Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from Nutrition Journal and BioMed Central.

Open Access Highly Accessed Review

"A calorie is a calorie" violates the second law of thermodynamics

Richard D Feinman1* and Eugene J Fine12

Author affiliations

1 Department of Biochemistry, State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, Brooklyn, NY 11203 USA

2 Department of Nuclear Medicine, Jacobi Medical Center, Bronx, NY 10461 USA

For all author emails, please log on.

Citation and License

Nutrition Journal 2004, 3:9  doi:10.1186/1475-2891-3-9

Published: 28 July 2004

Abstract

The principle of "a calorie is a calorie," that weight change in hypocaloric diets is independent of macronutrient composition, is widely held in the popular and technical literature, and is frequently justified by appeal to the laws of thermodynamics. We review here some aspects of thermodynamics that bear on weight loss and the effect of macronutrient composition. The focus is the so-called metabolic advantage in low-carbohydrate diets – greater weight loss compared to isocaloric diets of different composition. Two laws of thermodynamics are relevant to the systems considered in nutrition and, whereas the first law is a conservation (of energy) law, the second is a dissipation law: something (negative entropy) is lost and therefore balance is not to be expected in diet interventions. Here, we propose that a misunderstanding of the second law accounts for the controversy about the role of macronutrient effect on weight loss and we review some aspects of elementary thermodynamics. We use data in the literature to show that thermogenesis is sufficient to predict metabolic advantage. Whereas homeostasis ensures balance under many conditions, as a general principle, "a calorie is a calorie" violates the second law of thermodynamics.