The energy content of food is calculated on the basis of general factors for fat, protein, and carbohydrates. These general factors were derived by W.O. Atwater in the late 19th century, while additional factors for dietary fiber, polyols, and organic acids were introduced more recently. These factors are applied indiscriminately to all types of foods, yet the same nutrient may be digested to different extents to generate energy, depending on the characteristics of the food matrix, the processing methods applied to foods, and the meal composition. As a consequence, the actual energy content of food may differ from what is theoretically calculated with the Atwater factors. In this review, the relationship of macronutrient digestibility with food structure, macronutrient structure, and food composition is examined, and the implications for the amount of energy achievable through diet are highlighted. Estimates of the discrepancy between calculated energy content and actual energy content are provided for different diets. The findings may have implications for consumer purchasing decisions as well as for the design of dietary interventions.
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