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Washington, D.C. – Excess calorie intake is the primary contributor to the obesity epidemic plaguing most developed nations, but eating a minimum level of calories is key to life and longevity. We all know that we should eat about 2,000 calories per day. Some may be surprised to learn, however, that what we refer to as a “calorie” is actually a “Calorie” or a “kilocalorie” (or “kcal“). That means that when we are told we should be eating about 2,000 “Calories”, we are really being told to eat about 2 million calories. Capitalization is not always used to show the difference between “calorie” and “Calorie”. American food companies use “Calories” when they summarize the energy contents of their foods on Nutrition Facts labels.

Local man Geoff Henry read a food label during a recent business trip to London and a critical misunderstanding of the energy contained in a “kilocalorie” led to his death. (In England and many other European counties, food companies declare the number of “kilocalories” on food labels.) Upon his return to the U.S., to lose weight, he began what he referred to as a “2-kcal” diet. Based on his medical records, doctors estimate that he usually ate 2,400 Calories per day. While his intention was to reduce this to 2,000 “Calories”, what he really did was throttle his intake downward to a mere 2 “Calories”. His critical mistake was to multiply energy content by 1,000, thinking that a daily intake of 2 kcal was really 2*1,000 or 2,000 “Calories”. As WebMD notes, men should not restrict themselves to fewer than 1,200 calories per day without medical supervision.

We interviewed his co-workers to learn more about what happened. His closest co-worker, John Roberts, said that “Geoff looked great about a week after he returned from London, having lost a few pounds and had probably reached the ideal weight for his height and age.” Things took a nasty turn shortly after that. “After a couple more weeks, his weight dropped to a level that shocked everyone in the office,” says John. “He was extremely thin and weak and recognizable only by the bright orange hat that he wore to the office every day,” John added.

When his colleagues tried to intervene, Geoff noted that he was doubling his calorie intake to gain weight by switching to what he referred to as a “4-kcal” diet. Like Geoff, his colleagues also thought this meant he was eating 4,000 Calories but, as it turns out, he was eating only 4 Calories per day. Geoff died of self-starvation and malnutrition about a month after returning from London. The local coroner’s office has determined that Geoff initially switched to a diet consisting of only 2 leaves of iceberg lettuce per day and increased it to 4 leaves per day in the last week of his life. It was only at his funeral, which Geoff’s London colleagues attended, that his U.S. colleagues learned that his misunderstanding of units of energy – which they, too, were guilty of – led him to follow a dangerous low-calorie diet. One of his London colleagues recalled that “Geoff did mention that he was going on a ‘2-kcal’ diet to lose weight, but we took it as a joke since not even a newborn would survive on only 2 kilocalories per day.” He added that everyone in both the London and U.S. offices “will be living a life filled with regret”.

At press time, we learned that a non-profit nutrition company has started an education campaign to improve the nutrition knowledge of Americans. The initiative will focus on the fact that 1 Calorie equals 1 kilocalorie and eating less than 1,000 Calories or 1,000 kilocalories is hazardous to health and should only be done under medical supervision.

Schlomo Schlomo contributed to this report.

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