Measure of holiday calories – the thermodynamic diet

-November 20, 2012

A calorie is the amount of heat required to raise one milliliter (about 2.2% of a shot) of water one degree Celsius (1.8 F). But that calorie isn’t the one that you count. The ones you count are capitalized: 1 Calorie = 1000 calories. That’s enough energy to raise a liter of water one degree C.

Here’s another way to think of it. A standard Chips Ahoy cookie has 60 Calories; more than enough to bring a pint of ice water to the boiling point. That is, you eat enough energy to boil a pint of water in a few seconds. And please, no one eats just one Chips Ahoy.

When it come time to reduce the waistline, I espouse the Thermodynamic Diet (not-TM). The first law of thermodynamics says that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only change form. That is, in digesting a cookie we convert it to energy that fuels muscles. The muscles convert that chemical energy into both work and heat energy.

The Thermodynamic Diet (really, no one gets to TM this!) is simple: eat fewer calories than you burn, obey the 1st law of thermodynamics, and lose weight


Like nearly every system in nature, in addition to largely linear behavior, higher-order effects – parabolic, quartic, etc – contribute to our states of being. Simple thermodynamics, calories-in minus calories-out, has the biggest effect, but some Calories are easier to burn than others. We also have to factor in the biochemistry of different foods and our behavior and genetics to get a more complete picture.

If you’re not hungry, it’s easy to restrict Caloric intake but when you have the munchies, it’s difficult.

The standard western diet has a lot of vegetable oil. New studies indicate that your body converts vegetable oil into endocannibinoids which give you the munchies. Endocannibinoids cause your brain to reward you with dopamine – a neural chemical that makes you feel good – while you eat and you’ll have the munchies as long as you get that reward. In tests at UC Irvine, mice that ate larger concentrations of oil gained more weight per calorie ingested than those on lower oil diets.

HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) is the target of a lot of disparaging press. It’s the cheap food sweetener derived from corn that appears in almost every processed food. The manufacturer’s association does what it can dispel the claims as myth, but a study at Princeton  showed that rodents who ate HFCS gained more weight than rodents who consumed the same number of Calories in cane-sugar.

The corn industry states that “HFCS is nearly identical in composition to table sugar” which is no doubt true. However, “nearly identical” in biochemical systems doesn’t mean much. For example, methamphetamine is nearly identical to the cold medicine pseudoephedrine – but for an extra hydrogen atom in pseudoephedrine, they are identical organic molecules – but the results of consumption of the two is distinguishable in many ways. The mirror image of the sucrose molecule, called L-sugar; looks and tastes like sugar, but the body doesn’t metabolize it at all.

Where the Princeton results indicate a perturbation to simple thermodynamics, the Mayo Clinic sticks with the leading term, “At this time, there's insufficient evidence to say that high-fructose corn syrup is any less healthy than other types of sweeteners.” And, being doctors, they continue with the linear suggestion that we limit total sugar intake.

If you’re thinking, “Alrighty then, I’ll switch to an artificial sweetener!” forget it. Evidence is emerging that artificial sweeteners confuse the brain’s calorie-regulating circuitry. You sense the sweetness in your mouth which sends a message to your brain, “Dude, calories coming!” but then the artificially sweetened payload gets to your stomach and your stomach is all, “Hey, your tongue’s a liar, we’re going to need more food down here.” After some large number of repetitions of this experience, your brain stops paying attention and sweetness, whether from glorious sugar or hideous aspartame, doesn’t satisfy hunger so you eat more. Again, this is “emerging evidence” but for me it’s conclusive enough to grant permission to stick with the real thing.

There’s a snowballing effect, too. Food energy that’s not burned by muscles is stored as fat and that fat affects your immune system, generating chemicals that cause inflammation. That inflammation disproportionately affects parts of your brain whose job is to regulate hunger. So the fatter you get, the hungrier you get, regardless of how much food you eat. Gnarly.

It’s all very intimidating except for the most important point: All these nonlinear effects contribute less than a few percent to your overall experience compared to simple thermodynamics.

And, for the record: No. I did not say that you look fat in those jeans.

Loading comments...

Write a Comment

To comment please Log In