The next time you're tempted by that pizza with it's pepperoni glistening with grease and coagulated cheese, ask yourself: am I feeding my body or failing it?
You are what you eat.
In this series of articles we will explore the components that make up the foods we eat, starting in broadest terms with the calories that foods are composed of and then narrowing the scope to look at the smaller components and the different contributions that they make towards health. Trying to navigate the quagmire of misinformation in the realm of nutrition is challenging, but we will also try to cut through as many misconceptions as we can in this article series to get to the roots of sound nutrition practices.
Nutrition is the foundation of health. While all good health practices work synergistically with each other, if you look close enough, you will find that nutrition is the well-spring of all other health. Your body cannot move well without proper fuel, your mind cannot find clarity without nourishment, your health will not extend into your middle-ages and beyond if you don’t eat the right foods; without all these factors in place, you will not be happy and fulfilled in your life. Eating well is at the centre of it all.
Nutrition and Calories
Nutrition essentially refers to all of the processes by which plants or animals, including humans, take in and utilize food substances for growth, the production of energy, and the replacement of cells in our body.
In the simplest terms, nutrients provide the energy that makes us go in the same way that gas makes your car move (or electricity if you are fancy and drive a Tesla).
When most people think of nutrition, they think of the energy that is contained within foods and nutrients, which is most often measured in calories (often shortened to Cal or kcal). Calories, as they relate to food, get transformed in the body into usable energy for all of the processes in the cells of our body that allow us to function, known as metabolism. Each individual needs to consume a specific amount of calories on a daily basis in order maintain all the cells in their body. When more calories than this are consumed, the body will store this excess energy in fat cells so that there will be some extra fuel to draw from during times of starvation. When less calories are consumed than are needed to maintain metabolism, body fat and other tissues will start to break down in order to preserve essential bodily functions. From an energy standpoint, all it takes to lose weight is to consume less calories than your body regularly needs.
A calorie is a calorie?
Like all industries, nutrition falls prey to guru-laden opinions that constantly shift the media spotlight. You may be familiar with the adage that all calories are created equal, or calories in versus calories out is all the matters in determining your weight. The media portrayal of this idea flip-flops with whatever new diet book has hit the shelves. This has even been demonstrated and popularized in media with ‘experiments' like the Twinkie Diet. The person who wrote about the Twinkie Diet basically ate nothing but Twinkies and other junk food and kept his caloric intake below maintenance level so that he would lose weight. There’s also proponents of the popular fitness diet IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) that hold similar views with all calories being created equal and you can consume whatever you want as long as it fits within your required macronutrients. If all you care about is how much you weigh this is fine, but as you’ll see as this series progresses, there is much more involved in health and nutrition than just the calories that make up our foods.
How many calories should I consume?
This is a highly individualized question to answer with many factors coming into play. Individual differences is the primary reasons that anyone looking for dramatic changes in bodyweight, or simply overall health, should consult with an experienced nutrition coach or even a registered dietitian, to guide them on their way. Someone who has studied nutrition or dietetics and has experience working with clients will be much better at fine-tuning your needs than a cookie-cutter program in the latest fad diet book. When individual variation is included, that’s a better nutrition plan to consider. As an example of where I suggest people start is three points, depending on the goal:
- weight loss - multiply bodyweight in pounds by 12
- weight maintenance - multiply bodyweight in pounds by 14
- weight gain - multiply bodyweight in pounds by 16
The numbers that these values give you represent a pretty good starting point estimate of how many calories you will want to consume daily, depending on which goal you have chosen.
Calories are fairly simple. Strive to consume a certain number each day and your body will tend to lean towards whatever goal you are looking to achieve. In practice, this doesn’t work very well and lacks an emphasis on optimizing health at the same time.