Calorie Calculation: Why the Atwater Coefficient Is Not Perfect


  1. What is the Atwater coefficient in the first place?
  2. Digestion is an entirely different process than burning food 
  3. Perspective from my intestinal starvation theory

Many experts still believe that “one calorie is one calorie.” If we apply this idea to weight control, we have to only be concerned with the number of calories in our diet, regardless of what different foods we eat or how we eat them. Of course, the human body is not that simple, and many researchers have warned against this kind of thinking.

In explaining this, I thought I should make a distinction between reactions that occur "inside" the body (after absorption) and those that occur “outside" the body (before absorption) (Note 1).
In this article, I would like to consider the Atwater coefficient, which is the basis for calorie labels on food products, as an issue that occurs outside the body.

gut, external of the body

As many gut microbiologists recognize, the digestive organs such as the stomach and intestines are "external" to the body (e.g. bad bacteria in the gut do not directly harm the body), which is perfectly consistent with what I have been explaining in this blog-the idea that the "absorption rate is important."

(Note 1: "Diet-induced heat production" actually occurs after absorption, but it is related to digestion, so I’d like to also use it here to explain it as an external response.)

1. What is the Atwater coefficient in the first place?

In the 1800’s, chemists developed a method to measure the amount of calories in food by burning food and measuring the temperature change from its surroundings. Burning food is chemically similar to the process by which our bodies break down food to obtain energy.

In the late 1880’s, Wilbur Atwater at Wesleyan University in Connecticut was studying what proportion of different foods humans could digest. 

Atwater set up an experiment using a “bomb calorimeter” to measure the caloric content in food. Foods with evaporated water were placed in a highly pressurised sealed container surrounded by a certain amount of water. The container was filled with pure oxygen to burn the food. The caloric content in the food was then calculated from the rise in temperature of the surrounding water. The amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one liter of water by one degree Celsius at sea level is defined as one kilo calorie[1].

However, digestion is a series of gentle chemical reactions over many hours, not like burning food in a bomb calorimeter. Therefore, we can only extract a certain percentage of calories in  food. So, it is said that Atwater fed human volunteers a variety of foods and measured the heat of combustion of the resulting fecal matter. By calculating the difference in heat of combustion between the food and the feces, he was able to approximate the number of calories absorbed by the volunteers. 

Atwater also took into account the fiber in food which we can’t digest(Note 2), and the nitrogen in our urine extracted from protein and excreted as urea. More than one-hundred-twenty years after this experiment, these "Atwater coefficient" are still the basis for caloric calculations for all foods[2].

(Note 2: It is now known that dietary fiber produces some energy through fermentation and breakdown by  the bacteria in the large intestine[3].)

Currently, the general Atwater coefficients of 4 kcal/g for carbohydrate and protein, 9 kcal/g for fat, and 7 kcal/g for alcohol are applied to all foods regardless of the type of food.
The use of specific Atwater coefficient is also allowed, which is different for each food group[4].

In Japan, since these coefficients were developed based on the average daily diet of Americans at that time, the coefficients for some major foods in Japan such as rice, soy products, animal products, etc.,were determined by studies conducted on Japanese subjects[5].

2. Digestion is an entirely different process than burning food 

We ingest food and then break down complex food molecules into simple structures such as glucose and amino acids by various digestive enzymes. After that, we get an energy source by absorbing them. Naturally, this is a completely different process compared to burning food in the laboratory. 

According to Professor Rob Dunn (North Carolina State University), every calorie count on food labels is based on estimates or approximations, and are not an accurate reflection.

Recent research has revealed that how many calories we get from a given food depends on a variety of factors, including which species we eat, how we cook food, which bacteria are in our gut, and how much energy we use to digest different foods (diet-induced heat production).[6]

(I)Digestibility varies even in vegetables

Even if it is same vegetable group, they vary in the firmness of their leaves and stems. The walls of plant cells in the stems and leaves of some species are much tougher than those of spinach, cucumbers, and other soft vegetables.

Also, even in the same plant, the durability of cell walls can differ. The older the leaves, the tougher the cell walls tend to be and the more difficult they are to digest.

Seeds such as corn and nuts, in particular, have such sturdy cell walls that they can hoard precious calories within them and pass through the body intact.

A study by Janet A. Novotny at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (2012) found that when people eat almonds, they take in just 129 kcal per serving, not the 170 kcal listed on the label. It is beginning to be proven that nuts such as peanuts, almonds, and walnuts have a more robust cellular structure than other foods with similar levels of energy sources, and that their cell walls limit digestion. It is possible that the Atwater coefficient overestimates the digestibility of nuts.[7]

(II)Calories vary depending on how we cook food

Prof. Dunn also mentions that the biggest problem with modern calorie labels is that they failed to account for how food is prepared and processed, which dramatically changes the amount of energy derived from  food.

We humans learned to cook raw food. We learned to process foods in different ways such as simmering, baking, frying, or even fermenting, to make them more palatable and tender. 
This should have dramatically increased the calories we extracted from food

Furthermore, some have pointed out that industrial food processing not only exposes food to high temperatures and pressures, but also softens food by adding air, to make it even easier to get more calories.

Corn, for instance, which is considered indigestible, is made into potage, and raw peanuts are roasted and processed into peanut butter. These processes must have dramatically increased the amount of energy available to the body. In other words, not all pork dishes are the same. The energy used for digestion and the absorption rate differ when roasting a chunk of pork versus making it into pâté.

(III)Energy required for digestion and immunity

Some research has shown that the energy required for digestion is not the same. This is called “diet-induced thermogenesis,” and it requires a great deal of energy to convert proteins into amino acids, fats into fatty acids, and carbohydrates into glucose. It is said that when proteins are broken down into amino acids, they require as much as five times more energy to digest as fats, because enzymes must unravel their tightly wound bonds[9].

According to Prof. Dunn, it also differs between whole grains and refined wheat. In a 2010 study, they found that people who ate 600-or 800-kcal portions of whole-wheat bread with sunflower seeds, kernels of grain, and cheddar cheese expended twice as much energy to digest that food as those who ate the same amount of white bread and "processed cheese products.” Consequently, those who ate whole-wheat substantially obtained ten percent fewer calories, they said[10].

raw meat

Many Japanese and Koreans traditionally love to eat raw fish or meat, if they’re fresh.

However, raw meat, for example, has been found to harbor many dangerous microbes, and our immune systems use energy to identify and deal with those pathogens[11].

It is possible that the same amount of cooked meat takes less energy to digest than steak tartare and has more usable calories .

(IV)Differences in digestive enzymes and intestinal bacteria

Most babies have lactase, an enzyme necessary to break down lactose sugar in milk, but it is said that most adults don’t produce this enzyme.

It has also been found that when starches such as rice and spaghetti are left to cool after being cooked, some of these starches crystallize into structures that digestive enzymes cannot easily break down.

What’s more, some microbes are present only in specific ethnic groups. Some Japanese, for example, have a microbe in their intestines which is suitable for breaking down seaweed. It has been found that these intestinal bacterium stole the seaweed-digesting genes from a marine bacterium that lingered in raw seaweed [12].

(V)There are variations for the method of calculation

The general Atwater coefficients were calculated based on the average daily diet of Americans at the time. Digestibility for carbohydrates, fats, and proteins were assumed to be 97, 95, and 92 percent respectively, and after adjusting a little for this, protein and carbohydrates were set at 4 kcal/g, fats at 9 kcal/g, and alcohol at 7 kcal/g[13]. Although metabolizable energy values vary slightly for proteins, depending on whether they are vegetable or animal protein, and for carbohydrates, depending on whether they are sugar or starch, the coefficients were derived by a system of an average.

On the other hand, specific Atwater coefficients are also allowed, which divides food into several groups and applies that thinking to the entire group.

It is said that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows a total of five variations on the theme including these, and some point out that depending on the method chosen by the food company, there may be variation on the calorie labels[14]. When such uncertainties add up, the daily caloric intake could vary widely.

<Summary of this section>

Prof. Dunn mentions as follow:

(1) It is possible to modify the Atwater system for every food group, as in the almond example. However, this would require a challenge to reexamine the amount of nutrients retained in the feces for every food. 

(2) However, even if we completely revised calorie counts, they would never be accurate because how many calories we extract from food depends on a complex interaction between food, the human body, and its many microbes. In particular, the process of digestion is so complex that it is probably impossible to derive an accurate formula for calorie calculation that will suit everyone.

(3) Instead, we should think more carefully about the energy we get from food in the context of human biology. Processed foods are easily digested in the stomach and intestines, and thus provide a lot of energy for very little work. On the other hand, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains require more sweat to digest, offer far more vitamins and nutrients than processed foods, and keep our gut bacteria happy[15].

3. Perspective from my intestinal starvation theory

I believe that researchers and nutritionists at that time, including Atwater, were committed to ensuring that people could have an adequate amount of nutrition, and the calorie counting system they created had great merit. But I suspect it has been misperceived by some and is now causing problems with those who are overweight.

The reason why the problem of obesity hasn’t been solved is that many people are so focused on the "number of calories ingested or burned" that they are likely to forget what is most important.

Let's say you eat, as in the example in the section 2-[III], 400 kcal of a meal: whole-wheat bread, nuts, and grilled chicken. Assuming that, after taking into account the energy required for digestion, you obtained ten percent fewer calories (360 kcal),
the argument that "wouldn't it be the same if you ate 360 kcal worth of white bread and chicken terrine?" is complete nonsense.

Fibers from whole-wheat bread and nuts tend to remain undigested in our intestines, which means there is a message to the body of "there is still food," but the combination of white bread and easily digestible protein, etc. is quickly digested, and if the "three factors + one" of my theory are met, the intestinal starvation message saying "there’s no food" would be sent to the brain through the small intestine.

In other words, you can gain weight despite a reduction in total daily caloric intake.

Similarly, conventional advice and actions often taken to reduce daily caloric intake, such as skipping breakfast or eating a light lunch such as a hamburger or a cup of noodles, can also cause intestinal starvation and lead to increased base weight.

I have been explaining throughout this blog that the fundamental difference between obese people and thin people can be explained by the difference in base weight value, and that a higher base weight means "higher absorption ability," which is induced by intestinal starvation.
And since one of the key factors causing intestinal starvation is how fast you digest food, both digestion and absorption ability are extremely important in my theory.

Nevertheless, if we believe that only numbers based on averages of subjects are all we have, we ignore them. As Prof. Dunn mentions, I don’t believe that the complexity of digestion and absorption for a diverse population can be described by a system using an average.

(Please read the following article for other issues in "calorie counting.")

There is No Meaning in Simply Calculating Calories You Consume


The Atwater coefficients is a measure of how much energy we can obtain from food, but I think it is inadequate to address the problem of obesity. Even if we revised the Atwater coefficients more accurately by taking into account energy required for digestion and food composition, the obesity problem will not be solved if we judge things only by the number of calories.

One idea that has been suggested is to introduce a "traffic-light" system on food labels, alerting consumers to foods that are highly processed (red dots), lightly processed (green dots) or in-between (yellow dots) [16], and I agree with this idea. It is also possible to combine satiety, the number of chews, and the indigestibility of food into this traffic-light system.

classic food

What we need now, I believe, is to take a little away from the apparent accuracy of "calorie counting," which seems more scientific, and rethink our traditional diets and eating habits.

This overlaps with what Prof. Dunn has also pointed out, but eating traditional fibrous vegetable dishes, unprocessed meat or fish, dairy products, fermented foods, and whole grain breads, etc., cannot be judged by caloric benefits alone.

Those foods contain far more vitamins and minerals than processed foods, and their fiber content keeps our gut bacteria in good condition, gives us moderate satiety, prevents rapid absorption of glucose, and provides many other health benefits. Depending on how you eat them, it should be possible to lose weight without worrying about caloric intake.

[1][2](Giles Yeo, "Calories on food packets are wrong–it's time to change that",2021) 
[3](Japan Food Research Laboratories, “The Energy in Food(食品のエネルギーについて)”, 2003) 
[4](The Nutrition Coordinating Center (NCC),"Primary Energy Sources")
[5](Kazuko Takada(高田和子), “Absorption and Utilization of Energy in the Body(摂取したエネルギーの体内での吸収と利用)”, Physical Fitness Science(体力科学) , 2007, P56, 287-290)
[6][7][8][9][10][11][12][15](Rob Dunn, “Science Reveals Why Calorie Counts Are All Wrong”, 2013)
[13](Kazuko Takada, “Absorption and Utilization of Energy in the Body”, Physical Fitness Science ,2007, P.56, 288)
[14](Cynthia Graber, Nicola Twilley, “Why the calorie is broken”, BBC future, 2016
[16](Richard Wrangham, Rachel Carmody, Harvard University,”Why Most Calorie Counts Are Wrong”, 2015)