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Busting the Myth About Calories

Shocker, but they’re actually good for you

Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes on Unsplash

Originally published by Change Your Mind, Change Your Life on Medium.

Imagine you’ve been driving along Route 66 for eight hours straight on an epic cross-country road trip you had always dreamed of taking. As the desert scenery unfolds along the way, you look down at the gas gauge and see that the yellow warning light has turned on, begging you for fuel. As you have no say in the matter, you oblige, and pull up into the nearest gas station. You ease the car up to the nearest pump, reach out your hand and press the call button. Lackadaisically, the attendant ambles towards you and asks “how can I help?” “well”, you reply, “I’d like you to fill her up, but do me a favor, could you water down the gasoline for me?” Baffled he says “Say what now”?

As bewildering as this sounds, we do this all the time.

Calories = fuel = energy
The car engine burns fuel to produce energy which will then propel the car. Your body, like the car, also converts food into energy. Food is ingested through the mouth, where it’s broken down to smaller pieces, and proceeds to the stomach for digestion. It then moves on to the small intestines, wherein the three food macronutrients are broken down to their building blocks by digestive enzymes. Carbohydrates are broken down to single sugar molecules called monosaccharides. Proteins become Amino Acids, and fat becomes fatty acids. These building blocks are then transferred to the blood stream and carried to the cells. There, they are finally converted into energy in the mitochondria, the human car engine.

According to healthyeating.sfgate.com, carbs supply four calories per gram and are your body’s preferred source of energy, thanks to their quick energy conversion. Fats supply nine calories per gram, thus, they are more efficient, but not as quick to supply the energy. While proteins also provide four calories per gram, but are least preferred for energy conversion, intended instead for tissue growth.

Since food is fuel, how come it seems ridiculous to fill up our cars with watered down gasoline, but perfectly acceptable to fill up our bodies with watered down food? I’m talking of course about the ridiculous low – calorie foods. From nonfat yogurts and low-fat salad dressing, to Coke Zero and Ben & Jerry’s Moo-phoria. People are obsessed with low calorie foods.

However, coming from an expert, the mere mention of low calorie as a positive attribute carries a lot of weight, and furthers the myth of “the bad bad calories”.

What’s even more baffling is to consider these foods healthy. Low fat, zero sugar, low calorie, zero fat products have all become synonymous with healthy foods, even though many of them contain harmful additives and artificial sweeteners.

The sad thing is, many dietitians share this view. While recommending healthy foods, many will mention the low calorie count. Sure, most of them probably won’t recommend the zero sugar products to anybody who isn’t trying to lose weight. They would of course also recommend avoiding the empty calories foods, emphasize the importance of enriching our diets with nutrients, in the way of vitamins, minerals and fibre. However, coming from an expert, the mere mention of low calorie as a positive attribute carries a lot of weight, and furthers the myth of “the bad bad calories”.

Why is this? Why have we come to view energy as good for cars but bad for us?

As opposed to cars, we unfortunately attribute more significance to the ingestion stage over the energy conversion stage. With cars we primarily focus on energy conversion – the engine. We all want efficiency without sacrificing performance. That’s why hybrids and electric vehicles are so popular now. When it comes to our bodies though, we mainly focus on the ingestion – the taste.

This can be verified easily by the high obesity rates in many developed countries, especially in the United States. Since there is no food shortage problem, energy supply is taken for granted, and obsessive attention is given to the tasting process. We’ve become so addicted to taste that our judgment has clouded up, preventing us from asking the simple question – does my body need this supply of energy now?

This addiction is so powerful that many fast food chains take advantage of it to sell tasty but non nutritious food. By selling cheap burgers, French fries, fried chicken, burritos – you name it, they’re able to push these products into the hands of those who can’t afford anything else, namely kids and the lower socioeconomic class.

As a source of energy, food should be consumed based only on energy expenditure. Blue collar workers, athletes and even lecturers require greater consumption of food, at a higher energy yield. On the other hand, high tech employees, and anybody else leading a sedentary lifestyle shouldn’t consume as much food. Thus, a lumberjack should eat a big burger, because of the fat’s high and efficient energy yield. The sedentary lifestyle, on the other hand, doesn’t require that high energy intake.

However, most people seem to overlook this fact because of their food addiction. Instead of eating for energy supply, based on their body’s energy expenditure, they eat for their taste buds. Becoming either overweight, or a consumer of low fat and zero sugar products.

Final thought
Am I advocating to behave like robots and forget the pleasure of eating that tasty, delicious burger? Never. What I am saying though, is to acknowledge that we have a problem. We are addicted to food. And just like with alcohol addiction, the first step in recovery is to acknowledge you have a problem. So please avoid eating the zero percent bullshit, because that’s just sidestepping the problem and enabling your addiction. Instead, start listening to your body’s needs, and remember that food is first and foremost a source of energy. So go ahead and eat that mouthwatering burger, but only when your body actually needs those calories.

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