Do you stress about food and your calorie intake?
I’m sure we are all guilty of this at one stage of our lives. But what I really want to highlight today is the importance of counting nutrients, and not calories.
We all know what calories are. Or do we?
1 calorie (or, officially, kilocalorie), is the energy required to heat one gram of water by one degree Celsius (at sea level). It is also the universal unit of measure for the energy potential of food.
The key word here is potential. Remember that.
How can we measure calories?
An instrument called a bomb calorimeter, which is essentially two chambers, one inside the other, measures the calorie content of food. The inner chamber contains the food and filled with oxygen, which is then ignited. The outer chamber holds cold water, and as the food burns, the temperature of the water is recorded, giving the potential energy of the food.
As a rule of thumb, we are taught that protein and carbohydrates contain 4 calories for every gram, alcohol 7 calories/g, and fat has the most with 9 calories/g.
It may seem simple enough, but in actual fact, there are many other factors that influence the real calorimetric value of food.
So what I want to point out here is that calories on paper are not necessarily the calories we actually receive. Let’s look at this a little further…
- Our gut does not work in the same way bomb calorimeters do. There will always be some difference between what is measured externally to what is actually produced within our bodies.
- Relying on the rule of thumb that both carbs and protein are 4cals/g, indicates that consuming 100g of protein is the same as 100g of rice. One of the problems with this is that carbohydrates will always contain some fibre – which cannot be broken down by our gut, and hence can have no energy value.
- Our energy intake can only depend on our ability to extract that energy from food. Those with compromised gut health (which is most of us at different extents) are not as efficient at breaking down food and absorbing nutrients, so therefore will not be receiving all of the energy potentially found in a food.
- The amount of calories as seen on a food’s nutrition label is, therefore, not what we actually receive.
Another problem is that all foods also require energy to be broken down (know as the thermic effect of food). The more complex the food, the harder it is to digest, and thus the more energy that is required to break it down. Protein requires a lot more energy than both carbohydrates and fat, which again reiterates that protein and carbs are not equal on the calorie scale despite the nutrition systems ‘rule of thumb’.
Lesson # 1: Not All Calories are Equal
But the most important thing to point out here?
Processed, refined foods require less energy to be broken down than foods that are closer to its natural state.
For example, you may have bought a ‘low calorie’ protein bar, however, as it is highly processed, it may not require as much energy to be broken down, as say a higher calorie, highly thermic ‘whole’ food. Therefore, after digestion, they may essentially have very similar ‘calorie content’.
Not only this, but processed foods can create an ill-functioning system.
Think of our cells for a second. Each cell has certain nutritional requirements. Each nutrient plays a particular role within the cell, which without the nutrient cannot be carried out.
Cells are able to recognise these nutrients and can utilise them very quickly and efficiently.
The influx of energy within a cell is a signal that food has been eaten and nutrients are also on the way. The cell gets ready to receive the nutrients and spares some energy to carry out the functions.
In the case of processed foods – the cells get an influx of energy, but little nutrients. The cell is confused, but still hopes to receive some of these nutrients in the near future. It continues to ‘hold’ onto the energy in preparation.
But still, the cell receives no nutrients.
At this stage, the cell becomes desperate, it is starved of nutrients, and so it cries out for help. It cries out for more food. These cries are signified as cravings in the body. We start to have cravings for food, as this is the only way the cells can receive the nutrients it requires.
But if we continue to eat processed foods and not ‘real’ foods that the cells recognise and which gives them the nutrients they require, they will continue to cause cravings, they will continue to signal the storage of energy (as fat), and will increase the stress hormones in the body.
With low-calorie, processed foods, this effect is two-fold. The cells receive nothing that it can use to carry out even basic functions, and also recognises the energy deficiency. As a survival instinct, the cells will slow down all systems in the body, as it would when food was scarce.
So, the metabolism will be slowed down to preserve precious energy, storage of fat will be increased, and digestion will be impaired, as will as liver and hormone function.
For us, this means that we will put on weight, we will constantly be in a state of stress, we will have hormonal imbalances, and our body will not be as efficient at breaking down food or removing toxins.
Lesson # 2: The more nutrients you feed the body, the less hungry it will be.
After we have caused our body to go into this state of starvation, it can take a long time to get back from it. Therefore, it may take months, even years, for our normal metabolism to return and for us to shift into a state of fat-burning (and thus, weight loss).
Calorie deficient diets were designed for those looking to lose weight and fat.
In the short term, yes, they may help us lose weight as seen on the scales. But what really is the weight loss? Is it just fat we are losing?
No. We never burn fat exclusively, especially when in a state of calorie deficit. When our body is not receiving as much energy as it requires, it is likely that it is going to want to hang onto those fat stores, as fat is an extremely efficient source of energy. Therefore, we will likely burn other tissues that use up and require more energy, such as muscle. So yes, you may be losing weight, but a lot of that may be muscle mass. And it has been said that the more extreme the calorie deficit, the more likely that muscle will be broken down for energy over fat.
And muscle is what helps us burn more energy! So, therefore, the more muscle mass we lose, the less energy we will burn, which means more stored as fat. The best way to improve body composition is therefore to increase muscle mass – which is difficult to do by depriving yourself of calories.
Lesson # 3: But calorie counting does work for some…
First and foremost, opting for nourishing foods should be our ultimate goal.
All calories are not created equal – it is the quality of the calorie that has the most impact on health, not necessarily the quantity.
But in saying that, there are some of us who work better with a set objective; a physical and visual goal with which they can stick to. And this is where a numerical value, such as a calorie target, can help.
For these people, I would suggest going to a trained professional, such as a personal trainer or nutritionist, to get your individual calorie requirement calculated. They should give you your minimum energy requirement (the base amount of calories your body needs to function properly), as well as your calorie target (which will depend on your exercise level and weight loss goals). And get it re-calculated and re-evaluated regularly, as your requirements will change as you change; as you lose weight, as you do more exercise, as you age.
A calorie target is just a guideline. Don’t become obsessive. It won’t make a hell of a lot of difference if one day you go over slightly, the next you’re under. Or if you totally blow out one day, don’t be discouraged, you don’t need to completely restrict yourself the next day, just hop back on that bandwagon. The biggest, and best, changes are going to happen over an extended period of time.
When you have met your weight loss goals, it may be important to re-evaluate your calorie target. Do you want to continue counting the calories? Or have you learnt the skills required for a healthy lifestyle that you don’t feel it is necessary?
Either way, remember:
You don’t lose weight to get healthy, you get healthy to lose weight.
Other points we should consider:
- Can we stick to it for the rest of our lives? Healthy living is a lifestyle, counting calories is very often a fad, one that isn’t sustainable (or enjoyable) for an extended period of time.
- Do you stress about food and your calorie intake? Stressing can cause hormonal imbalances and can also result in weight gain.
- What is your individual calorie requirement? Everybody is different – there is no ballpark figure. And it changes over your lifetime depending upon age, activity level, stress and anxiety levels, and in states of injury. If calorie counting works for you, make sure that you have received your individual calorie requirement calculated by a professional (either a personal trainer or nutritionist; see above).
- The best weight loss is that that is lost over a long period of time using a consistent method. Easy options, and short-term diets, result in the yo-yo effect of weight loss and weight gain, and can cause havoc in the body.
- Calorie counting means you may lose focus on what else is important when making good food choices; such as high quality foods, rich in a variety of nutrients, and essential for proper bodily function.
- Some of the most nutrient dense foods are high in calories.
- A healthy lifestyle originates from finding a balance in all foods and really listening to your body; knowing good portion sizes, eating a variety of nutrients, not restricting yourself or comparing yourself to others, and eating the foods that work well for you.
So, I’ve served up a bunch of information to digest – I know. But, once you begin to understand how the body processes the foods you consume and the importance of counting nutrients rather than calories, you will create a more harmonious relationship with food, and with yourself.
Any questions, please ask away. I love hearing what you have to say!