Introduction: Calories and Health – A Misplaced Belief

Possessing adequate energy to do physical activities is one of the important indicators of health. Human beings get that energy through food. Since calorie is the unit for energy measurement, energy requirements of human beings are also measured in terms of calorie requirements. A lot of research has been done to assess and standardize the ideal daily intake of energy by human beings and for the past many decades, calorie requirement has become the basis for deciding and determining the health, wealth and development of human communities around the world. Since 1950s the core objective of many poverty alleviation programs and food and nutrition programs developed by various national and international organizations was creating awareness on the correlation between health and consumption of prescribed quantity of calories on a daily basis in order to maintain good health. Labeling the calorie content of various food products available in the market in order to provide choices to people while meeting their calorie requirements has became mandatory. Many developed countries’ food and health policies are guided by the calorie requirement standards. However ironically, studies conducted to assess the effectiveness of these programs reveal that there is an increased incidence of obesity and other life style related diseases like cancer, diabetes and increased risk of heart diseases etc., indicating that it is a misplaced belief that meeting calorie requirements ensures good health.

Food beyond the count of calories

Energy is very important in order to carry out various physical and physiological activities, but to utilize this energy effectively and efficiently, human body requires certain essential nutrients available in various food items, which are otherwise poor in calorie content.

Besides energy supply, food is also needed to maintain the acid/alkaline balance and electrolytes balance in the body, provide antioxidants to neutralize and protect the tissues and cells from the attack of free radicals, provide minerals, salts, enzymes, vitamins etc which catalyze various biological functions of the body. Nutrition experts do realize that it is not possible to attain ideal health by living only on calorie rich foods and suggest the consumption of fruits, and vegetables, which are rich in vitamins, trace elements, minerals, salts and natural fibre. However over emphasis on meeting the calorie requirements undermines the importance of other nutritive qualities and properties of food and thus stands almost like a statutory warning, which nobody bothers to observe.

Emphasis by media and health organizations only on calorific property of the food at the cost of other properties is leading to increased incidence of defective bowl movement, poor and week eye sight, juvenile diabetes and many such chronic diseases among the populations. On the contrary the rate of incidence of many such life style related diseases is very low among people who live on less than prescribed amount of calories but depend highly on fresh fruits and vegetables. Okinawans of Japan are a living example who have the world's longest average life span--and eat 40 percent fewer calories than Americans and 17 percent fewer than the average Japanese citizens, This suggests that the link between health and calories is over hyped.

Human being – more than an animated machine

To measure the calorie content of food, the food is first completely dried up and then placed in contrivance called bomb calorimeter and ignited. Then the calorimeter is immersed in a known volume of water. The rise in temperature of water when the food is completely burnt is used to measure the calories contained in the food. In this method the food is completely burnt including the dietary fibre, which does not happen during digestion and also overestimates the amount of energy that the human digestive system can extract. In order to estimate the calories content of food item’s digestible constituents like protein, carbohydrate and fat etc., standardized chemical tests and an analysis of the recipe are used. These results are then converted into an equivalent energy value based on a standardized table of energy densities. This is a fast chemical reaction competed in one single step and is performed at the room temperature. Energy is released directly from the food item placed in the calorie meter. Whereas in human beings, digestion is a process through which the complex food items consumed are broken down into their constituent simpler organic molecules by a slow chemical process. It involves a number of chemical reactions resulting in the formation of a variety of intermediary compounds and then culminating in to the formation of final compounds which when broken down would release the energy required by the body to do its activities and it takes place at body temperature. More over the energy released during the calorimetric experiment is thermal energy, where as the energy released within the human body is chemical energy.

Though scientists simulate the digestion process that takes place in a living and conscious human body, but in their enthusiasm scientists forget that human being is not a mere animated machine. Chemical reactions conducted outside human body will yield same results irrespective of time of the day, season of the year, and climatic conditions of the region etc. Where as digestion in human beings is a complex process not only in terms of chemical reactions involved in it, but also in terms of various factors that influence digestion.

Firstly, in simulated chemical processes, the initial ignition is provided through thermal energy, but in human body the trigger to start the process of digestion is caused by the feeling of hunger generated by the human mind, which motivates human beings to consume food, which in turn signals the glands to secrete digestive juices, that act upon the food. So in the human body it is not the thermal energy which ignites the chemical process but the human mind, with its consciousness initiates and controls the process of digestion. Once again it is the mind, through the central nervous system which motivates the human being to carry out certain physical or physiological or mental activities which use the energy supplied through food. If the human mind is not active and healthy, consuming recommended calories on a regular basis will not ensure health. On the contrary it may cause ill health.

Secondly, it is a well known fact that digestive juices function optimally only at normal body temperature. Consuming extreme hot or cold food delay the digestion because, digestive juices could work on the food items only when food is brought back to the regular body temperature. Similarly under diseased condition digestion will be very weak as the body diverts all its energy towards healing process. Under such circumstances, even if people take recommended calories, human body will not be able to digest, assimilate and utilize those calories, hence daily intake of recommended calories will not ensure improvement in health on the contrary they might delay and prolong the recovery. Full utilization of food calories will only be possible when there is functional efficiency and structural integrity of all the body organs.

Looking beyond the physical energy

Calorie theory takes care of only physical energy generated through digestion, assimilation and combustion. Physical energy available to human body is one of the lowest and gross forms of energy. It is true that many physical and physiological activities of a living human body utilize this physical energy. However to utilize this physical energy, human body requires more subtler and higher forms of energy like emotional energy, mental energy and spiritual energy.

It is a very common observation and established fact that, people who are happy, satisfied and who lead an emotionally balanced life can take on more physical, mental and emotional stress and strain and are still able to lead a healthy life. On the other hand people suffering from emotional disturbances in their social and family life, tend to get easily tired while doing ordinary day to day physical activities and fail to face any psychological and professional pressures in their daily lives. In such cases even if they take recommended calories regularly they are at risk of suffering from serious ailments.

Mental energy which comes through knowledge and awareness helps a lot in utilizing the physical energy to minimum extent possible. For example a person who is skilled to perform a particular task or a veteran with vast experience will complete the task more efficiently while spending minimum amount of physical energy and in minimum amount of time, where as a novice or an unskilled person may struggle to complete the task and in the process may spend more physical energy. If both these people take same amount of calories, since both of them are involved in doing the same kind of task, the veteran may become over weight, and the novice may be labeled as under weight, and mal nourished as there is an imbalance in their respective input and out put of energy. In the case of former, the balance would be tilting towards the input side whereas in the latter’s case the tilt would be towards the out put side.

Finally the life energy which is all pervasive and responsible for life and longevity of the human body is the most subtle and the most important form of energy required for efficient and effective functioning of each and every cell, tissue and organ of the human body. This is the energy which is responsible for digesting the food, and its proper assimilation and for storing the physical energy in various chemical bonds of various bio-molecules and finally letting the physically energy released by breaking those chemical bonds. There is no way one can measure this form of energy and there is no way to generate or replenish this energy by any known physio-chemical means. No amount of recommended calorie intake would help in restoring this energy in the human body.

Modern school of thought asserts that all phenomena of life are merely physio-chemical processes obeying elementary chemical and physical laws and a living system can ultimately be reducible to its constituent atoms and molecules. Due to this assumption modern scientists tend to believe that health is a physical property of the animated machine called human being, which can be built up by supplying physical energy in the form of food.

It is true that all complex organic molecules are clusters of ordinary looking chemical elements like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen. However at each level, there is a progressive complexity and each emerging organization has distinct properties which are entirely different from its lower level constituent components. Organisms emerging through progress and evolution are irreducible entities and as fundamental as their constituents. The energy and complexity possessed by these higher level organisms is far greater than the sum of the energy and complexity of their constituents. This energy and complexity is the expression of the life energy. Even though physical energy available through food is also an expression of that life energy, one must always remember that it is one of the lowest and gross expressions of that life energy. A part can never replace or substitute for the whole in order to achieve holistic health one should strive to take energy from the whole which has the synergy gathered from all its constituent components, rather than mistakenly concentrating only on one of the constituents. Prescribing a minimum amount of calories is akin to substituting the part for the whole. Calories can yield intended results only when other higher and subtle forms of energy like emotional, mental and life energies are present in human beings.

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