fruit face.jpeg

don't count calories

make your calories count

margie sanchez, science contributor

     Have any of you ever gone on a “diet”?  Have any of you never been on a “diet”? The latter is probably a more compelling question.  Except for the few superbly physically fit or the rare individuals with an accelerated metabolism, all the adults I know have tried dieting, at least once, in an effort to shed unwanted pounds. Some try quirky things like the cabbage soup diet. There are all kinds of diets that range from the trendy gimmicks to the truly bizarre regimens. Ever hear of the Paleolithic diet? How about the Atkins diet? South Beach diet?

I am not disparaging diets that result in the adoption of better eating habit regardless of the amount of weight lost. However, most diets are designed for short term utilization only. So, it’s no surprise that they usually result in only short term weight loss because they do not teach people how to eat well to prevent weight gain once the dieter goes off that diet. These diets are all about deprivation, not necessarily nutrition. By the way, what is a diet?

     By the strictest biological terms, a diet is defined as the natural sources of food that meet the nutritional needs of an organism for optimal health. A carnivore like a tiger or wolf require meat to survive and thrive. An herbivore like a gorilla or zebra obtains its nutritional requirements from grasses, leaves, roots, and other plant-based sources. Then there are the omnivores like chimpanzees, possums, and humans. We eat everything!  The best foods for any organism, including humans, are the ones that exist naturally in their native environment.

For instance, whales eat krill or plankton if they are baleen whales, or fish and other aquatic animals like seals if they are toothed whales. Their food source is located in their natural habitat- the ocean, of course. Gorillas eat a vegetarian based diet based on their species and natural habitat. In other words, the diet of a mountain gorilla differs somewhat from that of a lowland gorilla because of variant environments.

      We humans used to eat food fresh off the farm or ranch.  And that meant different things across the globe depending on climate, tradition, and species of animals or crops native to the area. But urbanization significantly impacted the average human diet a long, long time ago. Most of us really need to rethink the word “diet” and all its connotations. If we want to lose weight and improve our quality of life, we have to think about food in terms of its contribution to our health, not only in calories, but in terms of the nutrients it provides. That means we have to think about long term consequences. The only way to lose weight is to either consume fewer calories than we burn or burn more calories than we consume. But how we accomplish that determines not only if we lose weight and keep it off, but how it ultimately impacts our health.

      Fad and crash diets don’t work because most people resume their former regimen of junk food and unhealthy habits once they reach their weight goal. Or many give up because the deprivation of most diets is simply too difficult or unreasonable. The only diets that really help anyone to lose weight and keep it off are the diets that train a person how to eat for life.  That means learning how to appreciate and enjoy fresh foods, organic, and in the simplest state possible.

      Does that mean you should never eat a sticky bun, bagel and cream cheese, or bag of chips? No, it means that you must understand that these foods supply “empty” calories and should be only an occasional treat, not your daily regimen. It means that our normal “diet” should be a healthy regimen that we can adhere to for the rest of our lives. In other words, we have to truly understand the value of the foods we consume, not just how many calories we consume. Instead of counting calories, we should look for foods that provide calories loaded with nutrients. In other words, don’t count calories, make your calories count.

     What is a calorie? The scientific definition of a calorie is a unit of energy. It is the amount of energy necessary to raise the temperature of one gram of water by 1 degree centigrade at a pressure of 1 atmosphere.  Physicists prefer the unit joule. Conversion from calories to joules is pretty simple:

1 cal = 4.184 J, or 1 J = 0.239 cal

Biologists and chemists usually convert calories to kilocalories since it’s easier to calculate with smaller numbers. 1000 calories = 1 kilocalorie. Therefore, if we say that the daily requirement of calories for an average adult is 2,500 calories, we can convert those calories to 2.5 kcal. Cool, huh?! In biochemistry, cellular biology, and molecular biology energy changes are sometimes measured per mole, and the most common forms of energy units are calories or kilocalories per mole:

cal/mol or kcal/mol

where mole represents the amount of any substance whose mass –its molar mass- is equal to the molecular or formula mass of that substance in grams. For most of you, the cal/mol and kcal/mol is inconsequential unless you really want to know the basic value of a compound in a food substance relative to its mass. For most of us, the most relevant information about the food we eat is its contribution to our health in addition to the calories supplied. Simply phrased, it’s just as important to know what and how much nutrition the food we consume provides as well as how much energy we derive from it.