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We’ve been told that one of the simplest ways to maintain or lose weight is to count calories.

It sounds simple in theory, but what if the calorie information listed was wrong?

An international group of nutritionists recently spoke at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston about the problems with the current calorie counting system.

“Our current system for assessing calories is surely wrong,” said evolutionary biologist Richard Wrangham of Harvard University.

The current system is based on the work of a 19th-century chemist, Wilbur Olin Atwater from the United States. It is a simple system of calculating four calories for each gram of protein, nine calories for each gram of fat, and four calories for each gram of carbohydrate.

The system does not account for the differences in calorie contribution from raw and cooked versions of the same food. For example, people get more energy per ounce, and therefore more calories, out of cooked hamburger than they would from a raw steak.

The calorie count from this system can be out by as much as 25 per cent, according to Dr Rachel Carmody, also of Harvard University.

“There is a lot of misinformation around calories, and it is crucial for the consumer, whether they are on a diet or not, to have the correct information about what they eat,” said Professor Wrangham. “We believe that it is time for a high-level panel to consider how best to improve the quality of information provided to the public about the real energy value of their foods.”

Calorie counts don’t account for the 5 to 30 per cent of energy used up in digesting and absorbing a meal. Calorie counts can also change depending on how the food interacts with internal organs and processes.

Tests on foods like meat and sweet potatoes showed that cooking raised calorific content by 15 per cent in meats and 39 per cent in sweet potatoes.

To help test the inaccuracy of calorie counts, mice were fed different types of food at Harvard University. Dr Carmody said, “the mice that were eating the processed foods were fatter. We are not suggesting consumers go on a 100 per cent raw diet. That kind of diet can actually be harmful.” However, the more refined and processed the food the higher the amount of energy absorbed by the body.

Raw foods, such as almonds, deliver a lot fewer calories than they contain, since they are often not chewed enough to fracture all the cell walls and release fats.

With obesity rates in countries like the United States and Australia at alarmingly high rates, accurate calorie count information is essential. Dr Carmody noted that they still believed food labels are a good idea. “We just want to make sure that the information communicated is as accurate as possible,” she said.

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