Wellness Wednesday: The Misunderstood Calorie

The basic calorie is still misunderstood by most everyone including many medical professionals. First defined by Nicholas Clement in 1824, “cal” is a unit of heat ( or you can think of it as a unit of work ). One cal equals 4.18 joules, which is equal to the amount of energy needed to raise 1 g of water 1°C at one atmospheric pressure (sea level ). Simple right? A calorie is not the enemy… is not the thing that makes you fat …is not what gives you a big butt, muffin top, beer belly or thunder thighs. The calorie is basically simple, but how we use them and store them is a little more complex. Let’s take a closer look.

Actually calories are not just our friend, they are what sustains all of our bodily functions. Every bodily process; the building of cells, the motion of muscles, neurologic and hormonal communications and even the simple maintenance of body temperature all require energy derived from calories. When we consume food, the digestive process reduces it to usable fuel (calories) which the body burns in complex chemical reactions to sustain life. The basic physics of this is a simple equation, calories in minus calories out equals fat stored for later use. The understanding of this will keep us at a normal healthy body weight and free of many of the aches, pains, diseases and breakdowns that will shorten the lifespan of this most wonderful and amazing machine we call the human body.

Now, let’s go for understanding on a deeper level. True information that’s not trying to sell you a pill, potion or book. Not misinformation designed to cloud the issue so you will make a purchase that will not necessarily be in the best interest of your long-term health and well-being. The easiest way to understand how calories work is to think of your food as fuel and your body as the fire that burns the fuel so it can function and be amazing. Some fuels burn more slowly like firewood, some faster like wood chips and some burn instantly like gasoline. With the human body the key is how quickly food is converted into blood sugar, glucose. Foods that spike your blood sugar with quick conversion include fruit juices, refined grains (white bread), sweet fruits (bananas), root vegetables (especially when skinned) and dried fruits (raisins or prunes). Don’t be afraid to eat these foods; they have many health values. Just eat them with other slower digesting foods that have more fiber or protein in them. So what’s the big deal, you say? Food is food – it tastes good, you’ll eat it, right? True, food should taste good. But you need to make smart choices. There are at least as many great tasting foods that are good for your body as there are ones that are bad for your body.

Let’s go a little further. The human body is designed to move and work, not sit and be secondary. Whether your ancestors were stalking, tracking and hunting food or you just finished two hours of tennis, you have now depleted glycogen (sugar) stored in your muscles. Now, the next calories you eat will be more likely to replace these glycogen stores and not be stored as fat. You see, there is a precise system in our body that performs one of the most extremely important duties. That duty is to regulate blood sugar. When we consume calories, this system looks for a place to put them, with the ultimate goal of always maintaining an optimal level of blood sugar. If blood sugar drops, you have insufficient energy to function, especially the brain. That’s why dizziness and then loss of consciousness are early signs of low blood sugar. On the other hand, when blood sugar is too high, the body will literally self-destruct with excessive oxidativeactivity. This is why people with diabetes have so many health issues like nerve damage, loss of feeling, blindness, etc. Insulin is the main hormone charged with the duty of controlling blood sugar levels. As blood sugar rises, insulin is produced to lower it back to healthy levels. So where does this excess blood sugar go you may ask? That is the key question, thanks for asking.

The first choice is for the insulin to move the excess blood sugar to the muscles as glycogen to prepare for the next bout of running, biking or tennis. That’s why exercise is so important. If you sit around all day (and you know who you are), your muscle glycogen stores are full, so there is no room for more. Now, the insulin will go to its second choice and cause the excess blood sugar to turn into fat which is stored for later use (if you decide to get off the couch). This conversion to fat storage can vary widely depending on age, muscle mass and genetics. It is also a direct function of how much blood sugar is left after the storage in the muscles as glycogen and how much insulin is left circulating in the bloodstream. This is one reason why eating foods that spike the blood sugar quickly get stored as fat easier. (One more reason why I wouldn’t mind if soda just disappeared completely off the face of the earth.)

Now that I’ve got your attention ( hopefully), here are a few suggestions to help you prevent innocent calories from being stored as fat and becoming the hated thunder thighs, muffin top or beer belly.

1- Exercise daily. Even a little exercise before you eat (10 minute walk), will use muscle glycogen and make room for more. It’s the body’s first choice for calorie storage. That’s why just cutting calories is not enough for long-term weight loss.

2- Divide your daily caloric intake into six meals instead of three. Fewer calories eaten means less left over blood sugar and less insulin pumped out to help store it as fat.

3- Don’t overeat. Eat just enough calories to maintain your bodily functions and you will automatically maintain your ideal weight. This will vary daily with your activity level, so you should adjust how much you eat to how much activity you’ve done that day. Yes, you have to pay attention at least a little bit.

To determine your daily caloric needs is a complex equation, but this simple form will be enough to illustrate our needs with a ballpark estimate. Multiply your weight by 14 if you’re sedentary; weight times 17 if moderately active and weight times 20 if you are very active. If we round off the numbers, that means a 180 pound sedentary person or 150 pound moderately active person needs about 2500 cal to maintain that bodyweight. This means that to lose weight you will need to burn 3500 extra calories to burn off 1 pound of fat. So if you decrease your caloric intake by 500 cal per day ( a 20 oz. latte) for a week, you will lose 1 pound of fat. OR EVEN BETTER… If you cut daily calories by 250 (a can of soda) and increase your walking by one hour (250 cal burned), you will lose 1 pound that week. It’s important to note that long-term weight loss cannot be achieved by calorie cutting alone because your body will go into starvation mode if it’s not getting the minimum amount of calories. Then it will automatically lower your resting metabolic rate. So all this science and all these numbers boil down to one simple basic philosophy. For most people,if you want to lose weight, eat fewer calories more often and move your body every day.

I hope this provides a little better understanding of how the poor, misunderstood calorie is our greatest friend not our worst enemy. I know some will say, “I have a thyroid problem,” or “It’s my medication” or this or that. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are many medical problems that influence the way some people use and store calories. However, this is only a small percentage of the 66% of the population that is obese in America. For most of us, we just need to become more familiar with the above information and put it to good use. Simply put, without calories we’d be dead. However using them the wrong way will also kill us, just a little more slowly. But if you learn how to use calories properly, the human machine can do amazing things for many years. The choice, as always, is yours.

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