Monday, 24 October 2011

The Calorie

Seriously good 'Food Program' on Radio 4 today.  They still seem to sit a bit behind the paleo-curve but just to hear some of these ideas aired on prime time radio is damn significant:
Of particular interest is the discussion of the history of the calorie, much of which you can read about on the History Today site which covers the pioneering work of Wilbur O. Atwater.  The Food Program has some fantastic audio from the early part of the last century illustrating the rise of the calorie as THE handle on food consumption and as 'an index of human welfare'.  History Today cites the wider, political importance of just such a measure:
  • Nutritionists identified ‘balance’ as the primary characteristic of a progressive diet and advocated a system of caloric ‘bookkeeping’ to increase national efficiency. As a measure of optimization, the calorie represented an advance over the kinds of statistics in use. Officials already em­ployed tax, birth, mor­tality and crime figures to discover ­natural laws in human behaviour that would serve as foundations for policy, but the calorie revealed a wide discrepancy between ‘natural’ behaviour and the ideal balance that might be achieved through social regulation. As Atwater and Lang­worthy never tired of observing, people of all classes and educations ate the wrong things in the wrong amounts. The calorie authorized government to tell people what was best for them.

    Calories were better suited to guiding policy than personal eating habits, physicians repeatedly pointed out. In 1917, the American Medical Association warned against the ‘unwise domination’ of the calorie in the popular mind, but its use persisted through advertisements, which instructed consumers that ‘calories measure food energy the same as dollars measure money’. The federal government eagerly seized the ­calorie to fill an urgent need for information on food consumption. After the outbreak of war in Europe, food panics occurred in major US cities, which revealed the inadequacy of both the market mechanism and official knowledge. Federal officials realized they didn’t know how much food to allocate to each family or to each city, how much there was, or how to get it most efficiently. The lack of numbers other than price figures, which fluctuated wildly, added to the confusion. Combined with censuses, caloric tables could be used to estimate rations for cities, armies or even whole nations. 
On the program nutritionist Zoe Harcome gives a good assessment of the shortcomings of calorie-counting as an approach to weightloss, and implied that 'isocaloric is not isometabolic'.  I suspect she has read GCBC but could do with brushing up on Gnolls' excellent series on hunger and also CarbSane's post on glyceroneogenesis

Whatever her shortcomings, she has raised her head above the parapet and is getting an improved message out to the mainstream.  I found this film below where she plugs her book on obesity.  I figure it's GCBC for housewives.  Might be worth a read.


The Obesity Epidemic - Introduction from Zoe Harcombe on Vimeo.

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