Food Freedom Friday Edition 44

Calorie Math or Myth?

‘The problem with common sense is that it is not too common’ – Mark Twain

The conventional wisdom around diet and weight loss that we are constantly and consistently bombarded with from the majority of nutritionists and doctors is mostly wrong. If their advice and recommendations were correct and easy to follow, we would all be healthy and able to maintain a trim waistline (or other body part). The media messages based on these suggestions often cause even greater confusion. It is based on many nutrition misconceptions, dietary smoke and mirrors. 

The biggest misconception of all is that a calorie is a calorie, all calories are created equal. Really? I don’t think so, and this is why:

Just think about it. Would 500 calories of broccoli and 500 calories of your favorite carbonated beverage have the same effect on your body? Intuitively, we all know that those 2 equal amounts of calories are nowhere near the same nutritionally!

That well used phrase, calories in must equal calories out is simply wrong. It is unfortunate the the medical profession, nutritionists, our government, the media and, of course, the manufactured food industry are still actively promoting and standing behind the outdated, illogical, scientifically disproven data that all calories are equal when it comes to energy in the body

This theory stems from Newton’s first law of thermodynamics which states that the energy of an isolated system is constant. So, to explain, in a closed system, an isolated setting, the 500 calories of broccoli and soda would release the same amount of energy. Bear in mind though, this is an isolated system. Living, breathing, digesting, moving organisms are not isolated systems. When you eat food (or food-like substances), the ‘isolated system’ part of Newton’s first law no longer applies. Your body is a complex, adaptive system, interacting with and transforming every mouthful you consume.

I am going to explain how both those 500 calories of carbonated beverage and 500 calories of broccoli are treated by your body:

The Soda:

500 calories of soda is the amount in 1.185 liters, an extra-large fountain drink. It’s not uncommon for someone to consume this amount, think movie theater. This soda is made up primarily of carbohydrates, in the form of sugar, 125g or about 30 teaspoons to be precise. The fiber-free fructose and glucose are quickly absorbed by your gut. The glucose spikes your blood sugar, this is turn raises your insulin levels to attempt to restore regular blood sugar levels. High insulin levels increase the storage of belly fat, raise triglycerides (the fat molecules in your blood), raise blood pressure, increase inflammation and are a contributing factor in low male testosterone and female infertility.

Insulin also blocks your appetite control hormone called leptin and thus increases your appetite, making you feel hungrier. Significantly high insulin levels over a period of time can create leptin resistance, not allowing your brain to get the signal that you are full. Instead, it thinks you are starving. To top it off, sugar triggers your pleasure-based reward center in the brain, driving you to consume more sugar, much like fuelling an addiction.

The fructose adds more fuel to the fire. Fructose is metabolized by the liver, where it is manufactured into fat. This triggers the release of more insulin, resulting in chronically elevated blood insulin levels, driving your body to store much of what you eat as belly fat (the most dangerous type of fat). Your liver gets fatty, generating inflammation, which stimulates further fat storage along with a host of other symptoms. Furthermore, fructose does not send informational feedback to the brain, signaling that a load of calories was just consumed, nor does it reduce appetite as it does not stimulate the appetite hormone ghrelin.

This is how 500 calories of soda can set the stage for a biochemical disaster. Soda contains no fiber, vitamins, minerals or nutrients to help your body process the calories you are ingesting. These are truly ‘empty calories’, devoid of any nutritional value. Your body has no ability to identify this soda as food, allowing you to eat more throughout the day. Your taste buds also get damaged and require extra sweetness to stimulate the sweet tasting area. If you don’t believe me, cut out all sugars for a week and then try some berries. You will notice how sweet they suddenly taste.

The Broccoli:

As with the soda, the 500 calories of broccoli are made up primarily of carbohydrates. I am going to clarify the varying characteristics of carbohydrates as these will factor significantly in what I am demonstrating.

All carbohydrates are plant-based compounds comprised of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. There are many varieties, but can technically be divided into sugars or starches, both of which convert to sugar in your body. The difference occurs in how they affect your blood sugar. High-fiber, low-sugar carbohydrates such as broccoli are slowly digested and do not lead to spikes in both blood sugar and insulin, while table sugar and bread are quickly digested which swiftly raise your blood sugar. Here is the difference – slow digesting carbohydrates heal rather than stimulate inflammation.

500 calories of broccoli is 14 cups of the vegetable, containing 45 g of fiber. Broccoli is 23 percent protein, 9 percent fat, and 68 percent carbohydrate, or 340 calories from said carbohydrates. The sugar component found in those 14 cups of broccoli is the equivalent of only 1 teaspoon. The remaining carbohydrate is a low-glycemic (slow to raise blood sugar levels), slowly absorbing type found in all non-starchy vegetables.

It would also be incredibly difficult to consume 14 cups of broccoli, it would not fit in your stomach, or not comfortably anyway! For argument’s sake let’s assume you could eat that amount, those 14 cups contain so much fiber that very few of those calories would actually be absorbed, and those that were, would be absorbed at a very slow rate. There would be no blood sugar spike, no increased insulin level, no fatty deposits in your belly and your liver and no biochemical chaos. Your stomach would distend (this is not the same as the bloat from carbonation) and signals would be sent to your brain that you were full. Your addiction reward center would not be triggered and your hunger appetite would be satiated. You may also experience further benefits: optimized metabolism reduced inflammation and boosted detoxification. The phytonutrients (plant based nutrients) in broccoli boost the ability of your liver to detoxify environmental chemicals, and are powerful anti-inflammatories. Broccoli also contains high levels of vitamin C and folate, which protect against cancer and heart disease.

What I am hoping you now understand is that a calorie is NOT a calorie. All calories are NOT equal and the same number of calories from different foods can have very diverse biological effects on your body.

To summarize, some calories are addictive, others healing, some fattening, some metabolism-boosting. Food is not just made up of calories, food contains information. Every bite, every mouthful sends a set of coded instructions to your brain and your body, creating more health and ease, or setting the stage for dis-ease.

Michal Ofer