Stop Counting Calories – be healthy without math
Food is fuel. Delicious, nutritious fuel.
As with any fuel, of course, some burn cleaner and some are better suited for different purposes. Natural gas, for example, has twice the energy content than coal (55.5 MJ/kg vs 26 MJ/kg) and produces half the CO2 when burned.
Why, then, do we still burn coal for electricity? Because it’s cheap and easy.
Sound familiar? If farms were located on every main road, had drive-thrus, and were as cheap as fast food, then maybe, just maybe, people would change their eating habits.
Food as a fuel source
Scientifically speaking, energy is measured in calories. Technically, this is the amount of energy required to warm one gram of water by one degree Celsius. What does that mean for food?
Food energy is measured in food Calories. For example, 1000 calories = 1 Calorie or 1 kcal.
You’ve seen this information on labels, and in the last few years, on menus. The amount of Calories in an item of food is determined in a lab, where scientists light it on fire and determine how long and how hot it burns.
This indicates the amount of total energy an item has. It does not take into account at all how your body digests and absorbs that food.
The average adult female burns in total around 1800-2200 Calories, and males burn slightly more – 2200-2800 per day. This figure varies widely based on your base metabolism, your age, genetics, set point weight, medication, gut bacteria… and the food you eat.
One gram of fat contains approximately nine Calories, while a gram of carbohydrate or protein has about four.
The thing to remember is, calories are JUST a number. There are no evil ‘calorie molecules’ in your food.
“Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.” – Albert Einstein
Einstein was a genius, but you don’t have to be one to realize that while a cookie boasts the same amount of energy as a pound of spinach, the cookie is going straight to your hips.
What makes the difference is not how many calories you eat, but what your body does with them. So you can stop counting calories and focus on quality.
The ratio and quality of fat, protein and carbohydrates in your food drastically influence the digestibility, absorption, longevity, and effectiveness of the energy that enters your body.
All calories are not created equal
Studies have shows that people who follow different diets have completely different reactions depending on the type of food they’re given.
Overall, the consensus is that a diet high in carbohydrates causes you to gain fat tissue, while a diet high in fat, medium in protein and low in carbs causes you to maintain or lower your weight and lose fat while ingesting the same number of calories.
There are so many factors that influence how energy from calories enters your body and where it goes from there, that counting calories in food becomes redundant.
What’s in your meal?
Does your dinner consist of starchy, easily digested pasta, or a satisfying meal of protein and greens? Shift your focus when deciding what to eat.
Stop thinking about just the calorie count on that nutrition label and start thinking about what kind of food you’re eating.
- High-glycemic simple carbs (sugar, sweet fruit, white flour) are made from just one or two sugar molecules. These are rapidly absorbed, and the body uses them for energy first. Once they’ve been used, your blood sugar levels can crash, leaving you feeling hungry and cranky. Simple carbs are also the first type of food that gets stored as fat.
- Low-glycemic complex carbs (like whole grains and vegetables) are made from much longer chains of sugars and come packaged with fiber. This means they’re slower to digest, and the body uses them more gradually. You’ll feel more satiated and won’t experience a sugar crash.
- Protein is digested slowly, helping you feel full for longer periods of time. It also requires more processing to become a useable energy source. Besides serving as fuel, it has far more uses such as building tissues, hormones and enzymes.
- Fat is vital for nutrient absorption, maintaining cells, and transporting essential vitamins, and it is a slow release energy source.
The amount of calories you put in your mouth is not the amount of calories you put in your body
Yup, that’s right. Poop contains calories.
Your body does not completely digest all of the food you eat, especially fiber and meat collagen, nuts, and fibrous vegetables. The bacteria in your gut help digest food, but they also consume calories, and a large portion of your feces is made from bacteria.
If you consume a big meal, two things can happen. Chances are that you will not digest all of the food – you only have so much digestive juice, and your body needs time to replenish it!
When you overeat, the remaining food has to chill out in your intestines until your liver and pancreas make more digestive fluid.
Once the food is there, your gut bacteria feast on it, releasing gas, which causes bloating and discomfort. Eating too much puts stress on your body. Your liver struggles to process incoming nutrients and make more bile. Your pancreas tries valiantly to make digestive enzymes and hormones like insulin and glucagon.
Secondly, if your body has already absorbed too much energy to use immediately, it stores that energy. Firstly, it stores it as glycogen in the muscles and liver – a reversible, temporary energy store used to buffer blood sugar – and then as body fat.
Have you thought about how much energy it takes to run your digestive system?
On average, it requires about 10% of the calories you consume – the other 90% maintain your cells, fuel your activities, and power your brain.
Different foods require varying amounts of energy for digestion – this is called the Thermic Effect. Fats have a thermic effect of around 3%. For every 100 calories of fat you eat, 3 calories are burned to digest them. Protein uses around 30%, and fibrous veggies use around 20%. Carbohydrates vary based on their complexity, but they use between 10-30%.
Putting all these things together, you can see that counting the calories in your food results in, at best, extremely inaccurate conclusions.
So what should you eat?
What do we want from our food? We want to be satiated, nourished, and efficient, whilst neither starving or overfeeding ourselves.
We want to maximize our usable energy and nutrients, while minimizing body fat. This keeps us healthy and happy.
“Our body is designed to burn more when we eat more, and burn less when we take less in. A healthy body is designed to balance itself out. This is called your set point weight. Our bodies become hormonally clogged when we put the wrong quality food in them, causing the level of body fat to stay elevated. We [then] have an elevated set point. We can keep our body from overflowing simply by putting things in them they were designed to handle, by focusing on quality rather than quantity. Just like no quantity of clean water will ever clog a sink, no quantity of the high quality, clean foods we were designed to eat will ever clog our body. Eat smarter, not less.”
Quality over quantity
Identifying high-quality foods depends on these factors:
- Satiety. This involves how quickly a food fills us up, and how long it keeps us full.
- Nutrition. Getting your recommended daily amount of a wide range of nutrients is essential to staying healthy.
- Aggression and efficiency. These determine how likely the energy in a food is to be stored as body fat instead of used for energy. This is where the proportion of fat, protein and carbs in your diet becomes important. Processed, simple carbs, for example, are twice as likely to be stored as body fat.
- Whole, clean, unprocessed foods, without additives or preservatives. These include fresh protein (meat or meat alternative), vegetables, healthy fats, and fruits. Protein and fiber keep you satiated and help your body run efficiently.
It’s all about portion and proportion
How much should you eat? Let your body tell you. Eat when you’re hungry, don’t eat when you’re not – it’s that simple, though doing so is not necessarily easy. Use calories as a very rough guide, but don’t worry too much.
A much better idea is to focus on nutrient-dense, whole, healthy foods that you should eat regularly throughout the day – this will help you learn to listen to your body. It will also help you cut cravings and avoid snacking on carbohydrate and sugar rich foods. If you need to snack, protein, vegetables, nuts, and seeds are great options!
Find out which protein is best for you.
Humans have a natural tendency to maintain a fairly constant weight – plus or minus a few pounds a year – unless they are grossly over or underfed or experiencing a major change in activity. Our bodies are brilliant, complicated machines, and it’s up to us to help them perform their best and trust them to do so.
So why has the fad of calorie counting been around for so long?
It was heavily marketed in the 80s and 90s, and it gained popularity because it’s comforting and easy to think of biology as a simple equation. Calories in = calories used + calories stored as fat.
The problem is, it doesn’t work quite like that. We’re humans, and we’re far more complex than that!
The bottom line
Our bodies aren’t lab experiments. There are way too many factors at play for us to use the basic measurement of food calories to guide our choices. We don’t need math to tell us that. Focus on healthy food, and everything else will fall into place.
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