How calorie-focused thinking about obesity and related diseases
may mislead and harm public health. An alternative
Sean C Lucan
* and James J DiNicolantonio
Department of Family and Social Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Monteﬁore Medical Center,
1300 Morris Park Avenue, Block Building, Room 410, Bronx, NY 10461, USA:
Department of Preventive
Cardiology, Mid America Heart Institute at Saint Luke’s Hospital, Kansas City, MO, USA
Submitted 29 May 2014: Final revision received 2 October 2014: Accepted 3 October 2014
Prevailing thinking about obesity and related diseases holds that quantifying
calories should be a principal concern and target for intervention. Part of this
thinking is that consumed calories –regardless of their sources –are equivalent;
i.e. ‘a calorie is a calorie’. The present commentary discusses various problems
with the idea that ‘a calorie is a calorie’and with a primarily quantitative focus on
food calories. Instead, the authors argue for a greater qualitative focus on the
sources of calories consumed (i.e. a greater focus on types of foods) and on the
metabolic changes that result from consuming foods of different types. In
particular, the authors consider how calorie-focused thinking is inherently biased
against high-fat foods, many of which may be protective against obesity and
related diseases, and supportive of starchy and sugary replacements, which are
likely detrimental. Shifting the focus to qualitative food distinctions, a central
argument of the paper is that obesity and related diseases are problems due
largely to food-induced physiology (e.g. neurohormonal pathways) not addres-
sable through arithmetic dieting (i.e. calorie counting). The paper considers
potential harms of public health initiatives framed around calorie balance sheets –
targeting ‘calories in’and/or ‘calories out’–that reinforce messages of overeating
and inactivity as underlying causes, rather than intermediate effects, of obesity.
Finally, the paper concludes that public health should work primarily to support
the consumption of whole foods that help protect against obesity-promoting
energy imbalance and metabolic dysfunction and not continue to promote calorie-
directed messages that may create and blame victims and possibly exacerbate
epidemics of obesity and related diseases.
With worldwide concerns about obesity and diseases rela-
ted to it (e.g. diabetes and CVD), there is substantial interest
in shifting populations to healthier weights and better health.
More precisely, there is interest in reducing body fat since
fat –particularly visceral or abdominal fat –may matter
more than weight when it comes to health
much of the evidence regarding obesity and related diseases
focuses on body weight, rather than body fat. In reviewing
such evidence, therefore, the present paper will therefore
also often use the imprecise term ‘weight’as opposed to
‘fat’, pointing out when such imprecision might mislead
One way such imprecision might mislead thinking is in
supporting the notions that (i) ‘a calorie is a calorie’† and
(ii) intervening on calories is the best way to address obe-
sity (i.e. the quantitative problem of excess pounds or
kilograms on a scale as opposed to the qualitative problem
Public Health Nutrition
†‘Calorie’–or more correctly kilocalorie (kcal), for which the word often
imprecisely substitutes –is the main unit of energy used to discuss food
and obesity-related issues in the USA. It is also the word used in common
expressions like ‘a calorie is a calorie’. The word appears throughout this
commentary as the energy unit of choice, but readers should feel free to
substitute all instances with their own preferred energy unit; e.g. the joule
(or the kilojoule or megajoule). No mathematical conversions are required
as arguments are abstract and do not rely on speciﬁc quantities.
Public Health Nutrition: page 1 of 11 doi:10.1017/S1368980014002559
*Corresponding author: Email email@example.com © The Authors 2014
of altered body metabolism). The two calorie notions are
largely about balance sheets, essentially considering cal-
ories like units of body weight and units of body weight like
inverse units of health; according to the logic, obese indi-
viduals need only try to consume fewer calories than they
burn and they will achieve healthier weights and better
Although such logic is intuitive and enticing, reality is
not quite so simple and existing evidence challenges
calorie-focused notions. A view focused more on food
quality, rather than caloric quantity, may help better
explain and better address the growing problems of
excess weight –or more precisely excess fat –and related
conditions. Conversely, messages and initiatives based on
the idea of calorie equivalency (that a ‘calorie is a calorie’)
and interventions directed at calorie balance sheets may
make these problems worse. The present paper reviews
various problems with calorie-focused thinking, considers
several advantages of ‘more-nuanced thinking’(that
considers calories principally as subordinate concerns to
qualitative differences in food) and proposes an alternative
path for public health to move forward.
The problem with the idea of calorie equivalency
A calorie is a unit of energy. As related to food energy,
calories measure the potential energy a food could
release. One calorie of potential energy equals one calorie
of potential energy, just as one unit of anything equals
another unit of that same anything. To say ‘a calorie is a
calorie’then is tantamount to the identity property in
mathematics (A =A). As such, it is irrefutable.
In practice, however, the statement that ‘a calorie is a
calorie’often implies something different from mathema-
tical identity. It implies that any two different foods, which
have equivalent amounts of potential energy, will produce
identical biological effects with regard to body weight/
body fatness when consumed. By this thinking, a calorie’s
worth of salmon, olive oil, white rice or vodka would each
be equivalent and each expected to have the same
implications for body weight and body fatness. Indeed,
stating ‘a calorie is a calorie’suggests that potential energy
is the essential concern and that qualitative differences in
the substances providing that energy are irrelevant.
But a calorie’sworthofsalmon(largelyprotein)anda
biological effects from a calorie’sworthofwhiterice(reﬁned
carbohydrate) or a calorie’sworthofvodka(mostlyalcohol)
–particularly with regard to body weight/body fatness.
Indeed, scientists have recognized differences in the weight-
related physiological effects of different calorie sources for
more than half a century
was based on animal studies, subsequent studies in human
subjects have shown that calorie-providing proteins, fats,
carbohydrates and alcohol each have substantially different
effects on a variety of physiological pathways and hormones
relevant to satiety, food consumption, weight maintenance
and body composition: for example, different effects
on ghrelin (an appetite-stimulating hormone), leptin (an
appetite-suppressing hormone), glucagon (a hormone that
raises blood sugar) and insulin (a hormone that lowers
The aforementioned descriptions of hormone activities
are greatly oversimpliﬁed and the list of hormones far from
exhaustive, but the examples serve to suggest that a given
calorie’s worth of salmon, olive oil, white rice or vodka
might each behave quite differently in the body and pro-
duce different ultimate effects. Indeed, whereas some
‘calories’(i.e. some amounts of different foods, quantiﬁed
by their potential energy) induce metabolic pathways and
hormones that squelch appetite and promote energy
utilization, others stimulate pathways that promote hunger
and energy storage. Even controlling for total calorie
intake and energy expenditure from physical activity,
qualitative differences in calories have different implica-
tions for obesity
; a calorie’s worth of one food is not the
same a calorie’s worth of another
Trying to intervene on calories is implausible
It follows from the problematic notion of calorie equivalency
that any calorie consumed might be offset by a single calorie
expended. Thus individuals wishing to lose weight should
simply consume fewer calories than they expend. In other
words, individuals should intervene on caloric quantity by
consciously trying to ‘eat less’and ‘move more’than they
otherwise would to establish ‘caloric deﬁcit’or ‘negative
The problem with trying to ‘eat less’and ‘move more’to
achieve –and more importantly, maintain –caloric deﬁcit or
negative energy balance is that it is practically and biologi-
cally implausible. Practically, even the most motivated,
informed and knowledgeable individuals are unlikely to be
able to estimate their actual calorie intake (not just ingested,
informed by misleading food labels
) or their actual calorie expenditure (not just in
but in variably efﬁcient, silent and
constantly ﬂuctuating digestive and metabolic pro-
) and do so with sufﬁcient accuracy and
precision to maintain any kind of useful real-time calorie
balance sheets. Biologically, calorie intake and calorie
expenditure are coupled
pling occurs, reducing calories consumed will necessarily
result in a compensatory drive to reduce calories expended
and vice versa
. For this reason, people who try
underconsuming calories become tired (an expenditure
compensation) and hungry (an intake compensation), and
one reason they often fail to lose weight (or have unim-
may be that resultant hunger,
Public Health Nutrition
2 SC Lucan and JJ DiNicolantonio
particularly an increased desire for high-calorie foods
drives compensatory overconsumption
Of course, some individuals do succeed at sufﬁciently
uncoupling energy balance (i.e. do expend more calories
than they consume) and do lose weight. But saying that
these individuals lose weight because they expend more
calories than they consume is like saying that students are
late for class because they arrive after the bell rings. Both
statements are true, but neither is causal. The associations
do not explain the ‘why’(i.e. in the case of expending more
calories than consumed, why the uncoupling occurred).
Calorie equivalency and calorie balance sheets cannot
explain the ‘why’; why some people succeed in eating less
and/or moving more and lose weight while others fail and
gain weight. Calorie-focused thinking does not tell us why
some people achieve net burning or net storage of calories,
or how it is entirely possible to lose weight (as lean mass)
and still gain fat (i.e. become more obese). Calorie thinking
also cannot account for the dynamic non-linear response of
body weight to stable energy imbalances over time
Likewise, calorie thinking does not address why obesity-
related metabolic abnormalities
and adverse events of
may both occur before there is
any gain in weight
, why metabolic improvements may
occur at stable weight
or why obesity-related adverse
events may not decline with weight loss
for obesity should provide insights into these observations.
More-nuanced thinking about obesity and related
To understand another kind of thinking about obesity and
related diseases –and why individuals may show meta-
bolic changes associated with being overweight before
any detectable weight gain occurs –it is useful to consider
body fat. Body fat –particularly visceral or abdominal
fat –is a complex tissue that plays critical roles in appetite
stimulation, energy expenditure and weight regulation.
Normally, when a body’s fat cells are replete (i.e. full with
stored fat), they release a hormone called leptin. Leptin
stimulates parts of the brain to send additional hormone
and nerve signals to the thyroid gland, skeletal muscles,
heart, intestines and other fat cells
. These signals are
to decrease energy intake (i.e. to ‘eat less’) and increase
energy expenditure (e.g. to ‘move more’)
As individuals start to become obese, however (meta-
bolically speaking, if not yet by weight on a scale),
something goes awry with the signalling. Fat-cell repletion
is no longer recognized and rather than there being signals
to suppress appetite and increase activity as fat stores
increase, there are signals to increase energy intake and
reduce energy expenditure
. In other words,
‘eating more’and ‘moving less’, thought to be causes of
body fattening by calorie-focused thinking, may actually
be a result of body fattening
So if eating more and moving less could be a result of body
fattening, what causes bodies to fatten (i.e. to undergo
metabolic dysfunction followed by fat gain, and then weight
gain) in the ﬁrst place; that is, what prevents leptin from
doing its job of satiating appetite and promoting energy
expenditure? The answer is not entirely clear, but one
hypothesis implicates concentrated sources of rapidly
absorbable carbohydrates in the diet and the hormone
Insulin is a pancreatic hormone that helps drive inges-
ted nutrients into cells; its release is most brisk and pro-
nounced following the ingestion of rapidly absorbable
carbohydrates (as compared with fats, proteins, alcohol
and more slowly absorbed carbohydrates
absorbable carbohydrates –sugars and reﬁned starches
like white rice and foods consisting substantively of white
ﬂour –cause blood sugar to rise briskly and insulin levels
to respond in kind
. The rapid insulin elevations
produced by these foods cause correspondingly rapid
drops in blood sugar. Food cravings result (to restore
fallen fuel levels), particularly appetites for something
. Thus, in the short term, intake of rapidly
absorbable carbohydrates may promote ‘eating more’in
general and create a reinforcing loop for overconsumption
of additional rapidly absorbable (sweet) carbohydrates in
particular (Fig. 1)
Over the long term, overconsumption of rapidly
absorbable carbohydrates may promote leptin resistance.
Such resistance may occur through microbiota-mediated
or through other metabolic
changes (e.g. chronic insulin elevations)
with leptin’s actions largely disabled, the result of high
sugar and starch intake is a neurohormonal drive to ‘eat
more’and ‘move less’(Fig. 1)
By more-nuanced thinking, then, what counts for obe-
sity and related diseases is not the number of calories in
speciﬁc foods but rather the concentration and type of
carbohydrates these foods contain
. Total calorie
balance is important in both ways of thinking, but whereas
calorie-focused thinking directs dietary recommendations
towards calorie counts (being primarily quantitative),
more-nuanced thinking directs dietary recommendations
towards calorie sources (being primarily qualitative); the
number of calories consumed and expended are only
Different dietary recommendations by calorie-
focused thinking and more-nuanced thinking
A comparison of selected foods that might be encouraged
or discouraged by calorie-focused thinking and a more-
nuanced thinking appears in Fig. 2. Concordant cells
reveal there is some common ground. For example, both
ways of thinking discourage sodas, but whereas more-
nuanced thinking discourages sodas based on
Public Health Nutrition
Calorie-focused thinking and an alternative 3
Public Health Nutrition
Nuts and nut butters;
avocados, olives and olive oil;
whole dairy; oily fish
Most vegetables, legumes,
whole fresh fruits and
unprocessed or sprouted
grains; lean meats, poultry,
and fish; water and
unsweetened tea and coffee
Sodas and other sugar-
candies; baked sweets; French
fries and batter-fried foods,
snack chips and other
100 % fruit juices; enriched
breads and pastas; fortified
breakfast cereals (e.g. corn
flakes, crisp rice); low-fat dairy
(including sugary flavoured fat-free
Fig. 2 Comparison of selected foods that might be encouraged or discouraged by calorie-focused thinking and more-nuanced
thinking. This figure is not comprehensive, is not a description of any specific diet plan, and does not represent the
recommendations or guidelines of any particular individual or organization. It does not explicitly address issues relevant to public
health nutrition beyond calorie- and carbohydrate-related concerns (e.g. food production, climate change, One Health, etc.).
Additionally, categorizations are based on somewhat relative concepts such as how ‘empty’calories are and how ‘rapidly
absorbable’carbohydrate content is; placement of listed and unlisted items within the construct may be debatable.
‘Encouraged’=okay to eat or even desirable as a focus of one’s diet, particularly as an alternative to foods that are
‘discouraged’;‘discouraged’=to be avoided or limited in quantity
Expending fewer calories
(e.g. ‘moving less’)*
Consuming more calories
(i.e. ‘eating more’)*
Increasing intake of
Short-term reinforcing loop (by more-nuanced thinking)
Long-term reinforcing loop (by more-nuanced thinking)
Explanatory path (by calorie-focused thinking); path from intermediates (by more-nuanced thinking)
Independent factors (by calorie-focused thinking); physiologically coupled factors (by more-nuanced thinking)
with uncoupling and imbalance from neurohormonal changes that may be driven by sugar and/or starch intake
Consuming food calories in excess of
calories expended causes obesity
Rapidly absorbable carbohydrates
stimulate neurohromonal signals that
cause increased calorie intake over the
short term and fat storage, increased
calorie intake and decreased calorie
expenditure over the long term
Fig. 1 Calorie-focused thinking versus more-nuanced thinking about obesity. Single-headed arrows represent direct associations in
presumed causal directions. *‘Expending fewer calories’includes all energy expenditure, but ‘moving less’specifically refers to a
relatively lower degree of physical inactivity from baseline. ‘Eating more’refers to relative overeating from baseline. †Over the short
term, the intake of rapidly absorbable carbohydrates –through spikes in blood sugar and insulin, and through sweet cravings –
promotes a reinforcing loop with ‘eating more’in general and eating more rapidly absorbable carbohydrates in particular (dotted
arrows). Over the long term, neurohormonal alterations, perhaps chiefly through insulin and leptin resistance –leading to and
contributed by growing abdominal fat –perpetuate an indirect reinforcing loop with ‘eating more’(dashed arrows) and also promote
‘moving less’. Decreasing the intake of rapidly absorbed sugars and starches (as found abundantly in processed foods) and
increasing the consumption of whole/minimally processed foods may disrupt these loops, overall calorie imbalance, and both the
hormonal dysfunction and excess body mass characterizing obesity
4 SC Lucan and JJ DiNicolantonio
carbohydrate content and character (i.e. high concentra-
tions of rapidly absorbable sugar), calorie-focused think-
ing discourages sodas based on the idea of ‘empty
calories’.‘Empty calories’are foods that contribute energy
but few substances thought to be beneﬁcial like vitamins,
minerals and ﬁbre. By calorie-focused thinking, ‘empty
calories’waste precious space on the intake side of calorie
Figure 2 also demonstrates important discordance
between calorie-focused thinking and more-nuanced
thinking. For instance, 100 % fruit juices –full of vita-
mins, minerals and sometimes ﬁbre –are not ‘empty’and
may even be considered healthy and desirable by calorie-
. By more-nuanced thinking, however,
100 % fruit juices are just as undesirable as sodas given
both are mostly sugar in concentrated liquid form
Other discordances in dietary recommendations
between calorie-focused thinking and more-nuanced
thinking, and perhaps the most important differences,
relate to dietary fat. Dietary fat has by far the most calories
of any of the energy-providing compounds in food: about
9 kcal/g as compared with roughly 7 kcal/g for alcohol,
4 kcal/g for protein and 4 kcal/g for carbohydrate
Thus, calorie-focused thinking has an inherent bias against
dietary fat. This bias leads to public health messages and
interventions to decrease the intake of fatty foods or
reduce or remove the fat from high-fat foods (often
replacing fat with less-calorie-dense –often rapidly
Calorie-focused thinking generally endorses foods that
are low in fat and calories, as long as those calories are
not ‘empty’. In contrast, more-nuanced thinking has no
problems with fat or calories, per se, and places the blame
squarely on foods with the most rapidly absorbable
carbohydrates (Fig. 2). Clearly these two ways of thinking
are very different. A question for public health moving
forward is: would food choices that could result from a
continued primary focus on calories (calorie-focused
thinking –Fig. 2) be best for population weight and health?
Pertinent clinical and population evidence for two
different ways of thinking
Consider an experiment in children
. Sixth graders with
comparable baseline satiety were allowed to eat as much
as they wanted of two highly palatable child-friendly
snacks: cheese wedges/rounds or potato chips. A quantity
of cheese (mostly fat with some protein and negligible
carbohydrate) might offer about 50 % more calories than
an identical quantity of chips (mostly carbohydrate and fat
with negligible protein). By calorie-focused thinking,
comparably hungry children should eat more calories of
cheese because cheese has more calories. By more-
nuanced thinking, comparably hungry children should eat
more calories of chips because chips, being rich in rapidly
absorbable starch, should tend to promote continued
eating (short-term reinforcing loop, Fig. 1)
What actually happened in the experiment was that
children in the potato chip group consumed over three
times more calories than children in the cheese group
While a protein difference between the snacks might cer-
tainly have been a factor (with experimental trials suggesting
, albeit not always statistically signiﬁcant
satiating power of protein), all foods are inevitable mixes of
different components and the point here is that the food
with the higher starch content prompted greater consump-
tion. This result is consistent with a meta-analysis showing
children have greater energy intake following consumption
of the most rapidly absorbable carbohydrates
Notably in the experiment described above, the effect of
eating more calories in the high-carbohydrate (chips)
condition was even more pronounced among overweight
and obese children
. This result is consistent with
another trial showing greater hunger in obese children
after a high-carbohydrate meal
and consistent with the
long-term reinforcing loop in Fig. 1.
Although the chips-and-cheese experiment did not
assess children’s total caloric intake for the day outside of
the single snack episode, it is likely that children con-
suming cheese ate fewer calories overall for the day,
whereas children consuming chips ate more. Such an
outcome would be suggested by ﬁfteen of sixteen single-
day studies in adults that showed increased hunger, lower
satiety or greater calorie intake after consuming rapidly
absorbable carbohydrates v. not
. The outcome might
also be suggested by two other studies in children in
which restaurant fast-food consumption was associated
with a net increase in total energy intake for the day
although only for overweight individuals in one study
consistent with the long-term reinforcing loop in Fig. 1.
Granted, for a given fast-food meal, the studies referenced
above cannot distinguish if greater total caloric intake was
the result of a greasy burger (per calorie-focused think-
ing), a reﬁned bun (per more-nuanced thinking) or
accompanying French fries (per both ways of thinking).
However, substantial evidence now implicates foods that
are low in fat (and, thus, relatively low in calories), like
, white rice
and sugary beverages
in the development and persistence of obesity and risk for
related diseases. Conversely, evidence is mounting to
exonerate higher-calorie foods that are rich in fat like
, oily ﬁsh
and olive oil
, and even
foods high in saturated fat
like dairy products
Indeed, higher-calorie fattier foods and higher-fat diets may
produce and sustain as much or more weight loss than
calorie-restricted or higher-carbohydrate diets
particularly among those already having metabolic
. Moreover, certain fattier/lower-car-
bohydrate diets may also be associated with favourable
, reduced adverse
and delayed mortality
Public Health Nutrition
Calorie-focused thinking and an alternative 5
The situation for public health moving forward
Fuelled not exclusively but in no small part by calorie-
focused thinking, fats in foods and fattier diets became the
enemies of public health campaigns of the 1980s and
1990s. Lower-calorie sugars replaced higher-calorie oils in
many foods and people shifted their consumption from
fats to carbohydrates (most often, the rapidly absorbable
kinds). As in the chips-and-cheese experiment described
above, greater reﬁned carbohydrate intake was associated
with greater total calorie intake, but now on a population
. In other words, people did not eat less
when lower-calorie foods and diets were advised, they ate
more. Obesity rates increased right along with greater
. Diabetes rates increased too
and although these ﬁndings do not prove causation, they
certainly do not support continuing forward under the
current logic of calorie-focused thinking, with the food
choices it could encourage (Fig. 2) or the tenuous notions
that follow from it (Table 1).
Calorie-focused public health initiatives might continue to
produce unintended, even ironic, consequences. Initiatives
like calorie labelling for example –ﬁrst for food packages
and more recently for restaurant menus and menu boards –
are meant to steer both consumer choices and food-industry
offerings towards lower-calorie options
. Despite national
enthusiasm for the idea
, whether calorie labelling will
have the desired effect seems doubtful
is whether labelling will actually improve population health.
There is already suggestion that some labelling may produce
effects opposite to those intended
. And there is the
distinct possibility that calorie labelling could further move
food production and consumption away from healthful
high-fat foods (like nuts) and towards sugary and starchy
items (like low-fat baked potato chips), promoting further
increases in diseases characterized by abdominal fat and
There are, admittedly, other existing public health
initiatives that, at least on the surface, seem more consistent
with the logic of ‘more-nuanced thinking’; for instance,
proposals to tax and limit sugary beverages
Nevertheless, these initiatives are usually framed around
the idea of ‘empty calories’, which totally misses the point.
Even the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed
changes to packaged-food labels –which would newly
report the amount of ‘added sugars’in a product –place
even more emphasis on calories than current labels by
visually subordinating all other label information and
highlighting calories in an enormous bold typeface
What existing and planned initiatives seem not to
acknowledge is that calories from added sugars and starches
are worse than just ‘empty’(detriment through omission);
evidence suggests they are actively harmful (detriment
dual consumers may vary (e.g. due to their personal genetic
or that of their resident gut microbes
there is good reason to believe that rapidly absorbable car-
bohydrates tend to promote obesity, and diseases commonly
associated with it, in general
The problem for public health is that continuing to focus
on quantifying calories may misdirect thinking on obesity
and related diseases and promote destructive messages.
For instance, in a 2013 editorial, the president of the
Institute of Medicine listed gluttony and sloth as ‘obvious’
‘deadly sins’for public health to address
. His argument
(which had been made before
) suggested obesity and
related diseases are matters only of personal resolve
and self-control; if people just had more motivation and
will-power, they could consciously control their calorie
balance sheets, eat less, move more and lose weight. It
stands to reason that those subscribing to the Institute of
Medicine logic might blame an overconsuming, inactive
adolescent for growing fat. But would they blame the
same overconsuming, inactive adolescent for growing tall?
Public Health Nutrition
Table 1 Notions derived from calorie-focused thinking and challenges to those notions
1. ‘A calorie is a calorie’
2. ‘Eating less’and ‘moving more’to achieve
calorie deficit will produce weight loss
3. Consuming more calories than expended
4. High-calorie foods/diets (i.e. high-fat
foods/diets) are undesirable
5. Low-calorie foods/diets (i.e. low-fat foods/
diets) are desirable
6. Low-fat foods without ‘empty calories’
1. Calories from protein, fat, carbohydrate and alcohol each stimulate different
physiological pathways and have different metabolic effects
2. Trying to underconsume calories (without paying attention to qualitative differences in
calorie sources) will result in compensatory hunger and fatigue, generally with little
weight/fat loss in the short term and rebound weight gain in the long term
3. Energy consumption and expenditure are dependently linked; consuming more calories
than needed results in compensatory energy expenditure (e.g. reduced metabolic efficiency)
and/or reduced appetite and subsequent intake. If calories are consumed in excess of
calories expended in some kind of sustained way, then such imbalance is the result –not the
cause –of developing obesity (and of the neurohormonal changes that underlie it)
4. Many foods that are higher in fat may protect against obesity, lead to favourable
metabolic indicators and help protect against chronic diseases and early mortality
5. Low-fat foods and diets are often high in the most rapidly absorbable sugars and
starches), which may be distinctly detrimental for obesity and related diseases
6. Even for foods that have vitamins, minerals, fibre, and various other constituents
believed to be healthy, if they are concentrated sources of rapidly absorbable sugars
and starches, they are likely to cause metabolic dysfunction and harm
6 SC Lucan and JJ DiNicolantonio
Just as children do not enter puberty and grow tall
because they overeat and sleep more, neither do indivi-
duals start to fatten and become obese because they eat too
much and move too little. In both cases overconsumption
and inactivity are intermediate effects; neurohormonal
changes are the cause. The case of pubertal growth
represents normal development, but the case of fattening
represents decided pathology; pathology that may be
modiﬁable through dietary change. Perhaps if we shifted
food production and people’s consumption away from
added sugars and reﬁned starches, we could avoid the
resultant metabolic dysfunction and corpulence that have
come to plague our populations. Instead of futilely pro-
moting messages to ‘eat less’and ‘move more’
perhaps we should do more to promote the consumption
of whole/minimally processed foods
–like more of
those in the upper row of Fig. 2 –foods that might make
‘eating less’and moving more’more possible.
Calorie-focused thinking may have already exacerbated
the epidemics of obesity and related diseases. And while
there has been much progress in redirecting dietary focus
towards actual foods
, there is still too much focus on
eating ‘too much’
. Focusing quantitatively, particularly
on the calories available from speciﬁc foods, fails to
recognize the broader metabolic effects of foods them-
selves. Foods that are highly processed and comprised
mostly of rapidly absorbable sugars and starches may be
of greatest concern. Such carbohydrates may induce
neurohormonal changes that might, in turn, help produce
the overeating and inactivity often interpreted as causative
for obesity. In other words, unhealthy foods
may make double victims of their consumers, who might
not only become obese by eating them but also receive
harsh criticism for their substantial appetites and apparent
laziness that result.
As the saying often attributed to the Albert Einstein
goes, ‘not everything that can be counted counts’, and
advice to count calories, or to try to change calorie balance
sheets by intervening on quantities of undifferentiated
foods, seems misdirected. Imagine comparably mis-
directed advice: for instance, to count ﬂuid ounces, drink
less and urinate more –advice that might likewise result
in temporary weight loss (but no fat loss) and be
uncomfortable, unsustainable, unreasonable and unhelp-
ful; and likewise oppose coupled neurohormonally driven
physiology in futility. Yes, calories count, and calorie
balance sheets matter, but net intake or expenditure
probably results more from qualitative distinctions in
the foods we eat than conscious attempts at quantitative
. New public health initiatives and messages
focused on encouraging consumption of whole/minimally
processed foods would be ideal
, especially to counteract
industry’s near-exclusive marketing of foods that are highly
processed/reﬁned and concentrated sources of the most
rapidly absorbable starches and sugars.
Promoting the consumption of whole foods will require
careful attention to food systems, cultural traditions, peer
inﬂuences, food environments, assistance programmes
and a host of other issues beyond the scope of the present
commentary. But as a guiding principle, the public health
community should not be trying to cut calories from
, we should be improving the quality
of the foods available that provide our calories. We should
be promoting foods that do not prompt, or indeed
programme, us to overeat.
Although focusing on reﬁned starch and sugar content
might seem like a logical path forward, such narrow focus
could lead to unintended consequences, as when public
health campaigns demonized fat. For this reason, the
recent WHO draft guideline to more strictly limit the intake
of all sugars
, the recent proposition in England for a
, and the recent proposal in California to
place health warning labels on sugary drinks
, while all
appropriately focused, should be evaluated carefully
before wider implementation. Coordination with the food
industry will be challenging, but while working towards
improving the quality of foods that are produced and
working to support the consumption of whole/minimally
processed products, at the very least, public health should
not continue to promote messages that create and blame
victims or that, in all likelihood, continue to exacerbate
epidemics of obesity and related diseases.
Acknowledgements: S.C.L. would like to thank Sanjay
Basu, MD, PhD, Jennifer L Pomeranz, JD, MPH, Paul R
Marantz, MD, MPH and Manisha Sharma, MD for reviewing
very early drafts of this manuscript and providing critical
comments. Financial support: This research received no
speciﬁc grant from any funding agency in the public,
commercial or not-for-proﬁt sectors. Conﬂict of interest:
None. Authorship: S.C.L. conducted the primary literature
review, conceived the paper, drafted the main arguments,
and created Figs 1 and 2. J.J.D. helped revise the text,
contributed citations, and drafted Table 1.
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