Calories: What are they and are they important?

by Catherine W. Britell, M.D.

 mitochondrion

by Catherine W. Britell, M.D. 

When we talk about the “calories” in food, what does that really mean? A calorie is defined as enough heat to raise one gram of water one degree centigrade.  Dietitians actually use “calorie” to mean the kilocalorie, or large “C” Calorie (equal to 1,000 calories), in measuring the calorific, heating, or metabolizing value of foods.  How are calories in foods calculated, anyhow?  Originally, the food was completely burned in a sealed container in a water bath, and the resulting rise in water temperature was measured.

These days, the calories in food are estimated indirectly using the Atwater system.   Here’s an article describing that:  http://jn.nutrition.org/content/28/6/443.full.pdf+html

The caloric content is calculated based on the protein, (carbohydrate – fiber), fat and alcohol contained in the food.     A complete discussion of this subject and the calories contained in a large number of foods can be accessed from the National Data Lab web site at   https://www.ars.usda.gov/Services/docs.htm?docid=8964

So, a “calorie” is an artificial and arbitrary way of estimating the amount of heat you can perhaps get from food if you actually burn it.  Now, I don’t see many people with flames coming out of their mouths or smoke out of their ears. And of  course we don’t have little bonfires somewhere in the middle of our body, being stoked by little bits of salmon and avocado and coconut and strawberries.  We actually use all those little potential bundles of energy in our mitochondria…magical, beautiful little microscopic parts of our cells…to manufacture all the things we need to keep our body intact and alive and moving.

It’s important to understand that actual or potential energy can and needs to be used or stored in numerous ways by the human body.  For those of us whose education included biology, we remember all those painful hours memorizing energy metabolism pathways.   We hated it then, and now we know that it’s quite a bit more complicated than we learned all those years ago.  But we now have a much better understanding of some of the factors we can control around this process to make those little bundles of energy work for us in optimal ways.

We know that many things can and need to happen to the calories we ingest a few times per day.  They are of course used to help power the manufacture of muscle cells, to keep our nerve cells functioning, to constantly replenish our skin cells, make our hair and fingernails grow and look beautiful, replenish our blood cells, keep the lining of our gut functioning, even keep the bacteria in our gut well-fed and healthy, and on and on and on.  And of course we also know that we require so much more than just the energy in the food we eat in order to survive!   We also need to have fatty acids, amino acids, and micronutrients to make all these things happen optimally and keep our bodies healthy.  

But back to “calories”.  Besides being used to help keep our bodies from falling apart, these little bundles of potential energy also keep us from getting cold while we sit at the computer, keep our bed partner warm at night, make it possible for us to run up the stairs, carry in the groceries or walk the dog.

And they make it possible for us to THINK, LAUGH, CRY, MAKE LOVE, AND CREATE!

Because “calories” are so important for life itself, our bodies will store them when there is an excess of these little energy bundles around and hormonal messages tell our bodies that we need to store energy.    We have an “energy checking account” (glycogen in the red blood cells, muscles and liver)  where we can access the energy quickly, and an “energy savings account” (fat) which is a longer-term storage mode.  Sometimes, due to chronic dieting or a long history eating of unhealthy foods, our hormonal environment becomes confused or sick or stressed.  Then it will force our cells to put energy into the “savings account” even when there is not even enough around to do the things we need to do.    So we are “starving” at the same time that we are adding fat.

When this happens, we can feel cold, unhappy, listless, and generally unwell, and we accumulate excess fat on our bodies.   This can often also make us feel very hungry.

Of course we also need to recognize that, depending on our genetic and hormonal makeup, we all handle those little energy bundles differently, and some of us tend, even under the best of circumstances, to favor “savings account” mode whenever our body sees even a few more of those little energy bundles hanging around than it needs.

In truth, losing body fat, which is what many of us are focused on, is really not the most important part of learning how to optimize our nutrition and hormonal environment.   Much more important is maximizing all of the good and necessary things that those little bundles of energy do for us!  And of course, once we do that, our bodies will naturally become more optimally proportioned — often dramatically so!  

So, when you read “The Calorie Myth” (http://thecaloriemythbook.com), supplemented by exploring the websites here,  getting [ninja-popup id=11558]your FREE 28-day program[/ninja-popup],  and listening to the podcasts,  you will learn all the best information available about:

1.  How we can deliver the most useful stuff to our cells in the right amounts.

2.  How we can set up the hormonal environment in our bodies to make the best use of all the good things we eat, so that we can have the most beautiful and healthy and energetic and functional bodies possible.