Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly About Calories

When you are talking about weight loss talking about calories seems like a no brainer.  The information is a calorie is a calorie is a calorie and the equation is calories in versus calories out – simple, right?  It would seem so, but there are also a lot of variables in that equation.

Of course there are!

Nothing is ever that easy!

I think a good place to start would be to ask the question”what exactly is a calorie?”  Calorie has become a household word, but what a calorie does is still a mystery to most people.  If you ask 100 people “what is a calorie?” almost all of them would reply with some version of “the thing in food that make me fat”.  Calories have a bad reputation and are considered to be the enemy.  By definition a calorie has less to do with food than it has to do with energy.

There is a long, technical explanation of what a calorie is that I just do not have the science background to explain, but simply put, a calorie is the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius.  The most important word in the definition is energy.  Translate that to food and calories are the energy that fuels our body.  Without sufficient calories nothing in your body would work … your heart, lungs, brain, vital organs; nothing would not work.  That is why anorexia is a condition that kills.  An adult body requires at least 1000 to 1400 calories to have enough energy to perform its necessary functions.  This number varies according to age, sex, weight and muscle mass.  To be active you need more energy and this extra requirement is usually 400 to 600 calories.  If you do the math you will see that the totals equal the most common recommendations for healthy caloric intake.  Each person has a different need for caloric intake.  Below is an easy guide to calculate what your optimum caloric intake would be to maintain your current weight.

Now, adjust accordingly. If your "calories in" are above your "calories out," you're going to gain weight. If that's what you WERE looking to do, keep doing it. If that's NOT what you want to do, then you have three choices...

  1. You can make a small decrease to your daily calories in so that it ends up being below your daily calories out. For example, if you want to lose weight and are consuming 3000 calories per day and burning 2800 (just an example), try reducing your calorie intake to 2500 calories per day instead of 3000. Doing so would mean you were now consuming 2500 calories per day yet still burning 2800. And, you'd now be burning more than you consume, and this would make you lose weight.
  2. If you only wanted to maintain weight, in this example you would just reduce your calorie intake to an equal 2800.
  3. Instead of reducing your calorie intake, you can just as easily increase the number of calories you burn per day by exercising. Sticking with the same example, you'd continue consuming 3000 calories per day, but you can burn off an additional 500 each day through some form of exercise. Doing so would mean you were now burning more than you were consuming.
For best results, do a combination of both #1 and #2.

If you continually exceed the number of calories your body requires every day you will eventually gain weight.  It takes an excess of 3500 calories to gain 1 pound of fat, so if you exceed your calorie intake by 500 calories a day you will gain 1 pound a week (a large mocha swirl latte could easily add 500 calories).  One day of overindulging does not cause weight gain. 

To lose weight you need to burn more calories than you consume!  TOPS has a program right now called “Cut and Burn”.  Barb Cady, president of TOPS Club, Inc. describes it best when she writes, “Many of us have been in TOPS for several years and have achieved considerable success for a while. Then, for a variety of reasons, some of us began slipping back into old habits. Sometimes, we undermine our best efforts by overwhelming ourselves with too many changes or by selecting changes that are too large. Looking back with the clarity of hindsight, we realize that a small, sustainable loss each year would have been an amazing achievement. Defining, making, and continuing such changes are, together, our new challenge. It is never too late!  Join us by beginning to “Cut and Burn”, today. Spend a week journaling everything you eat and all the exercise you do. Do not make changes in your routine during this week just because you are journaling. Then, review your lists and select 100 calories to cut from your daily food plan. Also, decide how you will increase your activity to burn 100 calories more each day. These two small changes could result in a 20-pound loss if continued for one year.

This program is not exclusive to TOPS … it’s everywhere … because it makes sense – its basic math!

BUT (ah … come on … you knew there would be a but, I warned you at the beginning nothing is ever that easy)

“A calorie is a calorie is a calorie” is a true statement when you look at the science.  A calorie is always the amount of energy it takes to heat that 1 gram of water to 1 degree Celsius.  When discussing food you MUST look at the quality of the calories that you are consuming.  If you ate a doughnut or any processed carbohydrate such as bread, cereal, crackers, pasta, etc. you are eating sugar that your body really does not need and you are consuming a lot of worthless calories.  Remember your body is an efficient system that wants to keep functioning, even in times of deprivation, so any worthless calories will be converted to sugar (the easiest system your body has for storing energy) and that just succeeds in plumping up your fat cells.
Eating a 400-calorie sandwich with 60 grams of carbohydrates, 10 grams of fat and 17 grams of protein would lead you to believe those 400 calorie are available for energy or fat storage.  However the body needs to use energy to break down calories.  This is called the thermic effect of food.

BUT (yup another one) … this is the premise behind the popular myth that some foods are negative calorie foods because it takes the body more calories to burn them than they actually contain.  There are no such things as negative calorie foods.  The negative effect comes from how the body uses that food and how the food makes you feel long term.  Even in the example above, it is the sustaining feature of the protein that helps you feel full longer that is the significant element.
Fat is pretty easy to digest and absorb.  Two to three percent of calories coming from fat are burned in digestion.  For carbohydrates, the percentage is closer to 5 – 8 percent.  Protein requires the most work to digest and absorb.  Between 20 – 28 percent of the calories in protein are burned for digestion.  That’s why eating 400 calories of doughnut does not equal eating 400 calories more of protein and less of fat and carbohydrates.  The calorie count may not change, but the calories actually made available to the body for fat storage are reduced.

Focusing only on the numbers takes to focus off health and nutrition where it belongs.  Although it is technically correct, it gives people the wrong impression.

So, now that we have a firm grasp (I think) on what a calorie is and why it is important to consume the right calories let’s take a short look at how to get rid of some of those calories through activity.  You don’t have to run a marathon to lose weight, just increase you normal day to day activity.  Park a little further from the entrance to the office or the store and walk briskly to the door.

Walking is a highly underrated form of exercise.  Everyone is running (no pun intended) to a gym or investing in expensive equipment when walking is an excellent activity.  Walking calories do add up especially if you do it regularly and the good news is that walking to lose weight is just about one of the easiest activities you can incorporate into your lifestyle starting today.  A lot of people get confused about whether it is more beneficial to walk a longer distance or just to walk faster?  Both are important and obviously you will burn more calories if you combine both.  An average person will burn 100 calories per mile that you walk.  The heavier you are the more calories you will burn because your body provides its own resistance.  To calculate your own calorie burn rate for walking at an average speed of 3 miles per hour, the formula is:

0.53 x your body weight in pounds = your personal calorie burn per mile

Swimming is another good exercise for those beginning an activity routine because the buoyancy of the water takes pressure off the joints and makes it easier to move.  Many local pools offer aquatics classes and lessons and some have “free swim” times.  A simple aquabics class will burn approximately 240 calories per hour.  Mid level swimming will burn 390 calories per hour and competitive swimming will burn about 620 calories per hour.

Look at the chart below for some simple examples of exercises and their equivalent calorie burn count:

You are even burning calories at work:

Even common everyday activities (or chores – yuck) help with the calorie burn:

Just to put things into perspective, the following chart might help you decide whether that “treat” is necessary in comparison to the activity it will take to burn it off.

So lets tweak those two opening statements just a little bit …

“A healthy calorie is a nutritious calorie is a good calorie”
“Healthy calories in versus unused calories out”

Monday Weigh-in ... I stayed the same.  I did however, manage to log 6 km of walking into my "Virtual Trip" and since my time has freed up a little I am determined to add another 15 km this week.  We'll see what the scale says next week.  Gotta be good 'cause Easter is just around the corner ... my arch nemesis chocolate bunnies everywhere already!  Aaaaargh!

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