Friday, September 7, 2012

What Are Calories and Why Shouldn't You Count Them?

I spent a good chunk of time last night (45 minutes) running on the treadmill in my basement. After nearly an hour of huffing, puffing, and sweating, the machine chirped and informed me that I had burned 320 Calories.

“Success!” I shouted, thrusting a fist into the air. “How awesome am I?”

Then I went upstairs and ate a handful of iced animal crackers, clocking in at 200 Calories.

Here’s the problem with Calories - they’re numbers. Stupid, little numbers. Have you ever seen a Calorie? No, and nor could you. Calories are a concept, much like Santa Claus. Except, instead of getting a new Xbox for being a good little boy or girl, believing in calories can help you fit into that new jacket or bathing suit.

And instead of coal, you get love-handles.
This post is all about these annoying little buggers and some better methods for dealing with them.

What is a Calorie?

If I told you what it takes to boil a liter of water, you’d probably tell me “heat.”

“But how much heat?” I would ask.

And that’s probably when you’d stop talking to me.

To take a liter of water from room temperature to boiling (76 F to 212 F,) you’d need about 75 Calories of heat. And that’s all well and dandy, but aren’t Calories supposed to be something in food? Why am I using them to measure heat?

A calorie is a unit of measurement for energy. It is the amount of energy it takes to raise a milliliter of water by one degree centigrade (or Celsius for non-science folks.) A kilo calorie, or just Calorie, (note the upper case,) is one thousand calories, meaning it’s the energy required to raise a liter of water by one degree.

That’s confusing. I get it. But bear with me - the important stuff comes next.

The energy in food is measured in kilo calories (Calories.) The daily recommended caloric intake for women is around 2000 Calories and for men it's 2500 Calories. That means that men need to take in enough energy every day to bring 32.47 liters (or 8.58 gallons) of room temperature water to boil!

Is it hot in here, or is it just my eating habits?
Holy Toledo, that’s a ton of energy! It seems like there’s no way we could eat that much in one day. But you’d be surprised how quickly it all can add up.

Superfoods and Junkfoods

It’s camping tradition that I always bring a full box of HostessTM King Dongs. I’d say what they’re actually called now, but I’d hate to get my website blocked. Heck, I'll say it anyway - Ding Dongs (teehee!) Anyway, even though I know these tasty little snack cakes are pure fat and sugar, they’re a vacation staple for me. As Julia Child said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

Just one King Dong has 160 Calories, or two boiling liters worth of energy.

During my vacation recently, I ate two to three of these delicious snack cakes a day. We also visited a restaurant that supported a “Low Calorie” menu. All the items listed on the menu were supposedly less than 550 Calories, just over 7 boiling liters of energy. One of these items was a chicken salad.

A Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese from McDonalds has 750 Calories, over a third of the energy you need to keep your body going all day from a single sandwich. And enough energy to boil two and a half gallons of water.

The trouble with Calories are two-fold. For starters, a number doesn’t adequately describe the nutritional content of food. Even though 550 Calories seems like a lot for a salad, a diverse array of vegetables is better for your body than three Hostess King Dongs. They have the same amount of energy, but different nutritional values. The salad would have iron, fiber, vitamin A and other important nutrients, whereas a King Dong really only has fat and sugar.

Yeah, so what if they're trying to kill me? I love 'em anyway.
 The second problem with Calories is where we get them from. A $0.99 snack cake is much cheaper (and often tastier) than a $12.00 salad. If we don’t have time to cook our own meals, we’ll often resort to fast food because it’s cheaper and faster. But convenience comes with a trade-off. We sacrifice nutritional content for money, racking up massive Calorie counts. This is a driving force behind the growing obesity epidemic among lower-income Americans.

The Take-Home Message

Unless specifically told to by your doctor, please don’t bother monitoring your Calorie intake. It is a game that will drive you insane. If you’re like me, you’ll end up eyeing cans of soda-pop with spite and making finger-crosses when you walk past the candy displays at a grocery store. Once, a friend offered me half his SnickersTM bar and I hissed at him and called him a “Temptress.”

Thou caramel creep! Thou nougat-y nosferatu!
The numbers matter, don't get me wrong. Taking in too much energy but not using it all is why our bodies grow fat. It's important not to eat too much at any one sitting in order to prevent putting on weight. But calories, in and of themselves, are not as important as the ingredients that go into the food you eat.

I always suggest reading the ingredients list on any food you buy. If some of the first ingredients are High Fructose Corn Syrup, Milk, Whey, or other sugars and fats, it’s best just to stay away from it. Or, enjoy it in moderation. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional cookie, so long as it is part of a balanced diet.

And no, a balanced diet is not a cookie in each hand. I tried to pull that one before.

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