Vexing Vocabulary: What are Calories?
What is a calorie? We know it as a measurement commonly used when discussing food, but what does it represent? Too simplify things; the calorie is a measure of expended energy, or energy your body has spent to survive and function. When we talk about our diet, calories come from 3 main sources: carbohydrates, fats and protein (our macronutrients). Per gram, carbohydrates and protein have 4 calories, and fat has 9 calories. This is a simple way of showing that these nutrients represent a certain amount of energy our body can use to contract muscles, think, move, maintain organ function, and sustain life. Contrary to popular belief, a calorie is not a physical thing. Instead it is a scalable measurement of the ability to use a physical thing, like the macronutrients, as energy. Needless to say, in the human body energy is important! We require energy to survive, but most importantly in proportion to activity. For every increase in intensity and duration of activity, there is an increase in calories burned, and an increased use of macronutrients for energy. This is applicable to all activities from sleeping to laying to sitting, and walking to jogging to sprinting. In recent years however, the calorie has developed a different reputation.
In years past, before our agricultural revolution, calories were a commodity that was hard to come by. Fueled by our drive to live and reproduce, we began to create communities and develop accessibility to food through domesticated plants and animals (farming). Then came the industrial revolution. We created machines and mechanisms that decreased the labor required to access and prepare food. This not only decreased the labor involved, but also increased the yield. This increase in access was followed by a technology revolution, which not only further increased accessibility and quantity, but also allowed us to concentrate foods so they had more calories per ounce (mainly in carbohydrate and fat). This overhaul of our dietary practices created changes in our lifestyle with some unintended ramifications. Days once spent hunting were replaced by days in a field farming, which were then replaced by days in the factory processing, and finally days on a computer managing the processing. This decrease in activity reduced our calorie needs, so by the time we became experts in creating a diet filled with high calorie foods, a majority of people no longer needed it.
Fast forward to 2014 and 70% of the United States is classified as overweight or obese. Further investigation reveals the trends in obesity are most prevalent in low-income neighborhoods. Most citizens in the US now get too many calories from processed and refined foods that are striped of vitamins, minerals and other valuable nutrients. To put things simply we got too good at creating access to calories for our own health. So good, the same processes put in place to create calorie density, are now heading billion dollar rebranding campaigns to advertise “Healthy”, “Low-calorie”, “Light” and other buzzwords that criminalize calories. The calorie has become the focus of our blame for obesity. Instead of a measurement of energy a food will provide for your expense, it is synonymous with a scale of how “bad” something is for you.
Through my observations as a practitioner, I have noticed an increase in poor relationships with food over the past 5 years. I meet people afraid to eat carbohydrates; afraid to eat fats, unaware the macronutrients are the fuel that becomes our caloric expenditure, and widespread acceptance that calories are bad for you. This could not be farther from the truth. Eating food is not the problem. Eating a diet filled with high calorie foods in excess of the body’s needs is the problem. For proof pick any weight-loss, fad diet. I guarantee the diet does one of two things. It either teaches participants to avoid processed foods, or teaches people to portion processed foods. By managing the energy dense foods that are available for purchase, calorie intake will be reduced to a more reasonable level for our population’s average activity level and caloric need.
For the overwhelming portion of our population, this is an important realization and change. If you are not active, you need less food because your body uses fewer calories per day in comparison to an active day. If you begin exercising, your body uses more nutrients and expends more calories, so you need more. This variance is very simple, but commonly misunderstood. Our countries stance on calories as a problem sets up athletes to under consume and fear food. Instead of realizing that an increase in activity calls for an increase in carbohydrates and protein for recovery of muscles, we have more people focused on exercising to try and “burn off” their lunch.
How do we change this? Here is what I propose: The 5 R’s:
- Remember a calorie is a measurement of energy that we expend when we use carbohydrates, fat and protein to fuel our body for surviving and thriving.
- Recognize caloric expense increases with increases in activity due to increased demand for carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, so caloric intake should increase with activity. Also, calorie needs change daily, so intake can vary daily, especially for athletes.
- Recite that a high-calorie food is not automatically bad for you. If it adds up quickly, make sure it is portioned and accounted for in the diet, or save it for days with higher caloric expense.
- Re-prioritize focusing on the source of energy and the need it fulfills in your body instead of fearing the calorie as an instigator of weight gain. If it is high in calories but low in fiber, vitamins, minerals, it should be managed or limited, and the gaps in the diet should be filled by more wholesome foods.
- Realize the benefit of learning to integrate food as energy into your relationship with food. Once added, it can help you balance emotional, social and behavioral triggers to eat.
Stop fearing and start feeding! If you have questions about your personal needs, visit Case Specific Nutrition for more information!
Andrew Wade, RDN, LDN