The calorie as a measure of food energy is inaccurate and variable. The calorie is an age old measure designed to estimate the maximal energy in food. Even with adjustments to reflect qualitative factors, the caloric equation is an inadequate model to predict weight gain. The impact of both host and bacterial metabolism can affect the actual energy impact of ingested food and therefore, the likelihood of weight gain. But even when net energy is considered, there are other important qualitative variables to be considered. The nutritional value of our diet and the extent to which it is processed are important determinants of health.
The degree to which our food has been processed or manipulated may predict risk of weight gain. The industrialization of the food chain means that we are increasingly exposed to a potpourri of obesity inducing toxins known as obesogens. Obsesogens have become pervasive in our food supply due to the use of pesticides in our crops, agricultural antibiotics and hormones, and toxic chemicals as preservatives and enhancers of flavour and colour. Industrialized processing of sugars and fats to produce packaged foods that are better tasting and longer lasting has lead to extensive use of high glycemic index refined sugars, like high fructose corn syrup, and trans-saturation of fats to make them shelve stable.
Calorie for calorie, weight watchers may be best off selecting foods that are minimally processed, non-GMO and organically grown without pesticides.
More ubiquitous and less easily recognizable is the industrialized processing of food staples like the genetic modification of corn and soy crops and hybridization of wheat. The creation of dwarf wheat sheaths through hybridization has altered the composition of it's nutrients with a higher proportion of gluten and gliaden proteins, many of which can be antigenic to humans triggering immune reactions, inflammation, neuropsychiatric effects and autoimmunity. The shorter fatter dwarf sheaths are more efficiently harvested as the greater surface area is more readily sprayed leading to an increased level of contamination with the toxic glycoside, Round Up. So calorie for calorie, a serving of wheat far more likely to contain trace toxins from heavy spraying than it did a generation ago.
Environmental toxic exposures can be pervasive and not always avoidable. But consumers can make smart choices to stay clear from heavily contaminated crops or choose organic. The "Dirty Dozen" list provides a guide to the most heavily sprayed produce that consumers may opt to purchase organically and an accompanying list of the "Clean Fifteen" names other forms of produce that tend not to be as heavily sprayed and when organic is not available may be preferable. Calorie for calorie, weight watchers may be best off selecting foods that are minimally processed, non-GMO and organically grown without pesticides. Because if it's made on a plant it is likely good for you; but if it's made in a plant, then likely it is not.
Food processing also depletes the nutritional value of food. Beyond the social benefits of eating locally produced foods, there is the benefit of higher nutritional value. Generally, the lesser the degree of food processing and the shorter the distance from production to plate, the higher the nutritional potential. We rely on our diet to provide essential vitamins and minerals like folic acid, cobalamin (Vitamin B12), calcium, magnesium, selenium and zinc, which help to maintain optimal body weight and composition. Vitamin D3 deficiency impairs our ability to maintain bone and muscle mass and contributes to the risk of obesity. Deficiencies in the B vitamins can block glucose metabolism and increase the risk of diabetes.
Of course there are many other human variables that can influence the risk of weight gain. Hormonal and genetic variations play a role. Falling sex hormones at menopause (or andropause), high cortisol and insulin can increase the likelihood of gaining fat. While our DNA is clearly not our destiny, it does provide a roadmap of obesity related risks. So is there an obesity gene? As it turns out, there is not one gene but several that predict obesity.
The risk of obesity is complex and there is an intricate web of factors that predict weight gain. Clearly, the calorie is an inadequate predictor. Considering the adverse effect of food processing and nutritional deficiencies, there are important qualitative factors to consider. Human variables like genetic and hormonal signals require that a highly personalized path be pursued to maintain a healthy weight and shape. The calorie in, calorie out model is broken. Calorie counting dieters may want to rethink the equation in terms of quality with a personalized approach.
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