Most of us understand food and portion sizes based on the amount of calories that they have, but few people have a complete understanding of what a calorie is or what it does. A calorie is a unit of energy. In regards to nutrition a calorie is the measurement of the energy consumed or spent through food or exercise.
There are actually two types of calories:
- Small calorie: This refers to the amount of energy it would take to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius.
- Large calorie: This refers to the amount of energy it would take to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. This is often called a “kcal.”
This means that one large calorie has the same energy as one thousand small calories. It makes it even more confusing when you realize that both types of calories get interchanged when the concept is being described. In truth, the calories described on food labels are actually kilocalories or kcals.
Calories in and calories out
Because calories are consumed in food and spent in exercise many health experts advise a simple formula to determine weight gain and loss. Consume fewer calories than you spend.
But the simplicity of burning more calories than you consume isn’t always accurate or efficient. Everyone needs a different amount of calories a day. Ideal caloric consumption is based on a number of factors including height, weight, physical activity, overall health, gender, and body shape. In fact, no two nutritional authorities have managed to agree on an established number of recommended calories per day.
One of the primary reasons that calorie counting isn’t an exact science is that not all calories are the same, either. As far as consumption goes a calorie is a calorie, but the source of those calories can interact with your body differently. For instance, a food with high fiber content can make you feel fuller longer so consuming these fiber-filled foods will have a different effect on the body than consuming the same number of calories from a different food source.
It is also the case that we’re not actually very good at accurately counting calories. It is fine when the label is right in front of us, but when we decide to estimate based on our knowledge of what should be healthy, we oftentimes mistake how much we eat which can cause us to eat more or fewer calories than we should at any given time.
Mindful eating as an alternative for counting calories
We’ve been talking a lot about mindful eating this week and that’s for a good reason. Mindful eating avoids all of the diet fads and scientific confusion when it comes to food. It actually simplifies it in a way that makes our relationship to food much easier than we ever imagined it could be.
You eat when you’re hungry; you stop when you’re full. That’s it, even if it is harder than it seems.
Mindful eating doesn’t put pressure on an individual to make specific choices. The idea is that when you listen to your body you’re not going to binge on chocolate cake in the first place because it won’t make you feel very good afterwards. Instead, you let your body tell you what it wants and when it wants it. There is no shame in the occasional cookie. Mindful eating removes judgment. It gives a person permission to make food choices that work for them.
It is fact that distracted eating is a contributor to weight gain. Mindful eating takes food back from the sofa and gives it the place it deserves in our lives. When you’re hungry, stop anything else you’re doing. Sit and eat the food slowly and careful. Feel it, smell it, and taste it. All of these things contribute to the way we enjoy and consume food.
Individuals who practice mindful eating are much more likely to maintain the weight they currently have and some even lose weight.
Science of food consumption
What we think we know about food, calories, and weight gain and loss may not be the whole truth. Several recent studies have weighed in on the topic with surprising results.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University demonstrated that changing the portions of foods is better than trying to eliminate foods conventionally considered bad for nutrition. Since many people will choose the foods that taste good but have lower nutritional value over the opposite, the study suggests that instead of eliminating “vice” foods we focus on lowering their portions while increasing the portions of the healthful foods. In fact, combining these may help overall consumption of healthier foods than eliminating them altogether. They referred to this as “taste/health balance points.”
Doctors at Tel Aviv University recently determined that obesity may include many more factors than just the consumption of too many calories without a greater amount of spending them. They noted:
“The researchers discovered that, once it accumulated lipid droplets, the structure of a cell and its mechanics changed dramatically. Using a cutting-edge atomic force microscope and other microscopy technologies, they were able to observe the material composition of the transforming fat cell, which became stiffer as it expanded. This stiffness alters the environment of surrounding cells by physically deforming them, pushing them to change their own shape and composition.”
According to this research obesity can affect and is also an effect of changes on the cellular level.
Around this same time, researchers at the NYU Langone Medical Center also determined that obesity may be related to the improper functioning of certain “clean up cells” found in the immune system. They noted that:
“Among the study’s key findings was that inflammatory macrophage buildup is controlled by Netrin-1, which not only attracts more macrophages into fat tissue, but also prevents macrophages from carrying away pathogens and unwanted fat cells as the immune cells would normally do. Uncontrolled inflammation is known to damage arteries and vital organs.”
All of this may come down to the idea that it doesn’t entirely matter what we eat but rather how we eat it. Of course, some foods have more nutritional value than others but there may be a balance found in mindful eating that can help people manage their weight and remain healthier overall.
What are your thoughts about calories, the foods we eat, and weight management?
Image by Philipp via Flickr