A Calorie is not a Calorie

Posted: November 26, 2008 in Healthy Eating by

There are many diet myths out there and I want to dispel a few of them. First, that a calorie is not a calorie is not a calorie. That is your body reacts differently to carbohydrate, fat and protein calories. To review grade school science, a calorie is the amount of heat (energy) needed to increase the temperature of one kg of water by 1°C. This is important; read on!

The second myth is that a low fat or no fat diet is good for us. It is not. We have learned as a society (unfortunately the hard way) that this philosophy leads to more people who are overweight and as we see as we look around, our society is doing just that. The problem with low or no fat is that most foods that are no fat are high in carbohydrate or foods that have no fat in them after recipe changes have increased carbohydrate. Too many carbohydrates are bad.

Therefore, we should primarily focus on 2 of our most important macronutrients: protein and carbohydrate. My recommendation is to aim for higher protein and lower carbs but with some caveats.

Protein is our primary metabolic fuel source. It is what drives our metabolism. Think of each of our cells as a small fireplace. The heat coming out of the fireplace is our metabolism (remember that a calorie is a measure of heat) and that we take “logs” of protein and throw them into our fireplaces. The fire (our metabolism) burns hot for the next 3 hours or so then starts to slow down. Therefore to keep our metabolism hot we need to eat protein again to “stoke our fire”. Eating protein about every 3 hours keeps our metabolism at its maximum. At night when we stop eating and sleep, our body cools off. This is normal and helps us to sleep. If we skip breakfast the next morning, our metabolism (internal fireplace) does not heat up adequately as we are still burning our fuel from yesterday. When we do eat, it takes a longer time to get the flame going as opposed to eating every 3 hrs. Think if you were to place a pile of wood on top of a birthday candle flame, it will burn but take a long time to get going. This extra energy gets stored therefore as fat until it is needed.

Carbohydrate is used as our body’s short term energy storage. For short term exercise (30 minutes or less) our bodies burn carbohydrate in the form of glycogen. Glycogen is stored mainly in our muscles. It makes sense to have the immediate energy where we need it most (already in the muscles).

When we eat carbohydrate, we replenish our used glycogen storage. Therefore, the more you exercise the more carbohydrate you can eat. When the carbohydrate stores are full and we eat more carbs, our body stores this extra energy as fat. Fat is a very efficient way for our bodies to store extra energy. As our body stores fat, we have hormonal mechanisms that entice us to eat more food (hunger) and then store even more energy and we become more overweight and so forth. It is a hard cycle to break.

This cycle accounts for much of the weight problem in the last 20-30 years in our society. The recommendation to eat low fat or no fat has made us eat more carbohydrate and therefore more fat storage. Fat has a good role in our diet. In the right portions, it helps to make us feel full. It is when we have too much fat that it becomes a health concern.