Wait, No Calories?
If you've been following along on this blog (THANK YOU), my last article (Here) began to introduce some science, simple nutrition concepts, and an ask of my readers to shift their mindset surrounding food. If you were paying attention, I made a conscious effort to avoid using the most harmful word circulating in today's diet and wellness culture... "calories." The intentionality behind this is to support the effort to educate and shift our thinking to a more metabolic approach to health.
Calories are a unit of measure that, without more information, is completely useless and misleading, much like body weight. If I told you I am 165 pounds it doesn't mean a thing if you don't have my height, waist size, resting heart rate, glucose variability, heart rate variability, blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, triglycerides, and the list goes on and on. As such, with our foods, if all we have is a calorie number, we might as well be eating blind. We need to understand more about the food such as its ingredients, macronutrient composition, fiber content, glycolytic load, insulin response, and the list goes on and on. As a matter of fact, all a calorie tells us is the amount of energy our food contains in order to increase the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius calculated by a neat device called a bomb calorimeter. (Available for purchase on Amazon for $2,745)
Now that you know this, do you feel more empowered and feel like this is a reliable input to differentiate proper foods from harmful ones? Didn't think so, but we will progress.
Certain foods may have more energy than another, but we need more information to tell us whether or not it will be a proper source of fuel for our bodies and how they will affect us metabolically.
To take the dive into the macronutrients, we need to take a little break to introduce more numbers and concepts. When it comes to calories, each gram of a macronutrient will provide a different amount. The following has been widely accepted with regards to protein, carbohydrates, and fat:
Protein: 4 calories per gram
Carbohydrate: 4 calories per gram
Fat: 9 calories per gram
Thus, by the simplest standards, one trying to cut down on calories would be wisest to reduce or eliminate fats as they are the most calorically dense. Does the low-fat movement ring a bell? (Article later on this harmful, short-sided approach).
Next, we should take a look at how each of these macronutrients affects our blood sugar levels. Remember, it is our goal to keep our blood sugar stable throughout the day to ensure constant energy levels and to minimize the harmful reliance on insulin for blood sugar regulation. So here we have it. Carbohydrates lead the pack, followed by protein, then fat. Of course, there are nuances within each category and ingesting a mixed meal will have a different response than taken in isolation, but we can get a sense of the impact using the graph below.
Now that we are calorie counting wizards and metabolic gurus, let's look at the chart below to see how bogus and uninformative this calorie number really is. We will use a strawberry versus an Oreo versus an avocado. The chart below shows the differences in these foods while setting the caloric value the same across all three (100 calories).
Let's take a look, first of all, at the quantity of each of these foods you would need to eat to achieve 100 calories of intake. Less than two Oreos is all it takes to hit this magic number, whereas you might be able to eat an entire clamshell of strawberries, 26, to meet the same caloric density. As we can see, an avocado is packed full of energy, requiring less than half of one to hit the 100 calorie mark, but what does that really mean?
First off, do you think it is possible for someone to open a container of Oreos, and stop themselves, naturally, at 1.8 cookies? This is the type of mentality and fortitude that calorie-conscious eaters have to have in order to "succeed." However, there is no way the manufacturer of these "snacks" would ever let that happen. As such, they have formulated these food-like substances to be packed full of sugar (8.9 grams) and free from fiber (0.7 grams) to ensure that you get the pleasure from the sugar hit and don't get any satiety from each cookie. What this does metabolically is extremely harmful. From previous articles, we know that this large, immediate load of sugar into the bloodstream causes a spike in blood glucose levels and insulin to be released in order to normalize our blood sugar value. Insulin will look to the muscles, liver, and fat tissue for storage availability. Once the sugar is neatly stored away, this causes blood sugar to come crashing down causing more hunger, energy depletion, and the harmful circular pattern of consuming more of these products, much to the knowledge and pleasure of the manufacturer. If someone is somehow able to stop themselves at 1.8 cookies, due to "will power," "dedication," or locking the pack in a pantry, they will feel accomplished and pat themselves on the back for "complying" with their plan. However, hormonally, they will be left with a hunger cue and at the bottom of a blood sugar crash in search of satiation. Therefore, more likely than not, the mindset of restriction and limitation mixed with the pure dopamine pleasure these cookies provide will cause overconsumption and harmful blood sugar spikes and troughs.
Let's compare this experience to the strawberry and how mentally "freeing" it may be to tell someone to "go for it" when placing a whole platter of these delicious morsels in front of them. We know from the chart above that they'll have to eat 26 to hit the 100 calorie goal, but let's take a look at what else their body will be receiving. If someone manages to down 26 strawberries in the first place, this serving will be accompanied by 6 grams of fiber. This allows for a more controlled and level blood sugar response as the fiber interrupts the blood sugar spike and begins to signal our satiety hormones. This will most likely result in the person stopping naturally from satiation even before the 100 calorie mark is hit. This is the power of real food. They allow our bodies to work properly and clear the way for proper hormonal signaling. They are not engineered to take advantage of our hormonal responses or provide hyper-palatable experiences. Some may be quick to point out that the amount of sugar is greater in the serving of strawberries than the serving of Oreos; however, lets first remember this represents 1.8 cookies verse 26 berries! Secondly, the type of sugar is extremely different. Time to look at the labels.... take a breath... ok here we go:
Oreo: NABISCO OREOS (UNBLEACHED ENRICHED FLOUR (WHEAT FLOUR, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, THIAMINE MONONITRATE \, RIBOFLAVIN \, FOLIC ACID), SUGAR, PALM AND/OR CANOLA OIL, COCOA (PROCESSED WITH ALKALI), HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, LEAVENING (BAKING SODA AND/OR CALCIUM PHOSPHATE), SALT, SOY LECITHIN, CHOCOLATE, ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR. })
As we can see, the Oreo includes sugar in its most readily available, highest potency forms including not one, but three sources; enriched flour, sugar, and high fructose corn syrup. Of course, this combination creates an absolute party in your mouth and is sure to light up your dopamine receptors much like cocaine would. So why not throw in some artificial flavoring to keep you coming back for more. These types of sugars are engineered to specifically target our taste receptors and hormones. Further, as mentioned above, with no fiber to ease the sugar spikes, we can be assured an unhealthy metabolic response and severe energy fluctuations. When these sugar spikes, swings in glucose, and severe fluctuations in insulin become chronic (i.e. multiple times a day, for multiple days, for multiple weeks, months, yers, etc) the damage adds up and eventually morphs into metabolic disease in the form of hyperinsulinemia and diabetes. A discussion for another day. The point here is that the types of sugars are not the same between the Orea and strawberry and that the fruit in its whole form has natural protectants from the harmful hormonal effects of sugar.
So now that we've seen the difference between two sweet foods, its time to get savory and talk about my favorite macronutrient, fat. This poor soul has been demonized by past nutritious advice in the forms of being improperly accused of causing heart disease (an article for another day), being a useful source of calorie cutting through elimination as discussed earlier, and being improperly classified as the cause for excess body fat. After all, eating fat will make you fat, right? WRONG! As we can see in the chart, to reach 100 calories of an avocado it requires eating less than half of one of these delicious fruits. This is because it is primarily made up of fat (9.2 grams) which we learned above is the most calorically dense macronutrient. However, much like the strawberry, because of its fiber content (4.1 grams) and low carbohydrate content (5.2 grams), when eaten, avocados stimulate extreme satiation, a sense of nourishment, and a very marginal increase in blood sugar which prevents your body from having to call on insulin to normalize blood levels. This is great news because now we have attained fullness, controlled our hormonal response, and have a source of energy that will last for a longer period of time than the marginal energy provided by the Oreo or strawberry.
So let's break it down with all the information we have gathered. Absent of any other information, calories tell us little to nothing about how our bodies will respond to these foods. With the oreo, we now know 100 calories represents a small number of cookies, will give us a huge dopamine hit thanks to its engineered ingredients, provide a short term sugar spike, will require insulin to normalize our blood sugar level, and leave us hungry and at the bottom of a blood sugar crash. Doesn't seem like such a fun ride. Alternatively, 100 calories of strawberries, if we can reach the 26 fruit mark, will provide plenty of normalized energy thanks to its fiber content, satiation, and satisfaction of our "sweet tooth." Lastly, although only half an avocado is required to hit the 100 calorie mark it comes with the benefit of complete satiation, minimal blood sugar response, and the most lengthy amount of energy for our bodies. Now that you are armed with this deeper understanding of the metabolic impact of our foods, you can see how useless the calorie really is. Even deeper, we can start to gain a deeper appreciation for real food as a fuel source. Real food is designed to signal our hormones properly, satiate us, and keep us properly energized. Time to toss out the calorie as a metric for foods and begin to view food in the eyes of our hormones.
I will, however, point out that just by reading this article you have probably burned anywhere from 50-100 calories. Well done!