Recently I read an interesting book by one of the nation’s leading nutritionists, Marion Nestle, called “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.”
Although “Why Calories Count” may sound like the title of the next new diet craze and a pitch to lose 20 pounds in a week by eating celery alone, it was actually an in depth look at the basic science behind calories and how they affect our weight.
Most people know the word ‘calorie,’ either having seen it prominently displayed on every piece of packaged food or used as a buzzword for different weight loss programs. But when asked to give a simple definition, we raise our hands and say “umm, something in food?”
So, what exactly are these calorie things we talk about?
The boring science-y definition of a calorie is, the amount of heat energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree centigrade, from 14.5 degrees to 15.5 degrees, at one unit of atmospheric pressure.
But that’s about as helpful as… well you know the rest.
An easier definition for us unscientific folks is
a calorie measures the potential energy in a food that can be used for work in the body, whether that work is chemical (on the cellular level) or physical (on the muscular level). These chemical reactions and muscular activities produce heat and that heat can be measured as calories.
As Nestle puts it “food provides energy that fuels the work that bodies do: breathe, circulate blood, keep warm, transmit nerve impulses, excrete waste, move.” And when we eat more calories than our bodies need in a given period of time, we store those excess calories as fat. This basic function has helped our species survive years of famine and food scarcity, but in our modern food abundant environment, this biological survival mechanism can cause more harm than good.
And that folks, is the great secret to weight maintenance. In a nutshell, of course.
There are tons of other biological and mental factors that play into how a body maintains its weight balance – even such simple things as the amount you fidget can lower your body weight – but at the end of the day, the amount of calories you eat will decide whether you lose, gain, or maintain your weight.
But before you go and start counting each individual calorie in your meals, know that
A) the calories measured in your food is not a perfect science
B) most importantly, our bodies already count calories without us having to do
And calories aren’t the total picture. Although it has been scientifically proven that you can lose weight by only eating Twinkies (yes this was actually a scientific experiment performed), WHAT you eat matters a whole hell of a lot more than making sure you look like the latest underwear model.
In today’s food abundant environment, sometimes it can feel like a Sisyphean challenge not to overeat, but instead of forcing yourself to measure every stalk of celery you eat in a day, try listening to your body instead.
Begin incorporating some of these easy steps into your routine to jumpstart your innate calorie counter:
Before you eat something, ask yourself: Do I really want to eat this? Frequently we eat for reasons other than hunger – stress, boredom, because it’s there – so remember to check yo’self before you wreck yo’self and really investigate the reasons why you want to eat that entire box of donuts
Try replacing your snack or meal options with a healthier version. Instead of your daily caramel mocha latte, try a plain latte with a little bit of honey or an americano with a dash of cream. Make a point of adding at least one vegetable into every meal you eat. Try a piece of fresh or dried fruit during a sugar craving, or mindfully eat a few squares of dark chocolate
Start paying attention to your biological cues. Imagine your stomach as a gas tank and assign a level to your hunger. Aim to stay within ¼ to ¾ a tank - try to not to let yourself empty to fumes but don’t overfill your tank And don’t forget to get enough sleep, drink enough water, and build some muscle at ANCHOR!
Happy eating friends!