When a Calorie Isn’t a Calorie

#strawberry #forest #wholefood**Note: I am not a nutrition expert, just an enthusiast. For application of the ideas discussed in this post, please consult your nutritionist or doctor.


A calorie is not a calorie, as least, not the way we’ve come to know it. When I think back to health class in high school, I learned that a gram of protein, carbohydrate and fat have 4, 4, and 9 ‘calories’, respectively.  These numbers represent the average energy absorbed by my body when I digest one gram of each type of food.

From my many physics classes, I learned that one calorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of on gram of water by one degree Celsius (and what we commonly refer to as a ‘calorie’ is actually a kilocalorie, or a thousand calories.)

So when it comes to taking care of myself, all I have to do to lose (or maintain) weight is to workout and diligently count calories and then I’ll be great, right?

Well, sort of. It’s true that what you put into your body plus what you burn is the ultimate equation for you to balance. In college, I lost a decent amount of weight by using my love of Excel and diving into the USDA nutrition database to record everything I ate, weighed or portioned out to measure exact calories when possible. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t eating too much—or too little. (Fortunately, now there are plenty of fitness tracking apps, such as MyFitnessPal.)

But what happens when what you think you’re putting in your body turns out to not be totally accurate?

#agaragar #whatsacalorie


New studies, and some not-so-new studies, have shed a bit more light onto what we think we’re consuming. The short of it is that the average calorie counts of 4 and 9 were developed by chemist Wilbur Olin Atwater in the 19th century. There is one key factor to notice here: average.

Any two foods may be digested in various ways, even if they look the same. In fact, just because a food has the same grams of fat, protein and carbohydrates, it may actually be harder to digest resulting in a lower net calorie count than a seemingly comparable food. (E.g., in a study by the USDA, they found that almonds actually result in 129 net calories as opposed to the 170 reported on the label.) Aside from natural composition, how the food is treated and processed will affect the net calorie count.

Here are just a few factors that affect the net calorie count of food:

  • Digestion efficiency (evolved by food or your genetic ancestors)
  • Traditional cooking method (boiling, baking)
  • Modern cooking method (microwave)
  • Preservatives or other food treatments
  • Level of digestion-assisting bacteria in your stomach


No. My take** on this is that I will do three things to better understand how to optimize my calories eaten + calories burned equation:

Although the traditional calorie counts aren’t necessarily accurate, I can still use them to roughly estimate what you’re eating – and helps me have a better way to compare the potential “goodness” of various types of foods.

Clearly, cooking breaks food down to make it more easily digestible. Similarly, the more processed a food, the less energy that needs to be expended by my body in digestion, potentially resulting in higher actual net calorie count than expected.

Because each person may digest food differently, it’s important to be constantly learning and improving my relationship with food. What works best for my body? How do certain foods make me feel? What kind of energy do they give me?

Ultimately, it’s about feeling as healthy and happy as possible—and that means being true to my “eating self.”

#rainbow #carrots #wholefood


If you’d like to read more, below are some studies and articles I suggest you explore.

Postprandial Energy Expenditure in Whole-Food and Processed-Food Meals: Implications for Daily Energy Expenditure. Sadie B. Barr and Jonathan C. Wright in Food & Nutrition Research, Vol. 54; 2010.

Discrepancy between the Atwater Factor Predicted and Empirically Measured Energy Values of Almonds in Human Diets. Janet A. Novotny, Sarah K. Gebauer and David J. Baer in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 96, No. 2, pages 296-301; August 1, 2012.

The Hidden Truth About Calories, Scientific American, August 2012.


Zucchini ‘Pasta’ with a Romesco-esque Sauce

Zucchini "Angel Hair Pasta" with Roasted Red Pepper & Cashew Sauce (Romesco Inspired)
It’s important to me that anyone who comes to my house feels comfortable and well-fed. I’ve several friends with serious dietary issues related to wheat and dairy, and many who are vegan. I’m a fan of making my own pasta, but often, these friends can feel left out. This dish, a zucchini ‘pasta’ with ‘creamy’ roasted red pepper sauce, provides an easy substitute that keeps every type of eater included, even those that dislike the “slimy texture” of or have other complaints about zucchini (a.k.a. courgettes.)

Note: I have ordered the ‘pasta’ recipe first for purposes of the image flow on the blog, but when executing this dish, it’s better to make the sauce ahead of the zucchini ‘pasta’.

Using a mandoline to make zucchini "pasta" significantly reduces time. However, these noodles can be hand cut in a variety of shapes and sizes by hand.

Serves 6. Prep time: 5-10 min Cook Time: 5-10 min
Zucchini’s mild flavor and texture make it a fantastic substitute for pasta. I recommend using a mandoline if you like finer cuts of pasta such as angel hair or fettuccine–or just want to save time. Note: the thicker the cut, the less your mind will be “tricked” into thinking it’s pasta. (It will never be fooled fully, FYI.) Regardless, if you have serious food restrictions or are just trying to reduce your carb intake, these noodles make a great dish that can be paired with any of your favorite sauces, including the one below.

6 large zucchini
3 tbsp olive oil
dash of salt
pinch of pepper

Fry pan

DIRECTIONS: Peel the zucchini and, using a cross-slicing mandoline, cut into angel hair sized pasta (or size of your choice.) Heat a pan to medium heat and add olive oil. Add pasta, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss until zucchini frequently for 3-5 minutes. (Tongs are useful for this step.) Once the zucchini is slightly limp, like a regular wheat-based noodle, remove from the heat. (Then, toss with warm sauce of choice.)

Zucchini pasta with romesco-eque sauce. Sometimes, the sauce is the star of my meal. For those occasions, I like to serve this dish in a bowl--almost like a curry.
Sometimes, the sauce is the star of my meal. For those occasions, I like to serve this dish in a bowl–almost like a curry.

Serves 6. Prep time: 30 min Cook Time: 30 min
A take on a classic Romesco sauce, I replaced the almonds and hazelnuts with cashews for a softer taste that places more emphasis on the roasted red peppers. I also add thyme blossoms for a subtle note.

6 vine ripe tomatoes (medium in size)
3 red bell peppers
1 bulb roasted garlic
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 bay leaves (fresh or dry)
1/2 cup raw cashews
1 sprig of fresh rosemary
1/2 tsp chili powder (paprika or cayenne, depending on your spice tolerance)
4 tbsp fresh thyme blossoms (or fresh thyme leaves)
sea salt
ground black pepper

Large pot for boiling water
Sauce pot
Oven with broiler setting (or grill)

DIRECTIONS: The steps you will take are to (1) roast the garlic (2) roast the peppers (3) peel the tomatoes (4) simmer the sauce (5) puree the sauce and (6) toss with prepared zucchini pasta and garnish. Some steps overlap others, so read ahead to save time.

(1) Put the small saucepan over a low heat with 2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil and the entire bulb of garlic, peeled. Stir occasionally until a light golden color and soft in texture. (Quick way to do this, cut off the bottom of the bulb, place in a large container and shake vigorously for 30-40 seconds.) You can keep the garlic cooking while you prepare the peppers and tomatoes.

(2) Turn on your broiler to medium-high heat. Place the red bell peppers on the highest rack, closest to your broiler. Turn every 2-3 minutes, until you can see that the skin has bubbled up and darkened. Place immediately into a sealed container (the steam helps the skin separate from the flesh of the peppers) and let cool. While the peppers are cooling, complete step 3: peeling the tomatoes. Once you’re done with the tomatoes, the peppers should be cool. You can then, remove the top, seeds, and skin of the pepper with your hands (easiest). Dice and set aside.

(3) To skin the tomatoes, lightly cut (score) an “x” at the bottom of each tomato. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Have a large bowl of ice water ready. Drop each tomato into the boiling water for about 30-45 seconds, then remove and quickly plunge into the ice water. You should see the skin of the tomato curling back from the place where you made the “x”. Peel off the skin and remove the base of the stem. Dice and set aside.

(4) In the same pot as the garlic, remove all but 4 cloves of garlic and set aside for later use. Add the diced tomatoes, diced roasted red peppers, 3 bay leaves, 1 sprig of rosemary, a dash of salt, and a pinch of pepper. Simmer for approximately 15 minutes.

(5) Remove rosemary & bay leaves from the simmering mixture, adding the remaining mix to your blender, along with the cashews and chili powder. Puree on high until it becomes silky in texture. Add additional salt, pepper, and olive oil to taste.

(5) Toss with the prepared zucchini ‘pasta’ and garnish with thyme blossoms and roasted garlic. Alternatively, you can store the sauce in a sealed container in your fridge for up to a week, or freeze if you’re truly planning ahead.
In springtime, and sometimes through the summer, my thyme plant often blooms. The flowers have a subtle taste.

In springtime, and sometimes through the summer, my thyme plant blooms.
The flowers have a subtle taste.