Seems like every few years the conversation in the culture around calories swings its pendulum to the other side. Do calories matter? Some say yes, some say no. It all depends, we keep hearing: if you’re Paleo, or if you’re Raw, or if you’re Vegan – you can eat whatever you want and not worry because you’re eating the diet you’re meant to be eating and your body will naturally regulate. Perhaps you’ve heard this circulating in your food community?
Others say: eat whatever you want and use it to fuel your activity needs.
It’s flawed! They say.
More food and more exercise if the way to go.
It’s the only way! They argue.
Now, the act of measuring calories has been the go-to dieting science for over 120 years. It all goes back to a German nutritionist named Max Rubner who stumbled upon what he later called the isodynamic law. This basically explained that Rubner understood how the basis of nutrition was really the exchange of energy. This led to other studies in the early 20th century about how the body partitions excess calories in obesity studies, and today, the debates still rages on.
So, is a calorie a calorie?
Before we dive right in, here’s a little more history about how we arrive at those caloric numbers in the first place:
In order for science to measure the number of calories contained in the various building blocks of the foods we eat, food labs rely on a technological device called “the bomb calorimeter” which was developed by an agricultural chemist by the name of Wilbur O. Atwater more than one hundred years ago.
The “bomb” in the name refers to the fact that Wilbur did indeed burn things to smithereens, like chicken, beef, potatoes, and corn, among other substances. Today, we may have a more sophisticated looking device housed up in our National foods labs, but the technology is the same. By burning the substance, they can measure how much “energy” is stored in the form in question. This becomes the description of the calorie itself, which, as we and Max Rubner know, is a measurement of energy.
Nowhere in this process, however, do we see the human body taken into account. Yes, we often refer to our “digestive fire”, but we know we’re speaking metaphorically. Torching a bit of meat or fruit to a cinder does not provide any useful information about how your body absorbs these foods.
So, here are 5 Reasons to consider in the calorie debate:
1. We are not Machines
The body is an intuitive, wise, interdependent, synergistic biological organism, with the ability to think, feel and do. So what happens when we take the outcomes of Wilbur Atwater’s measuring device and apply it to what happens to this body of ours? Well, the science has slowly begun shifting into the understanding that, despite what the 100 year old wonder machine has to say: calories are not equal.
It’s like living your whole life in downtown Los Angeles or Beijing (both known for their horrendous air quality) and then you decide to move to some remote mountain town in Switzerland where there are forests, and water, and clean, crisp air. What do you think the consequences to your lungs will be after spending more than 50 years inhaling toxins?
It’s the same kind of question that arises when you look at x-rays of a life-long smoker, and compare them with someone who’s never touched the stuff. The quality of the air is forced to metabolize very differently in the body. A smoker builds up layers of scar tissue, whereas the one who abstains has a higher propensity for healthy, resilient lungs. It just so happens that the principle works the same when looking at what function food provides to the body.
After all, what is difference between 250 calories of fast food and 250 calories of kale? Do they have the same purpose once they pass your lips? Well, basic nutrition should tell us, of course not: their very molecular and nutritional composition are entirely different, they will deliver different nutrients into the blood.
The consequences of indulging in one or the other on a consistent basis will have radically different results. Should we really be surprised then that a lifetime of poor quality foods effectively tarnishes and pollutes our biology the way a bad smoking habit will have on our lungs? In other words, the mechanical version of calories-in-calories out would have you believe 250 calories of input will have the same output every time. But many people keeping track of their calories don’t take this into account. 250 in is 250 you have to burn, right? This is simply not the case. The real end result? Our nutritional and health needs will always function heavily into how our body “burns” through our food.
2. The Blood Sugar Balance vs. the Scale
In our culture, there has been a huge stigma against those with higher body weights because of the calorie mentality. It’s assumed that those with higher set points when it comes to pounds are the way they are because “they just eat too damn much.” With obesity-associated chronic disease already accounting for 70% of U.S. health costs, this is an assumption that needs a lot more discussion than the snide comments and judgments that are usually tossed around.
More and more studies, from those with a background in blood and biochemistry, are emerging to explain the intricacies of our body’s response to insulin and processed sugars. A calorie isn’t really a calorie, because how much you eat is not what causes obesity or dis-ease necessarily. However, when we look at how YOUR body in particular functions in relationship with particular foods on a digestive and assimilative level – then we start to get somewhere. Modern health advice seems to be slowly catching up with the wisdom of some of our Nutritional Elders (like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine systems) who have always wisely warned us how inflammation is the root of all disease, and further: all disease begins in the gut.
Now, when we look at the food culture in our country, what we find in abundance are processed starches, sugars, and carbohydrates all in easy access and in huge variety. Just look at the aisles in most supermarkets. Check out the labels. How many foods have you noticed adding sugar where there was none before? It’s true that there are certain foods that share a propensity for causing inflammation in the body.
So, considering this in light of our stressful and hectic lifestyle, it’s no wonder we get the inclination for a quick pick me up every afternoon and reach for “easy energy” or “empty calories”. But many of these quick fixes are not really food, because they provide no nourishment, and yet they’re highly addictive. They trigger our bodies to perform in certain biological trajectories in order to keep us safe and healthy. But by consistently relying on our emergency hormones (adrenalin, cortisol, excessive insulin), and self-medicating with sugar, we’re depleting the body.
In the 60s and 70s the fear was all about fats. Now the fear is all about sugar and carbohydrates. But it’s important to know that no one macronutrient is evil or out to get you. All foods are composed of varying ratios of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. No matter what you eat, your body will appropriate the carbs in the foods you eat to turn into sugar – and glucose in particular, which is one of the brain’s favorite fuel sources. Your body does not like having to turn protein into glucose, although it can… In fact, the body prefers to utilize a balance of quality carbohydrates and fats to derive energy. Protein, as it carries amino acid profiles, is like the structural building blocks for all our tissues, and the body will do all it can to not burn it’s own house down.
We hear an awful lot these days about how dangerous carbs can be, and yet there have been many, many cultures that include upwards of 40-60% starch as the basis for their diet, with no disease markers. Again, this goes back to the 250 calories of kale and the idea of function and usefulness to the body’s needs. Quality plays a big role in how our body “partitions” our foods. The question is whether or not you’re eating foods that keep you in balance or pull you out?
3. Nutrient Density Affects Satiety
Continuing on from where we left off above: your body needs certain nutrients. If you do not procure them, your body will send out the signal that you’re “hungry” even if you’ve eaten dinner and already feel psychically over-full. This is why we have to consider that many who are severely overweight are actually literally starving for good nutrition that their body can actually use. It’s our body’s job to keep us safe, healthy and well. So when it comes to long term habits of eating poorly, especially if the foods contains toxin, like high fructose corn syrup, MSG, pesticides, or GMOs, then your body will pull these substances into adipose tissue, or other places, just to keep it out of the blood stream.
If you spike your blood sugar, it’s insulin’s job is to do a clean sweep so your body isn’t overloaded. So when you’re body tells you “I’m hungry”, it’s telling you that it NEEDS something in particular, and more than just energy or caloric fuel. We derive minerals, vitamins, microutrients, and our basic build blocks from the foods we eat. If you miss the signal the first time, you can bet it will come again. Whether you’re craving butter, steak, tempeh, fish, peaches, ice cream, beans, buckwheat, or asparagus, there is something in THAT food that your body needs and wants.
When you eat for nutrient density, your body will likely get what it needs and happily quite down, now satisfied and supported. For instance: Cooked kale gives you a whopping dose of Vitamins K and A – both essential fat soluble vitamins – while tempeh offers up great levels of manganese and copper. On the other hand, when our foods are not nutrient dense, but cheap or processed versions of real food, we often find we need to continue to feed our hunger and can’t explain why…
In a 2004 study, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism (Vol 89. Issue 6) discussed the effects of dietary fructose vs. glucose in the system. And they mentioned ghrelin, otherwise known as the “hunger hormone.” It goes up when we’re hungry and down after we’ve eaten. One study showed that free-form fructose led to higher ghrelin levels (and the experience of increased hunger) than glucose… (note – this is free form fructose – not the kind you find naturally bound up in fruits). This explains why the same number of calories can cause vastly different effects on the experience of hunger in the body as well as all the hormones that participate in our metabolic health. Our body works synergistically – if one system goes down, others will be notified to pick up the slack, and you might even feel that SOS for sugar. In the end we become very imbalanced, and ultimately, like any holey Jenga tower, we set ourselves up for a fall.
Plain starchy foods (read processed foods versions of ancestral foods) – enriched white bread, Twinkies, and minute rice does not a whole food make.
4. You Are Not What You Eat, You Are What You Digest
Here’s the honest truth. It takes energy to digest your food! That 150 calories on the side of that single serving snack does not take into account the natural offset that occurs as your body goes about metabolizing it. You’re never going to be contending with those particular 150 calories, even if the “the bomb calorimeter” did in the lab. You are what you eat AND even more so: you are what you digest, absorb and metabolize. Metabolism is impaired by poor digestion. If you can’t absorb the nutrients in your food efficiently, then your body is going to have to compensate accordingly.
Today we are surrounded by an epidemic of chronic illness, from heart disease and diabetes to cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Multiple Sclerosis. Not to mention gluten intolerance, IBS, halitosis, heartburn, candida, and depression, or other underlying gut infections like SIBO or parasites. And just in case you were wondering: yes – they’re all being shown to have roots in poor nutrition.
Digestive disorders have a huge impact on how we utilize our food. So you can follow as rigid a calorie formula as you might like and run yourself into the ground with high intensity exercise, but chances are you’re not going to get the results you desire without addressing issues hiding beneath the surface. Maintaining a strong digestive system is as holy a goal as running your annual Triathlon.
5. Pleasure Affects Metabolism
As much as we’d like it to be the case sometimes, we’re not machines, but an organic biological composition that is so specific and so elegantly maintained, that it makes room for individuality, story, interpretation, reaction, digestion and assimilation of life in great variety.
How many of you are aware of how often you eat just to avoid the pain of hunger? And yet we completely forget about the power of eating for pleasure. We have a very suspicious and puritan mentality when it comes to sensual joy. While we often hear the adage eat to live, don’t live to eat – there’s a lot more there to be unraveled. What does it mean to live to eat anyways?
Pleasure, and an optimal metabolic state, can never be experienced in a hurry.
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
© Institute For The Psychology of Eating, All Rights Reserved, 2014
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