I know that this post is going to fly in the face of a lot of nutritional dogma, but I think it is about time we faced up to the fact that calories are not all created equal. What’s more, when you start thinking about calories that you intake and calories that need to burn to lose weight, that calculation never seems to work. Calories are an outdated way of thinking about food and weight loss and you have to learn to look at food in different ways.
What is a Calorie?
The first thing you need to know is what a calorie is supposed to represent.
When asked, most people will say that calories are the amount of energy that is stored in the food that they eat, and, basically, that is correct. But that it is not the whole story. If you take the common nutritional wisdom about calories as truth, then you would say that every food has energy in it and that certain foods contain more energy than others.
For example, by common caloric measurements, both proteins and carbohydrates have about the same amount of energy stored in them (about 4 calories per gram) and fat has over twice the energy (9 calories per gram). This is where the wisdom behind keeping fats out of your diet comes from: there are more calories in fat than in protein and carbohydrates.
Okay, that is all well and good, but let’s stop for a minute and find out how this “energy” is determined.
A calorimeter is a scientific tool that is used to measure calories. To use it, scientists place a food in the calorimeter and then burn that food to ash and measure the amount of energy it took to change that food from its original state to ash. Scientists will tell you that a calorimeter is a good substitution for what happens in the body (but don’t you believe it).
If believed that a calorie was a calorie no matter what, you might make this kind of calculation:
Let’s say that you were eyeing that piece of cake and you found out that the cake contained 300 calories. In your mind you think, “hmm… 300 calories, I think I can burn that off by a little bit of exercise.” So you sit down at your desk and you calculate the amount of exercise that you need to do to burn off that amount of calories. It turns out that if you were running around 9 minute miles (not too fast), you would burn around 775 calories in an hour. [click here to see how many calories you burn per hour] So, you figure that you only have to run for around 20 or 30 minutes to burn off that piece of cake.
If you have ever tried this, you know how crazy this can be. Most people I know who have tried this approach to weight loss stop because they are too frustrated. I’ve had people report to me that they have exercised for one to two hours a day and still can’t lose weight. Shouldn’t that much exercise burn off the calories that they are consuming?
The answer is no, but let’s see why it isn’t so.
It Not the Calories
Using calories as a way to measure what you should be eating can only take you so far. The reason this is true is that you simply are not a calorimeter, you are a living being and not some laboratory tool. Something happens when you consume carbohydrates that is different from what happens when you eat proteins or fats… regardless of calories.
Let me show you why:
Imagine that you have a certain amount of energy your body needs and then you eat something sugary. In the first scenario, you are using exactly what your body needs; you are eating the exact same energy that you are using. If we were to graph that relationship, it would look something like this:
In this first scenario, your body is acting exactly like a calorimeter, you are burning all the energy that is coming your way.
The situation is exactly the same if you are eating sugar energy from carbohydrates and the energy you consume is under your energy needs, like this:
But what happens when you are eating more energy than your body needs at the moment? This is the situation were your body no longer acts like a calorimeter and calories don’t matter any more:
When you consume energy over your basic energy needs, your body now has a problem: what to do with that extra energy? Well, you probably know the answer to that question. Your body stores those extra calories as fat. This is what makes carbohydrates unique. This is what makes the thoughts about calories obsolete. This is what makes carbohydrates much worse than fats and proteins and this is what no one is telling you: calories don’t matter as much as blood sugar especially when you are talking about weight loss.
To lose weight, yes you need to burn more calories than you are consuming, but you also have to keep your blood sugar from spiking too high and causing your body to store that extra energy as sugar.