“Really, calories again?” Yes, I can just feel your eyes rolling from across the internet, but don’t worry, I’m not here to point out every
bad decision you’re making with your diet. Trust me, I’m eating a blueberry doughnut right now and it’s not for the vitamin C. Today
I want to go “behind the music” of one of the most notoriously misunderstood bad boys in nutrition today, the calorie.
Manufacturers will use terms like “50% less calories” and “50% less fat” interchangeably on the labels of everything from candy bars to ground pork to persuade consumers, because they know a simple, ugly truth; many of us don’t know the difference.
calories = fat (NO!)
The Simple Truth…
Fats contain calories (YES!) and so do proteins, carbs, and alcohol
– so if Katie and Sara both order tall chai lattes but Katie orders the reduced fat latte (because you know how Katie is) then Katie’s drink will have fewer calories than Sara’s, because there are fewer fat based calories present (and because Sara lives on the edge).
Simply put, a calorie is a unit of measurement for energy, heat energy. In chemistry it’s the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree. We call this a “small” or gram calorie. It is, as French scientist Nicolas Clement
described it, a unit of heat.
The calorie we commonly associate with nutrition is a large or kilo calorie. One kcal provides the energy required to raise 1kg or 1000
grams of water by 1 degree.
WHOAH!…………Chord change……..SLOW IT DOOOWWwwnn..
What does that have to do with food?
When we talk about the calories in foods we are describing how much potential energy per volume (grams/fluid ounces) is locked
inside that grilled chicken Caesar wrap or the salted-caramel frappuccino you’ve convinced yourself is not a milkshake. That energy is
released once we ingest the wrap and our digestive hardware gets busy metabolizing the fats, proteins, and carbs.
Fats, despite what you think about them or their political views, have more than 2 times the energy of carbohydrates or protein. The
chemical bonds holding fat molecules together just have more juice in the battery.
See what I mean:
Fat: 1 gram = 9 calories
Protein: 1 gram = 4 calories
Carbohydrates: 1 gram = 4 calories
and so what’s the problem with fat?
First let me say everybody needs to ease off on the recent, anti-fat campaign. We need fats to operate. The lipids and triglycerydes in fats line our cell membranes, make up the bulk of our hormones, and even insulate our neurons.
The problem with fat is storage. Fat just tends to hold on to more calories than we can use at one time, and what we don’t use gets stored right out in the open for everyone to see (I’m looking at you love handles).
We do burn fat for energy at some point. Carbohydrates are just more readily available since they are essentially just long chains of sugar molecules. Metabolically speaking, sugar is as easy as paying with a debit card as far as your cells are concerned (fat is like an old, wrinkled check folded up in your wallet). When the carbs get used up we begin to breakdown fat in a process called ketosis whereby enzymes acting
on fat cells persuade them like cellular loan sharks to give up their precious triglycerides (composed of a glycerol and three fatty acid chains) which then venture out into the bloodstream to make themselves available for cellular respiration and ultimately ATP synthesis.
Believe it or not, even fat burns calories, just not as efficiently as muscle cells. Your resting metabolism (A.K.A basal metabolism) is burning calories just to operate. The body is a machine whether you like that analogy or not and it burns fuel just to keep the engine running. We even burn calories when we digest food. Fats not only have more calories, it takes fewer calories to digest them. They’re
like a roommate that only has to pay a fraction of the rent but has 3 times more stuff than you just cluttering up the living room.
Muscle on the other hand is a calorie burning mad man. It is metabolically expensive for the body to maintain muscle tissue because muscle fibers work hard and demand compensation (talking about calories…see what I did there?). So if you truly want to burn calories you need to improve the ratio of fat to muscle in your body.
The way I see it (A.K.A the right way, most awesome way, best way, etc.) we need to change our philosophy about exercise. Sure, we want to burn calories, but that would involve burning more calories than you consume and that’s about as effective as hiking up a ski slope with roller blades on…which is pointless and just way too 90’s.
Perhaps we should exercise with a mind-set to condition and build muscle. That way your metabolism can start working for you and not against you. Of course, it also helps to limit the amount of fat based calories your body would need to burn in the first place. Sorry, nothing is ever easy. I don’t care if you call it a diet or not. There’s just no such thing as a reduced fat “Baconator.” If you cut out fast food then you’ve done half the work already. Hey look at me,…I care.
Stay curious, stay classy, and never stop learning my friends 🙂