This topic really bothers me, it’s become so ingrained in our society and culture that considering the caloric value of a food, for the most part, is the only consideration we take for the food we put into our mouth. Perhaps some take it a little further and break down the macronutrients a little and see “fat has the most calories, therefore, avoid fat to avoid calories and lose weight” – this is SO far from the truth and I get asked about it SO often I can’t resist writing this article any longer.
What is a Calorie?
As most of you well know, a calorie is a measurement of energy. A calorie is defined scientifically as ‘the amount of heat required at a pressure of one atmosphere to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree Celsius’.
This is where my first complaint arises. We are NOT burning the food we eat inside our bodies, our bodies are overwhelmingly complicated and dynamic biochemical machines. Thousands of processes take place every day using different chemicals and compounds with varying levels of efficiency based on both genetic and epigenetic differences that vary between every individual.
My foundational belief and understanding behind health, wellness and weight loss is simply this: your body is intelligent beyond understanding or comprehension. starting here we have to clarify some facts and distinguish between properties of macronutrients.
As we can clearly see, fat has a MUCH higher caloric value than either protein or carbohydrates. Combine this fact with the fact that the body stores excess energy as fat. I think this is fairly indicative of the optimal fuel for the human body. This is one of the reasons the ketogenic and low carbohydrate diets have become so popular recently and work so well in reversing a lot of chronic illness and disease.
Next we have to consider a little about the structure of the human body; what it is composed of and in what ratios. By dry mass(g) our body is approximately a 1:1 ratio of protein and fat.
Obviously this varies especially If you are overweight or obese but what I’m trying to say is that a healthy human body is around 50% fat and 50% protein. We have already clarified how the body is smart, we aren’t simply ‘burning’ calories and even condensing foods into certain macronutrients groups is still too simple. The macronutrient group ‘protein’ is an accumulation of lots of different amino acids (glutamine, cystine, methionine, creatine, glycine, etc.) And our body uses each of these for different purposes – collagen for bone structures and elasticity of our skin, cysteine to build sulphur compounds like glutathione and so on and so on. It isn’t as simple as ‘protein as a macronutrient’ and this ties back into the lower caloric value of protein. If we need all these proteins and amino acids for different jobs, and we have enough fat spare we will burn that instead! Fat has a lot more metabolic energy to it (over twice as much) and we need it for a lot less structural purposes. Don’t get me wrong, there are many structures in our body that require fat (omega 3s in our nervous system, cholesterol for our brain, tissue repair and inflammation) but that’s a very small % of dietary fat compared to the large portion of fat that we consume as it’s the MOST efficient fuel source.
We touched on how we don’t ‘burn’ calories as is done in a lab when they test Nutrient values for food labels and such. Well this inner ‘combustion’ or ‘burning’ is a chemical reaction, similar in a way to burning but far more complicated to understand. The variance in how efficiently we can complete the process has a big impact on the outcome.
A common trend I see it people severely malnourishing themselves, some completely innocently, with no idea how they’re harming their body, some to keep their ‘calories’ low – to lose weight; and wonder why everything falls apart.
This is where a lot of people I work with are at, in my experience the body adapts to this absolute starvation of macronutrients by lowering its metabolism, slowing healing and repair, reducing energy and brain function, and absolutely refusing to lose weight. This is absolutely genius of your body. It feels unsafe to use this energy because there isn’t enough energy around. As a result it begins to lower your metabolism to save what scarce energy there is available to you. Can you see the why this is a flawed way of thinking? We need to change this approach to health and weight loss.
Digestion Takes Energy
The last point I have to make centres around bioavailability. A good example is that 15g of protein can come from a chicken breast, or from spider venom. Both are protein but you could hardly compare how much nutrition you will get from eating them – The same is true for the food you eat. Let’s continue with chicken for this example, how much easier do you think it is for your stomach to digest a piece of pan seared and fried chicken compared to a poached chicken breast? All of the carbonation and caramelisation is going to be much harder for your body to break down and therefore has a lower bioavailability. I have a whole article about anti-nutrients if you want to learn more, and another referenced study suggesting the bioavailability of protein from plant sources may be inferior than that of plant due to aforementioned antinutrients inhibiting absorption through lectins and tannins, as well as more complete nutritional profile animal proteins provide us.
It’s quite clear to me, and now I hope it’s just as clear to you how calories aren’t everything, in fact, focusing so tirelessly on calories is probably doing you a disservice. Focus on whole foods, focus on your eating / fasting window, focus on making sure you’re eating enough food!
Long term calorie deficits are absolutely DESTRUCTIVE to your metabolism. Focus on being healthy and you body will naturally come to balance, and so will your weight. Thank you for reading, If you learned something, tell me! If you appreciate the effort this article took to make then share it about! I really appreciate it!