Could calorie counts be incorrect?

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COLUMBIA - New research from a nutritional scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows calorie counts on food labels for protein, nuts, and foods high in fiber could be incorrect. 

In fact, the labels on those foods could overestimate calories by up to 25%. The study said the discrepancy in calorie counts on labels and actual energy gained is due to the way the human body processes different types of food. 

GNC nutritionist Matthew Rogers said that's because carbohydrates are used by the body much more quickly than proteins. 

"When it comes to proteins, nuts, and foods high in fiber, your body uses up to 30% of that fuel to actually digest the food," he said. "So it would make sense that perhaps labels overestimate the calorie counts on those types of food."

Personal trainer and nutrition expert Ryan Kriegel said it's important to remember that when it comes to how much energy or calories a person needs, everyone is different. 

"Some people need more calories, some people need less," he said. "And that's just calorie amounts. People also process and digest foods like carbohydrates and proteins at very different rates."

He said calorie counts on food labels are based on an average of foods, and the people who consume them. 

"The method of determining how many calories are in any given food dates back to the 1800s," Kriegel said. "You burn the food and see how much energy is produced."

Rogers said that method is more accurate overall for carbohydrates. 

"It's much harder to know the exact calorie count on foods that take a while to digest, like proteins and nuts," he said. 

Kriegel said any total overhaul of the calorie system is still a long way away. 

"I think we're still using this system from the 1800s because no one knows the best way to change it," he said. "There is definitely a way to optimize the calorie system so people have a better understanding of what they're consuming, but I don't think it will ever be perfect."

Rogers said he thinks the solution is clearer food labels. 

"Instead of just numbers, I'd like to see a pie graph on food labels to show how much fat, carbohydrates, and protein is in each food," he said. "That information is available on labels right now, but it's all in numbers. People need to have a clearer picture into just how all the parts of their food work together to be healthy, or not." 

Krigel said he's concerned that some people could misinterpret the study. 

"While protein, nuts, and foods high in fiber are certainly some of the more healthy options, this study doesn't mean that you can eat however much you want of them," he said. "Everything still has to be in moderation." 

Rogers agreed. He said any changes in calorie counts would probably have to come from individual food distributors, not from larger institutions like the Food and Drug Administration. 

 

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