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Do calories even count? Research counters a longstanding assumption.

The calorie is the basic unit of measure of food — and it might be off.

  • In a new article in 1843, Peter Wilson argues that counting calories is an outdated form of weight management.
  • Research shows that labels are up to 20 percent off true caloric totals; 70 percent in frozen processed foods.
  • Not all digestive systems are created equally; humans process foods at different rates under varying conditions.

Quantifying workouts has resulted in an increasingly suspect trend in the fitness industry. The gamification of exercise is one thing — if hitting 10,000 daily steps helps you move more, the technology is worthwhile. Calorie counters on a variety of cardiovascular machines tell another story. The notion that exertion can be accurately tracked in anatomically and physiologically divergent participants is ludicrous.

It's a running joke in cycling studios that the calorie output is nowhere near accurate. (The same is true for wattage, which can vary tremendously among stationary bicycles.) Calibration isn't the culprit; it's our expectation that fitness can be reduced to a set of numbers. In a world that attempts to quantify every last measure, too many variables are not considered.

Take obesity. Body-mass index is an unfair measure of body structure. My 185 pounds, at six-three, is held much differently from guys that are five-nine, but also guys that are six-three. Body mass divided by the square of body height might yield similar results on a calculator, but reality is not confined to machine output.

The same is true of one of the most common fitness measures we use, so much so that to debate its importance seems heretical: the calorie.

For generations, the calorie — calor, Latin for "heat" — has been the primary focus of weight loss. "Calories in, calories out," a mantra so often repeated that questioning its validity only proves your ignorance of the basic building block of nutrition.

Sometimes, an assumption is a terrible waste of energy.

Counting Calories Is A Ridiculous Way To Try And Lose Weight | Think | NBC News

Energy lies at the origins of calories, as Peter Wilson writes in his extensive critique of our obsession. Originally devised to measure the efficacy of steam engines, in the 1860s German scientists began applying these units to food. Wilbur Atwater, an agricultural chemist born in New York in 1844, compared food working in the body as the fuel behind fire after visiting Germany. (The comparison of the human digestive system to a furnace is sometimes attributed to French cooking, though the metaphor was widely used in Ayurveda.) Atwater also introduced the concept of macronutrients to the public.

For decades Atwater was the don of nutrition and metabolism and should be credited for his incredible foresight. Atwater's extensive research into measuring caloric input and output exemplified the advanced science of his day. The problem is we are not living in the 19th century. As Wilson writes of Atwater's advice,

"He counseled the poor against eating too many leafy green vegetables because they weren't sufficiently dense in energy. By his account, it made no difference whether calories came from chocolate or spinach: if the body absorbed more energy than it used, then it would store the excess as body fat, causing you to put on weight."

Today hardly anyone would argue that chocolate and spinach produce similar results, but even that line of reasoning is flawed: What is the cacao-to-sugar ratio? There is a world of difference between 70 percent and 100 percent, a point that Wilson touches upon in his assessment of what is likely the actual heart of the problem: carbohydrates, especially in processed foodstuff form.

"All carbohydrates break down into sugars, which are the body's main fuel source. But the speed at which your body gets its fuel from food can be as important as the amount of fuel. Simple carbohydrates are swiftly absorbed into the bloodstream, providing a fast shot of energy: the body absorbs the sugar from a can of fizzy drink at a rate of 30 calories a minute, compared with two calories a minute from complex carbohydrates such as potatoes or rice. That matters, because a sudden hit of sugar prompts the rapid release of insulin, a hormone that carries the sugar out of the bloodstream and into the body's cells."

The soda industry has long profited from the calorie myth by offering low-calorie versions that are in no way healthy. Photographer credit: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This is why "juice cleanses" are ridiculous. Stripped of fiber, you might as well be drinking a vat of sugar water; the slow absorption of fruit sugar is thanks to the pulp. Because the macronutrient fat is associated with the physical condition of being fat, a public health scare led to all sorts of franken-creations in the '80s. The "calorie is a calorie" mentality reigned supreme. Ironically — though, not really — this is when the obesity epidemic kicked off. Between 1975 and 2016, Wilson writes, global obesity rates tripled.

As mentioned, BMI is a relatively useless measure, but to claim that a flawed measurement system must produce inaccurate data would be equally false. We are overweight. Besides, skyrocketing rates of cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes — diseases of affluence, as they're called — reveal the depth of our nutrition problem. Sure, overeating is a problem that can cause weight gain, but what you're eating is equally if not more relevant.

The most troubling aspect of Wilson's research might just be the revelation that packaging labels are off by a range of 8 to 20 percent; in some processed frozen foods, as high as 70 percent. Food calories are based on the heat the food gives off in an oven, not a human being. As Wilson writes, "the real-life journey from dinner plate to toilet bowl takes on average about a day, but can range from eight to 80 hours depending on the person."

That's not the only factor governing how each of us stores fat. The composition of our microbiome plays a significant role in nutritional health; how much sleep we get and at what time of day we eat factor in; even the length of your intestines matter. "Calories in, calories out" isn't a pithy truism; it's a lazy assessment by those unwilling to understand the complexity of the modern food industry and the corporate forces that sold us a lie.

For 15 years I've worked in the fitness industry, over which time I've seen tens of thousands of bodies in my classes. Humans come in many shapes and sizes. Some people can truly eat whatever they desire and not gain a pound; others chew on leaves and remain portly. The lengths we go to calorie count isn't a sign of health; it's orthorexia, which creates cortisol, another factor in weight gain.

Don't be fooled by the arrogance of simplicity. Body weight is a multivariate phenomenon. Pretending a one-size-fits-all solution exists only serves one end: ensuring discount diet book shelves remain stocked. This year's trend is always next year's "how did we buy into that?"


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Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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