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Another example why calories aren't equal

Published November 28. 2009 09:00AM

You've seen the typical man-on-the-street survey on comedy shows, talk shows, and even documentaries. It's when a single question is asked of passersby while a camera is rolling.

Sometimes, the responses are humorous. Other times, they are downright ignorant.

Take the responses given in the well-known documentary, "Super Size Me." When Morgan Spurlock asks for the definition of a calorie, no one gets even remotely close to the correct answer. But there was no humor in the answers, just ignorance.

The point made is that in the midst of an obesity epidemic where people are not only getting fat at an alarming rate, but also spending billions of dollars on books, diet aids, and other related weight-loss products, many people don't have a clue as to what is deemed as the most important unit of measure.

Or is it?

That's the question for today: Is understanding the calorie in order to reduce your daily consumption of them the most important element in a weight-loss program?

As you formulate an answer, consider the man-in-the-street approach again. The reason why it so often lends itself to humor cloaked in ignorance is because people are caught off-guard.

Extemporaneous speaking by itself is not easy. (Just ask any teacher how many mistakes he or she honestly makes in a day's worth of class instruction.) Add a video camera into the equation, and formulating an instant and intelligent response becomes even more difficult.

So let's not play hit-and-run. Let's ask our question hypothetically at a place of business with the understanding that those asked have 24 hours to formulate a response.

They can even write it down that night and read it out loud the next day if they want.

Done in this manner, I am certain the overwhelming response at any business on the main streets of Jim Thorpe, Lehighton, or Palmerton would be "To reduce the total amount of calories." The answer would be both right and wrong.

The answer can be both right and wrong because of what I call "the snowflake theory." In the same way that no two snowflakes are exactly alike (at least that's what my science teachers told me long ago), each one of us, I believe, processes calories differently.

So a diet plan, any diet plan, that simply limits the total number of calories consumed in a given day works but often only temporarily. Long-term success is best obtained by incorporating another concept, one bodybuilding and nutritional expert John Parrillo calls nutrient partitioning.

Parrillo believes the percentage of fat, carbohydrates, and protein that you consume is as important as the amount of total calories consumed for weight management.

In fact, he sometimes puts bodybuilders on 10,000-calorie a day diets, and they gain far more muscle than fat. Dieters sometimes eat double the amount of calories suggested in the typical diet book.

When he encounters disbelief about the effectiveness of this strategy, he simply says what he has said and written dozens of times: "Your body's ratio of insulin to glucagon is determined solely by the ratio of protein to carbohydrates in your diet."

That's significant because of the jobs done by these two hormones. Insulin tries to provide energy to the muscles from the carbs you ingest, but if the carbs are the wrong type or eaten in excess, insulin simply stores the potential energy as long-term fat.

Glucagon does the opposite. It breaks down fat for energy, sparing energy stored in the muscles cells.

So if you're trying in vain to drop a few final pounds, you may want to eat more forms of high-quality protein (sources that are complete and don't include a high amount of fat) and fewer "bad" carbs, the simple ones are added to many processed foods, like flour and sugar.

If you want proof that this will work, the following story about Tom Danielson is strong evidence.

He's a professional bike rider who had something really strange happen to him while riding the Giro de Italia this year. Even though this race was more than 2100 miles packed into 21 days and some riders lose 10 to 12 pounds during its course, Danielson was heavier at the end than the beginning.

That's right. Even though a hilly stage could cause the typical cyclist to burn 9,000 calories and an "easy" stage 5,000, Danielson somehow managed to gain weight.

But how could that be? He rides for the Garmin team, one that takes pride in being at the forefront of all aspects of cycling, including nutrition. Surely Danielson wasn't consuming too many calories.

Exactly. But he was eating too many of those calories in the form of simple carbohydrates after races when his body didn't really need them.

Consuming carbs any types of carbs before during and after stages normally works for the typical professional cyclist.

Tom Danielson isn't typical. He's one-fourth Eskimo.

While it's not certain that this is what causes Danielson to require far fewer carbs, it does make sense. The typical diet of Eskimos for thousands of years has been just about devoid of any types of carbohydrates.

So if some of your ancestors came from cultures where the daily diet was predominantly protein and fat or historically low in total cals, you may also be sensitive to carbohydrates.

Or it you've spent years eating too much junk, you may have spurred on such a sensitivity.

In either case, limiting carbs along with calories is essential for long-term weight loss.

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