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quality vs. quantity

"Some calories are addictive, others healing, some fattening, some metabolism-boosting. That’s because food doesn’t just contain calories, it contains information. Every bite of food you eat broadcasts a set of coded instructions to your body—instructions that can create either health or disease."
Dr Mark Hyman

The trend in nutrition science over the past several decades has been the focus on quantity of food as it relates to health and disease. The mantra has been all about energy balance. In order to be healthy you must burn off as many calories as you take in. Calories in, calories out. And in the end, a calorie is a calorie.

I would like to challenge this statement and share this with you: once consumed, a calorie is not a calorie. Sure, every calorie equals 4.186 joules of energy, but because that energy is transferred inside of our bodies, there are many other factors that need to be taken into account. When you take a closer look at how our body breaks down and utilizes this energy you discover that things are not quite as simple as calories in, calories out.

The calories in, calories out hypothesis gets its foundation from the 1st law of thermodynamics. This law states that the energy coming out of a system must equal the energy coming into the system. From this, the calories in, calories out hypothesis states that if the number of calories consumed over a period of time is greater than the number of calories burnt during the same period of time, a person will gain weight, and vise versa to lose weight. This hypothesis has been backed by many leading health organizations including the American Heart Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the World Health Organization.

"Eating right equals calories in minus calories out. Diet trends often focus on one food or one nutrient, promising it will be the magic bullet for losing weight and keeping it off forever. But when registered dietitians analyze a weight loss plan, inevitably it turns out the key is reducing your intake of calories. Budget your diet just like you budget your finances. If you overspend in the calorie department one day, try to make up for it in the exercise department the next." The American Dietetic Association

At first glance, this hypothesis seems sound, and in fact, it has been the backbone of nutrition and fitness regimes for decades. Doctors and personal trainers alike have repeatedly told Americans that we need to eat less and exercise more. However, when acted upon, this prescription simply does not work for many people, and here is why:

It has been repeatedly shown through scientific study that calories from different sources are metabolized differently in our body. Proteins, fats, and carbohydrates break down differently in our body, act upon our metabolism differently, and produce a unique cascade of reactions that contribute to our over all health. A calorie from chicken is metabolized differently than a calorie from an apple. A calorie from soda is metabolized differently than a calorie from butter. How a calorie is metabolized has subsequent effects on our body's ability to regulate hunger, sleep, energy, mood, weight, cognition, you name it. And while certain calories negatively effect health, other calories promote health.

1. Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates break down into sugar in our body. Calories from processed and refined foods such as bread and pasta, as well as sugary beverages, artificial sweeteners, honey, and maple syrup are immediately absorbed into the bloodstream, causing a spike in blood sugar, and the release of the hormone insulin. These kinds of carbohydrates stimulate our brains pleasure center while simultaneously suppressing our ability to feel full, causing us to eat more. The repeated release of insulin over time leads to insulin resistance, which in turn plays a huge role in the onset of chronic diseases such as obesity, dementia, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Blood sugar spikes cause our body to immediately store excess sugar as fat, leading to obesity and fatty liver disease. Carbohydrate calories from fruits and vegetables have a significantly different reaction is our body. The fiber contained within these whole foods slows down digestion. Our blood sugar is not immediately spiked, and our body has time to use this sugar as energy, rather than store it as fat. Calories from fruits and vegetables also contain a wide assorted of the vitamins and minerals needed for optimal health.

2. Protein: Because of the thermogenic response our bodies have to food, different sources of calories require different amounts of energy to be burned and utilized. Protein calories require much more energy to be metabolized than calories from carbohydrates and fat. This means that we burn more calories from eating 100 calories of chicken than 100 calories of banana.

3. Fat: Healthy fats do not have an effect on our insulin levels, and do not have the same negative interactions with hormones that carbohydrates do. Fats promote satiety, cause us to eat less and have control over our feelings of fullness. That being said, calories from transfats and processed vegetable oils are metabolized in a way the promotes inflammation, oxidative stress, and arterial damage. Once again, calories are not created equal.

4. There are numerous factors that come into play for individual people when it comes to energy balance. Among these factors include nutrient timing, gut health, liver health, and stress status. All of these contribute to how our body burns, utilizes, and stores energy.

Enlightened with this information, we begin to see that the quality of our food matters so much more than how many calories we consume. What we are eating and how our food is produced becomes much more important than how much we are eating. The food industry loves stocking grocery store shelves with products in line with the latest health fad: low calorie, non fat, no added sugar, whole grain, all natural, gluten free, the possibilities are endless. The bottom line is that all of these options are spin offs of the same product. They are all processed food items, mostly devoid of the nutrients our bodies need to thrive. Not only that, but they contain many ingredients that are toxic to us. As long as doctors, nutritionists, and fitness professionals affirm the calories in, calories out hypothesis, the food industry is able to continue stocking our shelves with different versions of junk food, many times in disguise.

So what is the solution? It is is fact incredibly simple. Eat real food. Go back to the basics. Step away from the aisles containing packaged and canned items and start shopping the periphery of the grocery store. Here you will find fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, fish and meat. Visit your local food co-op or farmers market where you can purchase local, organic fruits and vegetables and antibiotic and hormone free meat and dairy. Join your nearest Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share, where you will be guaranteed the freshest foods that grow best in your region, free from pesticides, preservatives, artificial flavors, hormones, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

When considering the quality of your food,
here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Added sugar and refined grains are the leading causes of many chronic diseases we see today. You will find these ingredients in 80% of grocery store items. Check your food label in order to steer clear.

2. Additional additives, such as colorings and dyes, preservatives, thickeners, nitrates and nitrites, antibiotics, hormones, and GMOs all negatively impact our health through biochemical, hormonal, and genetic interactions in our body. Check your food label, focus on organic whole foods, and talk with your farmer about how their animals are raised in order to avoid these.

3. Eliminate processed vegetable oils as much as possible. Vegetable oils comprise anywhere from 30-60% of the daily calories consumed in the standard American diet, they are extremely toxic, and hardly anyone is talking about them. Vegetable oils include corn, cottonseed, canola, soy, sunflower, safflower, or certain types of peanut, rice bran, and grape seed oils that have been heavily processed. These oils are extremely cheap to produce, and can be found in the vast majority of grocery store food items, and well as in restaurant and home cooked meals. We are consuming vegetable oil in unprecedented quantities today. These oils promote inflammation and oxidative stress in our body, which speeds up the aging process and manifests itself in many ways including increased fat storage, clogged arteries, lung damage, and dry wrinkled skin.

4. Take control of what you are putting in your body by remaining cognoscente of where your food is coming from. Shop for organic fruits and vegetables, organic pasture raised eggs and poultry, organic grass fed meat and dairy, wild caught seafood, and additional healthy sources of fat including coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, and grass fed butter. If you strive for a whole foods based diet, there is no reason for you to ever have to count calories.