Everything About Diets Is Wrong: Part 1

Posted: August 15, 2011 in Diet & Nutrition

This is part 1 of a multi-part series about the fundamentals of proper nutrition.  See the introduction here.

What is a Calorie?

Before figuring out your caloric intake requirements, let’s talk about what a calorie actually is and why it’s important.  There are two definitions of “calorie,” only one of which is important here in the diet-n-nutrition-n-fitness realm:

From Dictionary.com:

1. Thermodynamics:

a. Also called gram calorie, small calorie. an amount of heat exactly equal to 4.1840 joules. Abbreviation:  cal
b. ( usually initial capital letter ) kilocalorie. Abbreviation:  Cal
2. Physiology:

a. a unit equal to the kilocalorie,  used to express the heat output of an organism and the fuel or energy value of food.
b. a quantity of food capable of producing such an amount of energy.

It’s this second part that concerns us and when we break it down into what’s actually central to the idea of diet & nutrition, even then, only a part of the definition of the “calorie” is significant to the average person.  What I’m about to describe may make scientists and nutritionists cringe because of the seeming randomness and wild suppositions I’m about to toss out, but please bear in mind that I’m writing this for an audience who has had years of misconceptions about dieting & nutrition, so I’m stating the science in as simple concepts and terms as possible in order to establish a workable set of fundamentals.

First of all, a calorie is not a substance.  We frequently say that a particular food or beverage has 100 calories or has 250 calories.  This is misleading, because it’s just simpler to say.  However, the implication is wrong, because saying “has” indicates that calories are a tangible, physical chemical or something.  This is also made worse by the frequency of advertisements for “zero calorie” foods or additives.

What a calorie really means is that a particular serving of food requires 100 calories of energy to break down or 250 calories of energy need to be expended to process that serving of food.  That energy is supplied by our bodies.  If our body does expend the 100 or 250 calories of energy to break down that food or drink we consumed, then our net gain is zero, and the body doesn’t store any balance — because there is no balance left.

On the other hand, if we consume more food than the body can expend in energy to break down, that excess is stored.  And you know where this is going, right?

Directly to your midsection, thighs, butt, neck, face, etc.!

The calorie rating of a serving of food is a combined figure.  It’s a ballpark number.  It’s the sum total of all the ingredients of the food and represents a comprehensive scale that we can understand, when it would be much more complicated to calculate the energy required to break down the fat, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, chemical additives & preservatives, etc.

Where the Calories Come From

To keep within the realm of simplicity, calories come from three major macronutrients:

  1. Protein
  2. Fats
  3. Carbohydrates

Everything food & beverage can be broken down to having some combination of these three.  Obviously, some things are lower in one category than another, but this is the basic summary.  Each gram of protein is effectively 4 calories of energy required for breakdown, as are carbohydrates.  Fats, on the other hand, require 9 calories of energy to break down per gram (and though not a nutrient, alcohol requires 7 calories of energy per gram).

Whatever you consume again requires energy to break down and if you eat more than you expend in energy, you gain weight.

Mathematically, you may be able to start seeing that eating foods high in fat and drinking a lot of alcoholic beverages therefore leads to greater weight gain or a greater requirement to increase physical activity in order to “burn off” those extra calories, right?

Right! As I noted in the introduction, it’s all a simple mathematical equation.

Next week, I’ll get into more of the theory of calorie requirements for the human body and counteracting consumption with activity.

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