Let’s discuss the pink elephant in the room when it comes to weight control. When was the last time that calories were discussed in a positive light? Everywhere you look – you see articles written about how to minimize, decrease, eliminate and avoid extra calories. We are saturated with it. I completely understand the general premise behind these suggestions. Adults and children are more obese than ever due to calorie imbalance, so the logical recommendation is to find ways to decrease extra calories for weight management.
But what does the constant bombardment of painting a negative light on calories do for our society? I will tell you what it does – it makes most people fearful of calories and too much fear has never helped anyone. I see it every day in my private practice. We need to put calories in perspective, and we need to see the potential of what we can do with quality calories.
Calories, or kilocalories in the biochemistry world, is a measure of energy needed to increase the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. It is literally the way your body maintains energy to survive. Without calories, our bodies would die. It is an obvious statement, but it’s important to remember that calories are actually a good thing. Too many calories taken into the body without sufficient calories expended will yield weight gain. On the other hand, not enough calories taken in as compared to energy expended will yield weight loss. With children, inadequate calorie intake will stunt their growth so it is essential to get them back on track.
Now here is the fundamental problem that I have with many people these days. Many health-minded adults have been groomed to be afraid of calories. If you do not take in sufficient amount of calories, these things may occur:
- Inability to build lean muscle, which is what drives the rate at which you burn calories
- Lack of motivation to be very active
- The body may not have enough energy to support basic functions such as fighting off illness or infection
- Fatigue, irritability, insomnia that can confused for depression (seen frequently)
- Inadequate intake of vitamins and minerals (resulting in other negative symptoms and issues)
For those of you that know me, you know I am a huge promoter of a very active lifestyle. I encourage regular vigorous activities most days of the week, and believe in fighting to maintain muscle by breaking it down through strength training 3-5 days per week. Muscle requires calories to build and/or maintain.
The next time you go to the grocery store, don’t just look at total calories of a food. Look at the quality of those calories – i.e., how much nutrients your body will receive for the calories in that food. A good example of this is comparing a piece of white bread with a piece of whole grain bread. In general, whole grain bread will be higher in calories. Why? It is because there are many more wonderful nutrients in whole grain bread. You literally have the whole grain. White bread has been stripped from many of those nutrients and that removes calories. There are many higher calorie foods that contribute excellent nutrients and health benefits including nuts, avocado, fatty fish and heart healthy oils like canola and olive oils. Take in the quality calories and use those calories to lead an active lifestyle.
If you need to figure out how many calories your body needs, go to the Daily Food Plans on the ChooseMyPlate.gov website. Keep in mind that these are only general recommendations and that each person may differ slightly. Your local Registered Dietitian can help you tailor a very specific number customized for you. The key is to get the right amount throughout your active day and choosing quality calories specific to your lifestyle.
Bottom line: do not fear calories, but instead balance them appropriately with an active, adventurous lifestyle. We need to get this right in order to be on the right cycle of wellness.