Home Food 101 Comprehending Calories: The Basics

Comprehending Calories: The Basics

by Erika Nicole Kendall

I feel like it’s hard to start in one particular place with this, because it’s foolish from all sides.

Looking at my post about the belief that all calories are created equal, I guess the best place to begin is with this notion that exercise is the cure all for the obesity epidemic.

As my own experiences – and, I’m sure, some of your own – would prove, exercise simply cannot be the end all, be all or cure all. Why? Because not only do we exhaust ourselves in the gym only to come home starving, but we count every stinkin’ calorie… only to find out the scale won’t budge. And there might be several reasons why that happens, but the bottom line is this: conventional wisdom says that “if the calories never come in, you don’t have to worry about burning them to get them out.” That might be a part of the equation, but it is not the entire equation by a long shot.

A calorie is merely a measure of energy [insert really serious chemistry talk that doesn’t have much to do with food]. When you look at a nutrition label and see “300 calories,” they’re telling you how much energy comes with eating that food. It’s basically how much energy and heat your body would have to generate in order to burn off one serving of what you’re eating. So when you’re on the cardio machine and it gives you that glorious little number, it’s telling you an estimate of how much energy you should have exerted in order to make it that far.

Our food is made up of three primary macronutrients: proteins, carbohydrates, and fat. When you look at a nutrition label, that’s where that “calories per serving” count comes from. (More on labels later on this week.) For each gram of protein in our food, you get 4 calories of energy. For each gram of carbohydrates (or carbs), another 4 calories. For fats, though… you get a nice little 9 calories. This doesn’t make fat “bad,” though. It means that it’s a more efficient source of energy. For those who need energy in a situation where calories and energy are scarce, you can eat less and get more. Because the average American leads a couch-lovin’ lifestyle in an environment that is never short on calories, this doesn’t always work in our favor.

100 calories coming from protein (like, from say, a bowl of black beans or a steak) are extremely different from 100 calories coming from sugar (like, for example, a soda.) The body does very different things with protein than it does with sugar. The source of the sugar – be it from fruits, processed foods or drinks – matters. Whatever the sugar is paired with… matters.

Get ready for the shortest breakdown of macronutrition in the history of mankind.

Protein in the body serves the purpose of re-building and regenerating cells. When you lift weights, your muscles grow, right? That process, explained as quickly as possible, goes like this: you lift weights to exhaustion, little rips and tears are created in the fibers of your muscles. This isn’t bad, though – when the fibers are healed, the muscle becomes larger. That healing and rebuilding process is made better and more efficient because of protein.

Fat is purely a source of energy. Look at it in terms of evolution. When the hunter-gatherer’s hunt was successful (which, it often wasn’t), he brought back the meat for the family. The protein in the meat helped heal the body. That was its primary purpose. The fat served as the energy source. At 9 calories per gram, it was, hands down, the most reliable source of energy. The problem with it was that it was rare… y’know, since it wasn’t as easy to catch an antelope (or whatever) as it may be, now.

Carbs, however, are undoubtedly the largest point of debate. To shorten the story as much as possible, it’s like this: carbs are a combination of sugar, fiber, gum and starch. In nature, carbs serve as a secondary source of energy and a carrier for vitamins and minerals our bodies need. In processed foods, though… they’re just… sort of yummy. In nature, sugar in carbohydrates often come bundled with fiber (see the nutrition information for an avocado to the left) to help not only blunt the sugar’s impact, but to help the eater feel full. In processed foods, however.. sugar… is merely plentiful. The fiber is not. Because processed foods lack the fiber needed to help give off that “full” effect, the eater tends to keep eating, thus (more often than not) causing the eater to take in the excess sugar (and salt.)

We all know what the body does with excess sugar, or excess anything for that matter, right? It’s stored away as fat. Because, in most cases, carbs are carrying very little in the way of vitamins and nutrients, they’re automatically converted to fat. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.

So, you see, to tell the public that the responsibility is on them to exercise so they can keep buying your ridiculous little product is ludicrous. There are two things that you will never hear a food industry exec tell you: If you never put it in your mouth, you never have to deal with it and 2) if you are careful with what you put in your mouth, your body can do what it needs to do at the optimal rate. It can burn the fat on your body without you unconsciously adding to it. That’s not going to help their profit margins.. so they’re obviously going to keep that part from you. So.. do what you have to do for yourself.

Stay tuned – Q&A Wednesday coming up, and then the second installment, All About Carbs!

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HardWorkPaysOff May 4, 2010 - 8:23 PM

Great article Erika! Its amazing how you can break this down.

robin May 25, 2010 - 12:37 PM

“Fat is purely a source of energy.”

Fat is full of energy, yes, but also has an important role in the body’s functioning. Many vitamins are fat-soluble, including K, A, D, and E. Without a good amount of fat in the diet, you get malnourished quickly. You also make cell membranes out of fat (double-lipid layers). You want pliable cell membranes. They keep your skin looking young and your organs working properly. The most usable sources of fat are in nuts and fatty fruits like olives and avocados.

Animal fat is trickier. It occurs when that animal literally ate too much and stored fat either viscerally (around organs) or subcutaneoulsy (under the skin, like, for warmth & sudden bursts of energy). Often toxins (drugs given by the farmer, pesticides from the feed, etc.) are stored in that fat. Then you get the toxins, too, when you eat it. Kind of a 2-for-1 deal.

Human fat works the same way — the most harmful fat is stored around the organs. Visceral fat. This fat stores a lot of toxins. It actually prevents toxins from harming the organs and is found in people who eat lots of toxin-ladden processed foods, caffeine, alchohol and other drugs. It’s your body’s way of trying to prevent you from poisoning yourself.

Subcutaneous fat isn’t really all that unhealthy and is actually quite a natural way for your body to store extra energy, keep you warm, and actually plays an important role in women’s bodies and cycles, which is why if you’re too thin, you stop menstruating. However, too much subcutaneous fat is unhealthy, too. The skeleton is only designed to carry so much weight, especially the joints. But I’ll leave that part of the conversation right here.

Erika May 25, 2010 - 1:03 PM

Hey.. I called it a short breakdown for a reason! LOL! But thank you for bringing a little clarity to the table. I’ll be sure to point people back here when I do the longer version. 🙂

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