, yeah. I passed up an investment opportunity a couple of months ago where someone came out with basically the equivalent of a Cheeto, essentially hyperpalatable cheesy bits on your fingertips, lovely umami taste snack combined with, of course, all the fats they infuse into this as an oil for both a preservative and a food flavor standpoint. And then, they added on top of that a little bit of THC into these packaged Cheetos. Was like a THC-infused Cheeto. So then, you've got the endocannabinoid reward system triggered and the whole munchie effect. And again, great business model, but pretty crappy for human overall health. If I would have been shoving aside my thoughts about how many people were probably going to have their metabolism damaged by this stuff, I'd probably be rich. But, at the same time, I understand that that stuff is not going to do anybody any favors in the weight loss or the health department.
Giles: The real difficulty, and I think I'll just raise this issue now is when we're talking about ultra-processed foods is they're cheap. This is the bottom line. You walk into any supermarket because they're industrially processed, there's economies of scale, they're long shelf lives. So, the tragedy of it is this because they're cheap, then the less privilege in society end up eating it more because, well, look the less privilege in society lack a lot of things. They lack cash, they lack time and they lack knowledge as well actually. But, they lack cash and time. And so, if you're Mrs. Smith who works two shifts to keep your kids alive and suddenly you come home, you have no time, you have no cash or very little cash, you end up buying the unhealthiest foods for your family. And, I can't blame her, she's trying to feed the kids. And, this is the real tragedy; whereas, us middle-class people here having this conversation, I think we should follow that we really need to reduce our ultra-processed foods. The question is, how do we do it equitably across all of society? How do we make sure that Mrs. Smith when she makes a choice because she has less choices than us to feed her kids can feed them healthily? And, this is something which I've been grappling with. And, what do I say? What do I say when a government minister asks me? “Well, you say all these negative things. Well, how should we be feeding our people?” I struggle to say how I'm going to try and get Mrs. Smith fed when she doesn't have time or money.
Ben: Yeah. A lot of people who I give advice to about this, I tell them, well, you would be shocked that if you just tell yourself that you're going to try for the next few times you go to the grocery store not to duck down in the aisles, maybe the spice and oil aisle. But, aside from that, everything is done around the perimeter of the grocery store. And, from berries, and avocados, and a bag of produce over to the meat section where you grab a few cuts of meat, even if it's less expensive stew meat over to the bakery section where you might grab a loaf of sourdough bread, you can actually get by if you shop the permit of the grocery store on a pretty low food budget. And, that doesn't even count the idea of maybe joining a local CSA or buying into a part of a cow and some of the things that you can do from a bulk standpoint. But honestly, a big one for a lot of people is just see if you can shop around the perimeter of the grocery store. And, it is shocking how inexpensively you can do that if you just kind of resist that urge to duck down the aisle.
The other thing about ducking down the aisle is, of course, there's all the food marketing, everything down to even the cartoon characters on the front of cereal boxes. They've adopted those so that the eyeballs of the cartoon character on the front is oriented down to about the level of a child's eyesight. Meaning, that the kids are more likely to grab that off the shelf and throw it in the mom's cart. So, you're fighting a battle when you go down the aisles versus when you shop around the perimeter of the grocery store. So, that's one big tip that I give to people.
But then, at the end of the book, you present all these problematic scenarios but then you have some pretty good advice. I don't just want to present people with a bunch of problems here without giving them some solutions. And, you get into some of your ideas about protein and fiber, and sugars. Can you lay out what your, it's not overly prescriptive advice, but your general idea based on writing this book of what you would tell people who want to get a pretty good macronutrient ratio and fight a little bit less of an uphill battle against the whole calorie counting and weight gain scenario that comes along with ultra-processed food?
Giles: Okay. So, instead of counting calories, I think there's some numbers we want to think about but hopefully, they're not too onerous. And, the first is considering your protein. Incidentally, there is a sweet spot for protein if you're not an athlete. Okay. And, that sweet spot is 16% of your total energy intake during the day to come from protein. And incidentally, when I say protein, I don't necessarily mean a steak, it could be from a steak obviously. But, from pulses, from tofu, from any source of protein will cut it, 16%.
Ben: 16%. So, what I tell people is if you take your weight in pounds, somewhere around 0.55 to 0.8-ish, if you actually want to do the math and that generally for most people does come out to about 15 to a maximum of 30% of protein. So, you can customize it if you want to take your body weight and go 0.55 to 0.8 grams per pound. But, that 16% that's a pretty decent value. It's a good baseline based on a lot of the research that's out there on protein. And, that of course, based on what we've just learned about the thermic effect of protein and the satiety of protein, and the fact that it just makes it. I mean, anybody who sits down to a meal, let's say chicken, try and put a bunch of chicken on your plate and nothing else, and tell me that you're not already feeling full after one fricking chicken breast. I mean, unless you've got it doused in cheesy whiz sauce, and enormous amounts of salt, and maybe some type of caramelized balsamic vinaigrette on top of it, it's pretty hard to just sit there and mow down protein without feeling full pretty quickly.
Giles: That's exactly right.
Ben: Okay. So, we got protein. What's the next one?
Giles: The next one is fiber, which is 30 grams. Now, the problem is on average, certainly in the U.S. and the UK, which the numbers I know, on average, were probably only eating something like 15 or 16 grams a day. Or actually more, the merrier. We need to double or more the amount of fiber we eat. We don't eat enough fiber, nowhere close to it.
Ben: Right. And, I think that for some people who have gut issues like small intestine bacterial overgrowth or an inflamed gut, or leaky gut, sometimes they don't do well with the raw roughage. Putting a bunch of kale in a blender or eating a giant ass salad from Whole Foods or something like that. But, I should note that there are ways to go about doing this even if you have gut issues, like I mentioned chia seeds. You can literally take a few tablespoons of chia seeds. And, I do this, I always have a couple big glass Mason jars of just chia seed slurry, which is a gel in my refrigerator along with a pureed pumpkin. I get organic pureed pumpkin. I just order that from Amazon, incredibly satiating. And, I'll put a few pilefulls of that next to dinner or the chia seed slurry. And then, the other one that I really is it's called sea moss gel. There's a company called Acacia that I order this from. And again, it's a very soluble form of fiber that's nourishing to the gut that doesn't result in the same type of digestive distress as say a handful of almonds, and a bunch of raw kale, and a giant salad of, let's say, carrots and tomatoes and cucumbers.
And so, there are ways to get your fiber even if you have digestive issues because I eat a lot of nose-to-tail carnivore-based protein. I do a lot of bone broth, a lot of liver, a lot of heart, a limited amount of red meat, but I have a couple portions red meat a week. I have some wild caught fish and big fatty cuts of fish. But then, I dress that up with these really digestible forms of fiber like the chia seed slurry, and the pumpkin puree, and the sea moss gel. And, I find that I'm able to get my fiber and have my poops but not do so in a manner that results in a bunch of vegetables in my crap or the digestive distress that I think a lot of people do get from the raw roughage. So, don't think that 30 grams a day of fiber has to be all from raw vegetables, right?
Giles: No, no, that's great advice. In fact, I'm taking notes.
Giles: I'm taking notes. No, that's excellent advice. That's fantastic advice.
Ben: Yeah, yeah. Because I had to deal with a lot of that. And then, once I followed a low fodmap diet for a while and had to kind of look for sources of fiber and carbohydrate that weren't as fermentable, those few really wound up doing well with me along with the majority of my carbs being root vegetables like purple potato, and sweet potato, and pumpkin, and parsnip, and beat. And, those just seem to be very digestible yet fiber dense carbohydrate sources that don't result in the same issues that some people get from corn and raw salads and things like that.
How about sugars? What do you think about sugars?
Giles: Okay. So, sugar, now there is a big distinction between free sugars. In America, they call them added sugars as opposed to sugars that are stuck in a food, okay, in particular fruit. Alright. So, it's the difference between drinking orange juice, OJ, and eating an orange. And so, what we got to do is to try and limit the amount of added sugars, free sugars you have in your food to 5% or below. And, stuff that was fiber, it helps you get the fiber in. There's no issues with that. So, we should actually try and reduce the amount of free sugars, added sugars we actually have to 5% or less.
Ben: Okay, alright. So, 5%. That's not your total carbohydrate intake, that's the actual added sugar.
Giles: That's it. Incidentally, it includes honey, it includes maple syrup, it doesn't make it any better. It tastes nicer, but it doesn't make it any better that it comes in a maple syrup or in honey. It's still the same sugar as the powdered white stuff.
Ben: Right. And, one other piece of advice I give people that I kind of alluded to when I was talking about underground storage root type of carbohydrates, but it's this concept that I learned a while ago about cellular carbs versus acellular carbs. Cellular carbs would be things like root tubers, or shoots, or leaves, or fruits that have the carbs actually packaged inside of the cells, and those cells have fiber that remain relatively intact during cooking. So, the number of carbs that you get from them is less back to what we talked about regarding the flaws of the bomb calorimeter, and their carbohydrate density is low. And, if you were to do a Google search for cellular versus acellular carbohydrates, you would find some really good lists; whereas, the acellular carbohydrates, they don't have cell walls. Those have been removed due to the process, and you just talked about, Giles. So, their carb density is high. And, that would be like refined flour and white sugar, and processed grains. And, I mean, I personally would take your 5% of added sugars and maybe raise that to consider just 5 to 10% of overall carb intake to come from acellular carbs. And, if you choose the majority of your carbs from cellular carbs, I think that's enormously helpful as well from a satiety and a health standpoint.
Giles: And, it maximizes your fiber, right?
Giles: Because by doing that, you automatically have more fiber as well.
Ben: Right, exactly. Exactly. Well, this is just all fascinating. I mean, your book goes into a lot more, but I think it was just chock full of really practical advice. And hopefully, folks are now equipped with a little bit of knowledge when your personal trainer, your nutritionist says, “Oh, it doesn't matter, just eat your 2,000 calories a day. Let's just start there. I don't care what else you do.” Well, I do. And, not only does this have environmental implications when we look at monocropping of a lot of these, well, what wind up being acellular carbohydrates, but it also has some pretty significant health implications as well. So, understand that as Giles has pointed out, for those you listening in, really if you're trying to lose weight or you're trying to just eat fewer calories or eat more of the right kind of calories, it really comes down to higher amounts of good natural organic protein right around that 16% range that Giles has talked about or that 0.55 to 0.8 grams per pound that I mentioned, eating a lot of the cellular carbohydrates versus the acellular carbohydrates, rich in fiber, going for around 30 grams of fiber per day, avoiding added sugars and trying to restrict those to less than 5%, and just understanding that your body is not a freaking bomb calorimeter, it's a lot more complex than that. And, there's a lot of hormonal and digestive interplay that goes into the foods that you eat.
And, this book, if you guys want to get more, it's called “Calories Don't Count.” “Calories Don't Count: How We Got the Science of Weight Loss Wrong” is a really great read if you want to delve into this even more and get into some of the other things that Giles talks about in the book.
Giles, anything else you want to share with people while I've got you on the show?
Giles: No, no. This has been a great interview. I love going into the science of it. Normally, people ask stupid questions, you ask great questions.
Ben: I love to geek out on this. Are you still doing your podcast by the way?
Giles: I am trying to get the publisher to fund another bunch of episodes. So, tune in.
Ben: Alright, that one was called Dr. Giles Yeo Chews The Fat, right?
Giles: That's right.
Ben: Okay, alright. Cool. Well, thanks for coming on with us. Folks, I'm going to put all the shownotes as well as a link to Giles' book and everything else we talked about. If you go to BenGreenfieldFitness.com/CountingCalories. That's BenGreenfieldFitness.com/CountingCalories. Until next time. I'm Ben Greenfield along with Dr. Giles Yeo signing out from BenGreenfieldFitness.com. Have an amazing week.
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3 March 2022
Calorie information is ubiquitous.
On packaged food, restaurant menus, and online recipes, we see authoritative numbers that tell us the calorie count of what we're about to consume. And many of us treat these numbers as gospel: counting, cutting, intermittently consuming, and, if you believe some “experts” out there, magically making them disappear.
We all know, and governments advise, that losing weight is just a matter of burning more calories than we consume. Here's the thing, however, that most people have no idea about: The calorie counts that you see everywhere today are all wrong.
In Why Calories Don't Count: How We Got the Science of Weight Loss Wrong, my guest on today's podcast, Dr. Giles Yeo, who is an obesity researcher at Cambridge University, challenges the conventional model and demonstrates that all calories are not created equal. He addresses why popular diets succeed in the short term, long-term why many ultimately fail, and what your environment has to do with your body weight. Once you understand that calories don't count, you can begin to make different decisions about how you choose to eat, learning what you really need to be counting instead. Practical, science-based, and full of illuminating anecdotes, this is the most entertaining dietary advice you'll ever find.
Giles Yeo got his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in 1998, after which he joined the lab of Prof. Sir Stephen O’Rahilly, working on the genetics of severe human obesity. Giles Yeo is now a program leader at the MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit in Cambridge and his research currently focuses on the influence of genes on feeding behavior & body weight. In addition, he is a graduate tutor and fellow of Wolfson College, and Honorary President of the British Dietetic Association. Giles is also a broadcaster and author, presenting science documentaries for the BBC, and hosts a podcast called Dr. Giles Yeo Chews The Fat. His first book Gene Eating was published in December 2018, and his second book Why Calories Don’t Count came out in June 2021. Giles was appointed an MBE in the Queen’s 2020 birthday honors for services to research, communication, and engagement.
During our discussion, you'll discover:
-What's a calorie?….06:56
- There's a Calorie and there's a calorie (lower case)
- The calorie is a measure of heat (heat calorie) = the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 mL of water 1 degree Celsius (°C), at sea level
- A Calorie (pertains to food = 1,000 heat calories) is the amount of heat required to raise 1 L of water 1 degree Celsius (°C), at sea level (called the Kcal and is =4184 Joules in the S.I. system of units)
- The Calorie was first used to measure food by farmers in Germany in the early 1800s
- Used by Wilbur Atwater to measure human consumption in the 1880s
- Bomb calorimeter: measure the heat of reaction at a fixed volume and the measured heat which is called the change of internal energy
-The A-B-C equation of measuring calories in food…13:45
- A = total number of calories in the food (cannot be 100% extracted)
- B = number of calories on the side of the packet of food
- C = usable calories we get out of food
- Atwater General Factor System
- Every calorie count today is still based on these numbers
-The problem with Atwater's factors…19:10
- Fats and carbs are made of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms
- Protein also has nitrogen in addition to the above (on average, 16% of protein is nitrogen)
- There is no store of protein in our body that is inert; protein has to be stored as fat
- Protein, if not going to be used immediately, has to be stored
- To store protein, it has to be converted to fat (protein is stored as fat)
- To be stored as fat, the nitrogen in protein has to be removed
- A lot of the nitrogen comes out in the urine and costs a lot of energy (waste energy)
- Thermic effect of digestion
- Fiber mitigates the accuracy of the Atwater factors
-What's a DIT value and why does it matter…27:19
- Diet-Induced Thermogenesis – heat given off while eating; cost of metabolism
- Think about the quality of the food vs. the number of Calories consumed
- Digestion is the conversion of food into primary micronutrients:
- Amino acids
- Loss of energy from protein is from the metabolism of these nutrients, which cost energy
- Only 70% of Calories from protein is absorbed, 30% is given off as heat
-Did we get it right when it comes to labeling our food?…35:00
- Need to highlight the critical elements of food on the labels:
- Amount of protein
- Amount of fiber
- Amount of added sugars
- Amount of fat (kinds of fat)
- Portion sizes do not reflect the reality of how much people eat
-Why we're terrible judges of Calorie counting…38:05
- Dana Small of Yale University study on Calories
- Very few things naturally occur with high fat and carbs together (milk is the exception)
- The reward part of the brain lights up when carbs and fat are eaten together
- Ultra-processed food (industrially processed foods that cannot be replicated in the home) are typically stripped of all protein and fiber; lacks flavor
- Flavor is restored by adding sugars, salts, and fats
- Ultra-processed foods are cheap (economies of scale) and have a long shelf life
-Advice for a good macronutrient ratio with minimal ultra-processed food in the diet…48:34
- Count protein instead of Calories (16% of daily energy intake should come from protein)
- At least 30g of fiber per day (the more the merrier)
- Limit daily intake of free sugars (added sugars, including honey and maple syrup) to 5% or less
- Why Calories Don't Count: How We Got the Science of Weight Loss Wrong by Giles Yeo
- Dr. Giles Yeo Chews The Fat podcast
-And much more!…
- Keep up on Ben's LIVE appearances by following bengreenfieldfitness.com/calendar
Resources from this episode:
– Other Resources:
- Chia Seeds
- Pumpkin Puree
- Acacia Essentials Sea Moss
- Wilbur Atwater
- Atwater General Factor System
- Food And Appetite
- Diet-Induced Thermogenesis
- Integration of Sweet Taste and Metabolism Determines Carbohydrate Reward
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