Friday, January 3, 2014

What Is a Calorie And Why Am I Fat?

"Cold Front" classic pinup by artist Gil Elvgren
By Caitlin Seida

It's so simple in theory, when you see it in black and white: eat a 2,000 calorie diet and you'll be healthy, maintain a good weight and all will be well in the world. But how often do we stop to think just what these numbers - these calories - mean? A calorie is the amount of energy it takes to heat one cubic centimeter of water by one degree.

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.

First of all, not all calories are created equal. 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
A Harvard professor explained in depth how digestion impacts the absorption of nutrients - and how that, in turn, effects the number of calories we take in. If you have stomach issues, or even just don't digest certain things all that well, some foods pass right through your system to be excreted as waste instead of being stored, burned or used as energy. Some foods are easier to absorb and thus do the opposite: pack more of a caloric punch by increasing your metabolic rate. That damn new math.

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
For someone with insulin resistance, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and Hashimoto's disease of the thyroid? More often than not, our hormonal imbalances (yes, more than one) trigger the body to start storing potential energy (calories) as fat instead of using them as energy. That's also part of the reason why one of the main hallmarks of all of those illnesses is fatigue: your body isn't letting you use the energy you're consuming in the form of food. It's storing it for a later date instead.

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,,, and The Daily Puppy. A Jill-of-All-Trades, she splits her workday as a writer, humane society advocate and on-call vet tech. What little free time she has goes into pinup modeling, advocating for self-acceptance, knitting and trying to maintain her haunted house (really!). You can find her on Facebook, on Twitter, and of course here on I Feel Delicious!

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