People often talk about burning calories but few realize that a calorie is simply a measure of heat released when something is burned. Food scientists determine the caloric value of a food by placing it in a special apparatus that essentially torches it to a crisp and measures the heat given off. It shouldn’t surprise you, then, that just about everything has a measurable caloric value. A fortune cookie contains about 30 calories. A page of a typical book you read has at least 60 calories. The chair you’re sitting in has upwards of 200,000 calories. And all of these calories need oxygen if you want them to burn. So if you’re interested in maximizing metabolism, breathing is one of the most effective tools because the greater your capacity to take in oxygen, the higher your metabolic “burning power” will be.
Breathe in more oxygen and you burn food more fully.
It’s really that simple. The digestive system is hungry for oxygen. Certain parts of the stomach lining consume more oxygen than any other tissue in the body. The intestinal villi, our site of primary nutrient absorption, are charged with the job of extracting large quantities of oxygen from the blood during the breakdown of a meal. When the blood lacks oxygen for the villi to pick up, absorption decreases.
The more we eat, the more the body naturally wants us to breathe. After a meal, the parasympathetic nervous system generates synchronous changes in breathing, blood circulation, and oxygen uptake. In other words, the brain automatically increases air intake to accommodate the need for more oxygen. Breathing more if you eat a lot is the same as exercising more if you eat a lot. If you interfere with the body’s natural switch to deeper breathing because of anxiety or overstimulation, you limit your ability to burn calories. The simple rule here is this: If you eat more, breathe more.
To further examine the relationship between oxygen and calorie burning, have you ever had the experience of going on a low-calorie diet and not losing any weight, or dieting and losing weight with the first week but leveling off despite continuing your low-calorie fare? Many people are perplexed by this mysterious phenomenon, but the reason is quite simple. Your metabolism changed. The body learned to tolerate the meager portions of food you served it by lowering oxygen uptake—decreased oxygen means decreased metabolism. In many cases, weight loss diets actually teach the body to need less oxygen. So by going on a low-calorie diet you may think you’re doing what’s right for shedding pounds, but you’re actually working against yourself.
Another way to think of this phenomenon is to consider that the act of eating creates a “demand” on metabolism. Just as lifting weights puts a demand on your muscles to grow bigger and stronger, eating puts a demand on your metabolism to grow more powerful and efficient. Food is literally like a weight that your body lifts. So it’s not just the nutrients in the food that determines the nutritional and metabolic value of a meal; the value is also determined by the process your body goes through to break the food down.
Indeed, the simple act of eating, by itself, raises metabolism. If we looked at one of the most common measures of metabolism—body temperature—we’d see that each time we eat, body temperature automatically rises. That’s the reality behind the old folk-medicine adage to “starve a fever”—if you already have a high body temperature, don’t eat because that will raise it even more.
It should come as no surprise that if chronic under-eating can lower the amount of oxygen we use, and hence lower metabolism, then eating more food for such individuals could increase metabolism. Indeed, many people I’ve worked with who honestly had weight to lose and were on a long-term, low-calorie diet without success lost their weight once they ate more food. Do you know someone who’s had this unusual experience? Eating more food literally created a demand for metabolic force and hence for oxygen uptake. The resulting increase in calorie-burning capacity far “outweighed” the extra food on their plate.
Certainly, many of us gain weight simply because we eat too much food. But when we shift to the opposite extreme—eating too little food—we will likely slow down our calorie-burning capacity. On any given day approximately 80 million Americans are on a diet. If low-calorie diets—meaning 1,400 calories a day or less—were truly effective in the long-term, then we’d see a lot more success and a lot less dieters. The point is not to overeat and expect to lose weight. The point is that neither extreme—too much food or too little—will take you where you want to go.
So if you truly want to achieve your optimum weight and metabolism, you can’t get there by denying yourself and going against biology. Losing weight means gaining life. Eat while relaxed and breathe while full of generosity and you access nature’s plan for greater health and inner satisfaction with food.
How has the power of “Vitamin O” changed your eating experience?
My warmest regards,
Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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