Adam and Eve

A Seemingly Endless Pursuit of Good and Bad Calories

Sunday morning at Nutrition 2018, the seemingly endless pursuit of good and bad calories continued. Five distinguished scientists presented diverse views. But it all adds up to the same thing. All calories make a difference. Energy balance is a helpful concept. And physiology usually wins.

Jim Hill: A Complex Adaptive System

Hill offered a detailed review of the complex, adaptive nature of energy balance. As a framework, energy balance is a useful starting point for studying obesity. But it provides no simple answers. Depending on a vast array of variables, similar caloric intakes might have different effects. However, simplistic ideas about good and bad calories are misleading.

Kevin Hall: Carbs vs. Fats Doesn’t Explain Much

Some fantastic claims for the effects of carbs are quite popular right now. But with a careful review of the data, Hall brought those claims back down to earth. Long-term weight loss studies suggest that outcomes don’t vary much between low-carb and low-fat strategies.

Eric Ravussin: Metabolic Flexibility May Provide Clues

The concept of metabolic flexibility provides a tool for understanding how different individuals adapt to different metabolic conditions.  It helps explain why some people are vulnerable to obesity, while others are not. Ravussin explained that measures of this dimension are still evolving. But it may open the way for developing better therapies for improving metabolic health.

Frank Hu: No Magic Bullets for Obesity

Hu reviewed research on diet quality and health outcomes beyond obesity. Though he offered up observational data about foods associated with weight gain, he did not press the point. Instead, he focused more on overall dietary patterns. Diet quality offers no magic bullets for obesity. But it can make a difference for other health outcomes, he said.

John Jakicic: Energy Expenditure Patterns Play a Role

Jakicic offered a bit of a curve ball at the end. He shifted away from what we eat and into what we do. He told the group that how we burn our calories might make a difference for health and weight outcomes. Different people burn similar amounts of energy in very different ways. Physical activity might come in just a few isolated segments. Or we might spread it throughout the day. From one study, he described the link between more sustained bouts of activity and better weight outcomes.

At the end of the day, the concept of good and bad calories has an enduring appeal. But so far, the answers are far from satisfying. People want certitude about what’s good and what’s bad. Instead, the answer is a shrug. It all depends. For now, just find what works for you.

If you want another view of this subject, click here and read Gina Kolata’s assessment of Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. For more on yesterday’s presentations, including this one, click here.

Adam and Eve, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder / WikiArt

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June 11, 2018

2 Responses to “A Seemingly Endless Pursuit of Good and Bad Calories”

  1. June 11, 2018 at 10:06 am, Stephen Phillips said:

    Food is not our moral compass and is neither good nor bad. All food contains nutrients and provides energy and cannot be labeled as healthy or unhealthy or good or bad. These words feed into the diet mentality and fuel the perfectionist, all or nothing forbidden food behaviors. Certainly some foods could be of advantage or disadvantage to specific medical conditions but this does not moralize them nor make them inherently good, bad, healthy or unhealthy.
    For Best Practices Lose These Words

  2. June 11, 2018 at 12:16 pm, David Brown said:

    Scientists need to switch from thinking in terms of good and bad to thinking in terms of adequacy, balance, appropriateness, and excess.

    Adequacy is a matter of getting enough nutrients to meet cellular metabolic needs. Balance has to do with the endocannabinoid system mostly. Too much omega-6 arachidonic acid and too little EPA and DHA in cell membranes causes all manner of problems in terms of pain, mood, and appetite. For example, “Importantly, overweight and obese individuals often have higher circulating levels of the arachidonic acid-derived endocannabinoids anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG) and an altered pattern of receptor expression. Consequently, this leads to an increase in orexigenic stimuli, changes in fatty acid synthesis, insulin sensitivity, and glucose utilisation, with preferential energy storage in adipose tissue. As endocannabinoids are products of dietary fats, modification of dietary intake may modulate their levels, with eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid based endocannabinoids being able to displace arachidonic acid from cell membranes, reducing AEA and 2-AG production.”

    The people most vulnerable to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity are likely those who are more efficient at converting linoleic acid to arachidonic acid. For example, “Populations who have had a primarily vegetarian diet for generations were found to be far more likely to carry DNA which makes them susceptible to inflammation. Scientists in the U.S. believe that the mutation occurred to make it easier for vegetarians to absorb essential fatty acids from plants. But it has the knock-on effect of boosting the production of arachidonic acid, which is linked to inflammatory disease and cancer. When coupled with a diet high in vegetable oils – such as sunflower oil – the mutated gene quickly turns fatty acids into dangerous arachidonic acid.”

    The the lesson here is this. If you cannot control your appetite, you probably need to reduce vegetable oil, animal meat, and animal fat consumption. Plant proteins, potatoes, and coconut oil are good sources of safe, low-arachidonic acid foods. Adding green leafy vegetables can further improve the omega-3/6 balance in tissue membranes. More on this:

    In the final analysis, there are no good or bad nutrients. It is excesses, shortages, and imbalances that need to be addressed. An excess of empty carbohydrate calories dilutes the vitamin/mineral content of food intake. An excess of omega-6s and a shortage of omega-3s hyperactivates the endocannabinoid system. The result is a deranged appetite often accompanies with pain and depression.