Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Idea Of A Calorie

As I've mentioned before in previous posts, when dealing with your body and fitness, you have to treat yourself as a student scientist. If you have ever taken chemistry class before (or almost any science class) you would know that calorie is a scientific term, not a fitness, "health," or marketing term.

It was first defined by Nicolas ClĂ©ment in the 1800s. It is a way to measure heat energy. Meaning calories needed to increase the temperature of water. For our purposes we don't need to know more than that. Somehow though, it is now most often referred in a nonscientific way, but in a fitness marketing way. When people say calories, they don't mean units of energy needed to increase water temperature by 1 °C. They mean the idea of a calorie. Not what it really is, what they think it is. It's now a way to measure weight gain and loss, it's changed from a unit of energy, to a unit of human mass. When trainers, or people on TV, or your friend says calories, they no longer are using it in a scientific way but mean it in some pseudo scientific way.

Anything that burns has calories. Grass has calories, cardboard has calories, wood has calories, etc. How will that help us in an attempt to modify our bodies? Calories does not paint a clear picture at all. For example, how can one person eat a double burger 3 times a day and not gain weight, while his friend can just look at a double burger and put on 2lbs? Another example is how can two people who are the same height, both be training for a marathon in the same way, yet one person starts to look like the classic lean long distance runner, while the other is still relatively chubby? Even if their run times are the same? The claim you the other person is lucky, or they have great genes, or it's some form of magic. So the idea of calorie is more based on magic than science?

Let's take that further. A 150lb person will likely burn 2,600 calories running a marathon. A pound of fat is 3,500. So after all that work you maybe burn 3/4 of a pound? Most intense gym work outs will burn 300 calories. That's not enough to even keep up with a normal appetite. So whats the alternative? Starve? That's what happens when you play this irrational game. You either work yourself out to death, or you starve yourself, or you do both. Then they make it more confusing and tell you no, don't starve yourself that's bad for you. But too many calories are also bad. So how does anyone succeed? Of course this will have a high failure rate, what human can do this? Maybe a few, those few will come out with products to say you can be like them? But come on, there's a reason there's only a select few who do it, otherwise we would all be writing books. Because they did something outside of the norm, outside of our nature. Otherwise these products would no longer be needed because we would all get skinny. But high failure rate is on their side, and it becomes very profitable.

Calories is great to measure heat. Terrible in determining weight gain or loss. How many times have you killed yourself all week not to lose weight? Or inversely not gain weight if you are looking to bulk up? How many times have you seen on TV on some fat loss show, someone who is being starved, worked out 8 hours a day, monitored 24/7 still put on weight? People still must be in the dark ages it seems. There's probably nothing wrong with you or the people on the show. Most likely everyone is putting in a great effort, there is something wrong with the system, the institution of calories. You can eat some of the most processed, unnatural, chemically treated food, as long as its low calories. Somehow the chemicals in cigarettes are bad, but the chemicals in some food are good because they are low in calories? It seems the idea of calories is doing us more harm than good and making it a harder uphill battle. There is more and more marketing and education on health based on calories yet we as a population are not getting slimmer.

So first of all not all calories are equal. 500 calories of potato chips and 500 calories of carrots and 500 calories of cardboard will all affect you differently. They all contain different things, some things with calories may even kill you. Why? Because it's about what goes into your bloodstream. You want good things to go into your bloodstream, natural things, naturally occurring things, things that are already in your body. Another issue is net calories. How much of the calories will you absorb. Some people can consume a lot, but will net very little. So meaning how much of it will end up in your blood stream and how much in the toilet? You will find people who hardly put on weight use the bathroom a lot. Because they consume or gross a lot of calories, but net very little, and all the rest will pass through their bodies. Now that it's in your bloodstream, how quickly is it entering your bloodstream? 500 calories of potato chips will enter much quicker than carrots. This will ultimately determine how much is stored as fat, and how much is stored as fuel. This is determined by what kinds of food you eat, the portions of each food, and the combination of foods. So types of food is more important than calories in the food. How our bodies react to food more important than how many calories our body takes in.

Here is the other side: exercise. You never will burn enough calories in exercise to keep up with a healthy and sane diet. So how does that work? It depends on your musculature, more muscles, more energy demand on your body. Your digestive ability is also critical, how efficient it is at absorbing food. Nowadays someone who absorbs food very poorly and stays skinny is considered a superior. In actuality someone who absorbs food very well should be considered superior, it's why our species has survived this long (and its why there are more people who absorb food well than those who do not). To be efficient at absorbing energy and food for later use. But now the portions and dynamics of the things we eat have changed. Beyond just burning energy, which may sometimes be nominal, what's important is what changes it causes in your body. Trying to exercise just to burn calories is a loser's game. Remember the goal of exercise is about change: making your body less prone to injury and redefining how it works. Exercising not so much to try to sweat and burn calories (because if you lack a lot of musculature what are you going to use to burn calories in the first place? Your organs and fat? Better to invest in change first so your body is better equipped in burning calories later) but to exercise to force your body to make adaptations, recruit more muscles, move energy, and most importantly hormonal changes. Your body will stimulate hormones to cause changes, hormones is what will ultimately signal change in the first place. The whole point of hormone therapy is to cause a body change right? In women changes to hormones affect weight once a month.  

A side note - a lot of people who just train cardio, their bodies will adapt by not making their bodies shrink, but by enlargement of their heart to keep up with the activity, along with inflammation and clotting factors. Which will increase their stroke volume, a long with other heart attack factors. With all things you need to be balanced, because all good things have a diminishing return.

Exercise can burn calories yes. But it can also make your hormones more efficient for weight loss or gain, build more muscles, and muscles that are engaged will move (not burn) more energy quickly through your body. Muscles not only burns calories, it acts as a energy transport. Which gives more incentive just to be active, so our bodies can transport that energy around. Trying to burn just calories through exercise is short term and an uphill battle, investing in change will create the greater dividends.

Trying to count and burn calories is trying to bend your body to this rigid system. Exercising to create change and eating more naturally, bends the system to your body. Work with your body not against it.
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