Calorie Counting. We have all heard this term a billion times in our lives and many of us talk about and think about them on a daily basis. We sit and chat away about how, this has this many calories, that item is high in calories, that’s lower in them… It’s become a commonality in our national vernacular. But how many of you actually know what a calorie is and how it is measured?
What is a calorie?
A calorie is a unit of energy. We all know that. It refers to the amount of energy that it takes to raise one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. Interesting! So, how do we measure this and how do we know how many of these little devils that shrink our clothes whilst we sleep are actually in a food? A device called a ‘Bomb Calorimeter’ is used to do this. This is a highly pressured sealed container that contains water, and a sample of whatever food is to be measured. Electrical energy is used to ignite the food that then burns into an ash. Releasing all of its stored energy, which then raises the water temperature. The amount the temperature is raised by determines how much energy is yielded from the food. And then gives us the number of calories we can define it by.
This immediately raises a few questions. A full-on combustion reaction doesn’t take place in our digestive system after we have eaten. So, is the calorimeter value a realistic reflection of the energy that the food in question will actually deliver to the body?
A simple combustion reaction yielding energy is not what happens in the body. If it was, our lives would be so much easier. The food that provides the calories impacts our biology in so many different ways that extend way beyond just energy values.
The problem with calorie counting
If you were to listen to the age-old, ever-repeated dietary dogma that has existed for decades, you would have heard two things pretty much. The first is that all calories are equal when it comes to weight loss. Whether you got those calories from ready meals and pick ‘n’ mix or vegetables and quality proteins, it doesn’t really matter for your waistline. The second, ‘to lose weight you simply need to burn more calories than you consume’. But is it really this simple?
Information such as this is why generations of us have been calorie counting and following this dogma and in the process getting fatter and fatter. This whole idea is simply completely and totally inaccurate. It is based purely on energy values that work beautifully when we are talking about mechanical devices like a car. To achieve a certain distance at a certain speed, a certain amount of fuel of a standardised value (petrol or diesel) is required to give the energy. This fuel is burned and the energy from the combustion of this fuel powers the car along. Simple stuff.
The bomb calorimetry that we described earlier cements this idea right? But, when you start to apply this logic to a biological system – ie. you – something that converts, metabolises, digests, breaks down and rebuilds, is controlled by hormones and biochemical reactions and intercellular interactions – the whole idea becomes unstable. Suddenly, we are not talking about a simple numbers game anymore. Now we are talking about a variety of different substances that can be used as a fuel source (our food) all that are made up of a massive array of different compounds and substances, that can massively interact with our biology.
Weight management is not simply like a bank account. It is a complex dance between hormones, energy requirements, fuel source availability and a hundred other variables. All working together in a complex orchestra. So this is the level we need to go in at in order to lose, maintain or gain weight. This is what we need to understand if we are to create lasting change in our lives when it comes to our long-term health. We need to get to the real root of the information and understand how our bodies work and how we can eat in a way that supports healthy functioning. This is what we teach you with our Sano Courses in Applied Nutrition.
Why a calorie is not a calorie
So, let’s look at a little comparison to illustrate this.
Say you consumed 500 calories from chocolate, and 500 calories from broccoli. From a simple energy perspective, the energy yield is exactly the same. 500 calories. SO , in theory,we could opt for either foodstuff as long as we were within our calorie quota, and all would be fine with weight management. But these two foods absolutely do not impact the body in the same ways. As above, our metabolism isn’t a bank account. It is an interplay of many biological factors.
Bearing this in mind, think about this: Chocolate is high in very simple sugars., as we are all aware of. But these simple sugars take very little time to digest and are absorbed rapidly. This can send our blood sugar up incredibly high which can create a whole metabolic hormone cascade. This in turn can affect how we process the energy that has been presented to the body. How can we use this flood of available energy substrate? Can we use it effectively? In a relatively small serving, there is a lot of a substance that can cause metabolic chaos – the simple sugars.
Now, on the flip side 500 calories worth of broccoli – that is over TWENTY servings – is a very different picture. This fantastic food stuff is incredibly high in fibre, low glycaemic carbohydrates, and a decent amount of protein. It takes much longer to digest and doesn’t impact the cascade of hormones that simple sugars would.
Same energy values – completely different impact upon our biochemistry. In the long term, completely different impact on our body’s fat levels and our long term health. Think of it this way and it’s clear to see why spending so much brain power on calorie counting may not be as successful for long term health as simply focussing on low GI foods which provide fibre, complex carbohydrates, and protein.