The Energetics of Food

Swanie Simon

Food Energetics

Many pet owners today have discovered raw or cooked homemade diets as a healthy alternative for their pets. When feeding a homemade diet, the food is put together from fresh whole foods in a manner to mimic a natural diet consisting mainly of prey animals and then fed raw, cooked or partially cooked. This feeding method has several advantages over processed pet foods: exact control over the ingredients, whole, unaltered and bioavailable nutrients, and the comforting knowledge that your pet is getting species appropriate, healthy food.

Although there is a lot of information available about nutrient content, bioavailability and energy content of various food items, the aspect of food energetics is not widely known. While the energy content of foodstuffs gives us information about the chemical energy (kcal or kJ) that can be derived from food through chemical reactions in the body, food energetics explores the effect that the food has on the body after it is ingested.

The energy content of a food assigns a value to the amount of energy that an organism can derive by metabolizing that food. That specific energy value is expressed in kilocalories (kcal) and/or kilojoules (kJ). One kcal is the amount of energy that is needed to heat 1 gram of water 1 degree celsius. One food calorie is equal to 4.1868 kilojoules (1 kcal = 4.1868 kJ).

Typically, the amount of food energy is established using a bomb calorimeter, which is a value established outside of the body. The value is then corrected taking into consideration theoretical digestibility, bioavailability and loss through the production of waste products in the body.

This food energy value, or kcal amount, should only be viewed as an estimate, as it is merely an average value. The total energy value of a food is generally calculated by adding the kcal amounts of the individual nutrients in that food (fats, carbohydrates and protein). Proteins and carbohydrates have an energy value of 4 kcal per gram and fats 9 kcal per gram.

The concept of food energetics is generally said to have originated in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), although one finds this concept in other traditional healing concepts such as Ayurveda, Tibetan medicine and traditional European medicine. Food energetics explores how foods influence and affect the body and its functions after they are ingested and metabolized. This knowledge can then be used to positively influence the health and well-being of the person or animal being treated.

The energetics of foods is divided in three general categories: warm, cool and neutral. Within the categories warm and cool there are further divisions or degrees from very hot to very cold, warm-neutral or cool-neutral.

For example, when you eat watermelon on a hot day it feels refreshing and cool – watermelon is classified as a cold food. Citrus fruits are generally classified as cool, they usually grow in hot climates and have learned to deal with hot temperatures. They provide people and animals that also live in these hot climates with a healthy and cooling food.

If you drink a cinnamon-ginger-tea on a cold winter day, you will warm up quickly; cinnamon and ginger are considered hot foods. Eating a chili pepper will even make you start sweating as chili peppers are among the hottest foods.

The preparation method of foods will also affect their energetic properties. Heating cool foods will not only warm them thermally, it will also change their energetic property to somewhat warmer. Different preparation methods will influence the energetics to different degrees; a food served raw is cooler than the same food fried. Steaming food does not heat it energetically as much as baking or frying it.

Another factor that influences the energetics of food is the combination of different foods.
For example; turkey is considered a cold meat but serving it with ginger, fennel root or peppers can change the energetics of the combined meal to more neutral or warm.

Energetics in Pet Food
The understanding and implementation of food energetics can be useful in preparing your pet’s food to improve their well-being and the success of any medical treatment.

Let’s say a dog is suffering from an illness with heat symptoms – restlessness, deep red tongue, allergies with itching etc – and you feed him a very warm meat like lamb. He will feel worse as the food will heat him up further. If you switch him to a cold meat like turkey, he will feel better simply because his food is cooling him off. Using food energetics this way can help warm your pet in the cold seasons and cool him in the hot seasons, letting him deal with extreme temperatures more effectively.

Using food this way gives new meaning to the famous quote by Hippocrates:

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

The topic of energetics can be further differentiated according to taste and direction.

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