|"Cold Front" classic pinup by artist Gil Elvgren|
By Caitlin Seida
Huh? Read that again. In English: A calorie is a unit of energy measurement. And yet, something so small and insignificant can play a very large part in our lives - sometimes to the point of ruling them. We count them, we watch them, we try to burn those suckers for all we're worth. And there's a ton of misinformation out there.
And the biggest whopper of all? The old faithful "Calories in vs. calories out." Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure - it all looks good on paper. But have you ever met a body that read the paper? Me neither. I recently was asked by a Twitter follower how I could be fat if I ate right and exercised - the fact of the matter is: YOUR BODY plays a big role in how your body processes what you put into your mouth.
A University of Florida study and a study performed by Wake Forest University both found that people who consume quality foods maintain better overall health - and lower weight. 500 calories of fast food is not the same as 500 calories of fruit and veggies, or 500 calories of whole grain carbs and lean meat. A cubic zirconia and a diamond both look the same, but are they? Nope.
Let's say you're like me - you eat very little fast food and maintain a pretty good nutrition level. What then? Well, calories can come from three sources: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Your body needs a balance of these things, and skewing that balance can lead to disaster. And not every BODY is the same: those of us with insulin resistance (a comorbid condition that often walks hand-in-hand with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome) need fewer calories from carbs and more from proteins and healthy fats. It's highly individualized - which is why you should speak to your doctor and a nutritionist before changing the way you eat. Your body is not everyone else's body and your body has it's own individual needs.
But what about the math? Numbers can't lie - right? Nutrition isn't as simple as 2+2 = 4. It's more like theoretical physics: 2+2 can sometimes equal 6, 12, or 1,409 if the right conditions are met. And just what do I mean by that? The mathematical formula used to determine calorie values is 100+ years old. And while an apple is still an apple, the way we understand how that apple gets turned into energy has changed.
|Used under a CC License from Tomas Sobek|
Next, if you're counting on your labels to give you accurate information, think again. By United States law, most products have a 30% wiggle room in stating the caloric content of the meal or food on their packaging. So a lean frozen "diet" meal that claims to contain 300 calories could just as easily contain over 350 calories or more. If you opt for convenience over whole, home cooked foods more often than not? That's a lot of unexpected calories!
But, you're probably wondering, how do you end up fat if you eat a solid, quality diet where you KNOW you're restricting calories and exercise a lot? Plain and simple, hormones can really mess things up. Things like insulin (which affects how the body breaks down food into energy), cortisol (which affects how much fat we store), serotonin (the "happy" hormone, which is actually found majorily in your gut and can play a part in signaling your "I feel full" receptors) and even the good old standbys of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone can play a part in how and whether your body uses the calories (energy) from food, stores it as fat or excretes it as waste.
|Used under CC License from Francois Meehan|
So the bottom line? For most people whose hormonal systems are firing normally, following the dietary recommendations set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture should be fine. But you are an individual and your body is unique to you - so be sure to double check with your healthcare practitioner if you experience sudden weight gain or weight loss or before changing your diet radically - including how many of those pesky calories you take in.
Caitlin Seida has been writing since 2006, with her work appearing on various websites including Livestrong.com, TypeF.com, Salon.com, Dogster.com and The Daily Puppy.