By Alexander VanHouten, Master Trainer & Life Time Education Specialist
Which is better for you:
100 calories of spinach or 100 calories of Skittles?
“Well, duh, Alex. Even my kids know spinach is better for you.”
Awesome. Glad you’ve taught them well.
I’m even happier that you understand the relative meaninglessness of calories for good dietary choices.
The calorie count of your food just simply doesn’t tell you much.
Counting calories is like going to the gas station and finding a combination soft drink/gas dispenser attached to the pump. The dispenser randomly selects a fluid to put in your tank.
“You have received 10 gallons. Have a great day!” Wait, what?
The only way you’ll know what actually ended up in your tank is how the car runs afterward. As you can imagine, unleaded premium treats an engine very differently than Orange Crush.
In the same way, many people unfortunately say, “I’ve eaten 1600 calories today. I’m right where I need to be!”
What does knowing you’ve eaten 1600 calories today tell you—really?
The protein, phytonutrients and fiber in spinach have a very different, profound effect on your metabolism than the processed carbohydrates, sugar and who-knows-what-else in your Skittles. These properties have nothing to do with the calorie content of the foods.
Let’s set the record straight about calories and examine a more productive measure for transforming your body composition, health and performance this year.
What is a “calorie” REALLY?
Interestingly, calories are not a biological unit at all. They’re a measuring unit in the field of physics.
A “food calorie” as represented on a food label in the most pure sense is 1,000 “physics calories” (kcal). It’s a unit defined as “the amount of heat energy required to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water 1 degree Celsius.”[i] It’s measured by taking a food and putting it inside a sealed container surrounded by water called a “bomb calorimeter.” The food is then burned completely, and the temperature increase of the surrounding water is measured. BAM!—calories.
So, a food calorie is just how much energy a food contains. Merely this, and nothing more (Poe, anyone?)[ii]
What about whether that food tends to be stored as fat or burned as fuel in a primate’s metabolic system? What about what kind of bacteria it fosters in the large and small intestine? What about how intensely it lights up the pleasure (addiction) centers of the brain when eaten?
Nope. Nada. Nothing. A measure of calories doesn’t tell us any of that about our food.
Knowing something contains 1 unit of this energy does not tell you about the other properties of the food that affect protein synthesis (muscle and tissue growth), inflammation (cellular damage and subsequent immune response), hormone stimulation or suppression, or addictive quality.
In other words, if you’re interested in how your food consumption today will affect better body composition, improved health, or optimum performance tomorrow, knowing how many degrees you could increase 1 kg of water by burning that food is functionally meaningless.
Unless you’re a water heater.[iii] Household appliances can stop reading now. The rest of us, however, should continue on.
If counting is helpful for a number of reasons, and calories are an inefficient measure of how our food is affecting our bodies, then what single number can we track that makes a difference?
What and Why to Track
Let’s pause for a moment before moving onto the “what” and talk about why. Why track at all?
Say, for instance, that I want to change my diet to be “healthier.” How do I go about that?
First, I should of course define what I mean exactly by “healthier”—what specific eating behavior I am interested in changing.
Then, I would need to boil down a complex task into simple parts. I would need to understand past success and failure. I would need to create new behaviors that foster success and overcome failure in the present. I would need to keep myself accountable to those changes to give them a chance to “stick,” a pattern which takes about 66 days in case you were wondering….[iv]
What does tracking do for us in this process? I could probably write an entire article about this alone; however, we won’t cover all that today.
In short, tracking one meaningful measure grants us the 3 As (another Alex original as far as I know): Analysis, Awareness, and Accountability.
Since human beings are notorious for remembering things inaccurately[v], tracking grants us some objective data about our past that allows us to ANALYZE the (past) times when we were successful and times we weren’t. Then we can repeat our successes and plan effectively to overcome failure.
Since reality can be distracting in the moment, tracking at least ONE meaningful measure creates a “trigger” that helps us focus and be AWARE of the choices we are making in the moment (present). As a result, we’re more likely to act in the way we originally planned.[vi]
And since regular ACCOUNTABILITY is necessary to adapt plans and garner support over the time period required to make new things automatic[vii], tracking grants us a measure to be accountable to (future).
Now for the WHAT…. What is worth actually tracking?
There’s a single number you can track that will give you a fantastic all-around picture of how your food is affecting every function in your body.
Start counting grams of sugar.
Sugar Affects Everything.
Unlike calories, how many grams of sugar you usually eat, ate today, and plan to eat in the future is directly related to body composition, health and performance. No matter your fitness goal, sugar consumption will affect it one way or another.
How? Let us count the ways…
There’s never been more understanding about how the quality vs. quantity of our food impacts metabolic functioning.[viii]A simple way to look at this is eating “real food” vs. “processed food.” Since the grams of added sugar are almost invariably higher in processed foods than in unprocessed foods, assessing your processed food intake will be one way to begin judging your sugar consumption.[ix]
There are more cells in and on your body that are not yours than there are which actually, inherently belong to YOU. It’s even possible that gut bacteria determines your body composition more than how much you eat![x] Since sugar consumption supports the growth of “bad” bacteria, tracking sugar consumption can help you change the composition of your gut, and, subsequently, your body composition for the better.[xi]
High amounts of sugar in the bloodstream cause damage to soft tissues in the body, which triggers cholesterol production, hardening of arterial walls, and a heightened immune response.[xii] Tracking (and reducing) sugar can reduce internal stress in the body so it can shift its restorative energies to the effects of your no-doubt ample external stressors (or, even better, to your basic health and performance).
Consuming sugary, high-glycemic foods spikes blood insulin levels, which causes the body to store fat rather that use it. Tracking (and reducing) grams of sugar can keep your body in a state of fat-burning rather than fat-storing throughout the day![xiii]
Sugar consumption can be hard to break because of its addictive qualities. Some have compared the addictive potency of sugar to that of cocaine, heroine and nicotine.[xiv] Tracking sugar can help you understand the reality of your sugar consumption and face cravings head-on.[xv]
Heart disease is the number one cause of death across the globe. Because of its negative cascading effect into so many systems, the American Heart Association has even weighed in on added sugar. The average man should eat no more than 37 grams and the average women no more than 25 grams per day in order to maintain low risk for heart disease.[xvi]Knowing that the average American consumes 110 grams per day tells us we have work to do! As if you needed any more reasons to start tracking sugar…
When it comes to eating “healthily,” things can easily become overly complicated.
Stop counting calories. Start counting sugar intake instead, and you’ll see greater returns for all your health, weight loss and performance goals.
If you want to learn more about how we design our programs to support fitness and performance using our Core 3 Training™ methodologies,
Download the Core 3 Training Manual.