When it comes to the food we eat with respect to weight loss, weight gain and even general health requirements we’ve all been brought up with the caloric approach to nutrition; calories in vs. calories out. Working out enough to “burn off the extra 500 calorie donut,” or restricting ourselves from eating even when hungry after consuming “enough” calories for the day. While the science behind calories may in fact be accurate, there is much more to consider with the way caloric energy of food acts in our bodies.
The way we view what and how much food goes into our mouths is in need of a shift, especially if looking for some positive results in weight loss, physical performance or are seeking to just “eat how much you want” and not have to worry so much about counting calories. Lets get to the bottom of this.
A calorie is a unit of energy. More precisely, it is the energy required to raise the temperature of 1kg of water one degree celcius at 1 atm (atmospheric pressure). Our food’s caloric value used to be measured in a lab, where they would actually burn the food in a sealed container surrounded by water. Once the food was completely burnt, the amount of rise in temperature of the water was documented. Nowadays, calories are typically just calculated per gram based on energy-containing nutrients of a food as 9kcal/g for fat, 4kcal/g for protein, 4Kcal/g for carbohydrates, and alcohol at 7Kcal/g. But as a common misperception, this energy value does not equate to how the food reacts in our bodies to either gain or lose fat.
We are living, breathing, digesting, metabolizing, complex biological beings with hormones and thyroids and emotions and insulin levels and inflammatory immune responses that all affect how we end up processing our food, retaining and losing weight. A strictly mechanical approach simply won’t do. Often consuming “lower calories” can lead the body into starvation mode, which causes it to retain fat. This is why the focus needs to be on the right foods, with quality macronutrient balance and less on the caloric value. Luckily, many of the more nutrient dense foods are naturally lower in calories but still leave you feeling satiated and satisfied.
Lets take a 1000 calories of marshmallows vs. 1000 calories of leafy greens for example. Two exact same caloric loads with opposite effects on the body. Consuming 500 calories of marshmallows for example, the intestinal tract quickly absorbs the sugar, spiking the blood sugar in the body, which then releases an overdose of insulin into the bloodstream, leading the body to store excess fat.
The key then is not the quantity of calories, but moreso the QUALITY of those calories; even more specific, the nutrient density of those calories. Take the dark leafy greens now for example. A 1000 calories of dark leafy greens, even kale would be impossible to even consume in a day as a 30 Cup portion. So leafy greens can truly be eaten in abundance leaving you feeling full before you eat “too much” so to speak, unlike nutrient-void food. This goes for most plant based foods. The benefits then also include the reduced risk of cancer, aiding in weight management, stabilizing blood sugar levels, clearer skin, and enhanced energy. The body utilizes this “caloric energy” in a positive way.
The more educated one becomes as to what those calories contain in nutrients, the easier it becomes to start shifting the mindset from quantity of calories to the much more important element of the quality of those calories and then ultimately stop counting them!