Caloric Confusion Causes Consumption Conundrums



Federal law requires calorie counts to be reported on food labels. However, these values are not always indicative of nutritional value.


Although they are touted as the primary way of determining the nutritional value of foods, calories can be confusing.

For a measurement so ubiquitous, the origin of the calorie is surprisingly murky. According to an article by James L. Hargrove, associate professor of foods and nutrition at the University of Georgia, most nutritionists don’t actually know who invented the term.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a calorie as the approximate amount of heat required to raise a gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. The connection between the scientific definition of a calorie and the nutritional calorie is unclear.

Within the Fordham community, it can be a bit difficult to make informed decisions about one’s food. Walking into the Community Dining Hall, one is bombarded with calorie counts above each food available. While this display is required by the city of New York, ingredient lists are nowhere to be found.

An in-depth perusal of the campus dining website proves just as uninformative: short descriptions of the dishes served are offered, but a full list of ingredients is missing, making it impossible to know what’s really going into one’s body.

Lincoln Center Campus Dining General Manager Gregory Bienkowski confirmed that there is currently nowhere for interested students to find full ingredient lists. The lack of this information leaves a serious gap in Fordham’s efforts to provide healthy on-campus food options.

Even some experts find calories puzzling. In her book “Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow.,” sports dietician and nutritionist Elyse Kopecky outlines her own difficulty understanding how calories matter in nutrition and expresses her shock upon discovering that “in 1824, a scientist calculated the number of calories in a gram of fat, protein, and carbohydrate. These rough calculations from nearly 200 years ago are still used to determine the calories listed on every single packaged food.”

Most importantly, Kopecky emphasizes that not all calories are created equal and different people draw different amounts of energy from a calorie.

As one might expect, our bodies digest 100 calories of broccoli differently than 100 calories of Oreos. These foods have very different consequences for the body, and the use of calories attempt to make them seem like equally healthy options.

Broccoli is an all natural food loaded with necessary nutrients and vitamins. Oreos, on the other hand, are a heavily processed packaged food with many unpronounceable ingredients. Defining them in the same way wrongly indicates that if you eat a certain amount of one, it’s essentially the same as eating a calorically equal amount of the other. The human body does not react the same way to these two foods, so we should not view them as equally healthy options.

Additionally, using one number to define how much energy is in a food suggests that everyone’s body will burn this energy in the same way with the same efficiency. In reality, every body will digest food differently. Calories can take a psychological toll on individuals; they can lead to feelings of frustration, inadequacy and self-doubt. According to Kopecky, these feelings can spiral out of control and feed obsessive comparison to others and even eating disorders.

If calories are an unreliable health indicator, then what can individuals rely on? The answer is simple: real foods.

Looking for minimally processed foods with whole ingredients is a much more constructive way of deciding what goes in your body. Kopecky emphasizes that natural foods contain all the nutrients we need. Wholesome sources of carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables and whole grains such as rice, quinoa and oats. Natural protein sources can be found in meat products such as chicken, beef and turkey. Yogurt, eggs, nuts and seeds also provide healthy sources of protein and fat. Other sources of fats include olive oil, avocados and coconut oil. A short ingredient list is almost always a good sign.