Why Counting Calories is Silly
In May of 2002, I weighed in at a svelte 5’9” and 155 lbs. As of yesterday I weighed in at 5’10” and 165 lbs. Though my body has gone through many changes over the last 11 years, I’ve managed to maintain a healthy body weight despite the fact that my metabolism should be showing signs of slowing.
The interesting thing is, I often live in 2 worlds. My family thinks that I eat a perfect diet of nothing but fruits, vegetables, and lean meats, while counting each and every gram of sugar that gets consumed. On the other end, my friends see me eating pizza and snacking on all but the last bit of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. Two seemingly conflicting views of the same person. What gives?
As a Structural Chiropractor, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some extremely bright minds in the fitness and nutrition world. One of the best lessons I’ve ever learned is this:
Counting calories is silly….for the most part
Now before everyone starts to tell me about the bad advice I’m giving, hear me out. Calories in vs calories out does have an impact, but what’s starting to become more important is the way our body chemistry reacts to particular foods and exercises.
For example, there are two main biochemical processes that help regulate energy storage. One is called glycolysis and the other is called gluconeogenesis. Now the names really aren’t that important. What’s important to know is that when your one prepares the body for energy storage (glycolysis) while the other promotes energy usage (gluconeogenesis). Depending on what kind of fuel you put into your body, and how much energy your body utilizes for your day to day activities primes your metabolism.
So what does that mean in English Dr. Chung? What that means is, that you can have a direct impact on your metabolism by the types of food you put into your body and how much you use your body. Anything that we do sends a signal into our nervous system to release hormones and chemical messengers to prepare the body for the future. Here are a couple of easy rules to keep in mind.
- 1. Sugar/starches releases insulin which promotes energy (FAT) storage
I remember when I was a kid in my elementary school health classes that if we wanted better energy as an athlete, we need more pasta because it allows us to store energy. That was why the bottom of the food pyramid had bread, grain, and pasta at the base, so we would consume more of it.
Now for an athlete, that might be okay, but most of us are not athletes. One of the most important things that it left out is that energy storage in the body primarily happens in the form of F-A-T. Sure, our muscles get fuel from stored energy called glycogen, but our bodies can only store so much glycogen before we start turning towards triglycerides and fat.
So what has happened since then? We had a whole generation of people eating way more stored energy then they could possibly burn off. The end result is an obesity epidemic. While I’m not strictly into a Paleo/Atkins/Ketogenic type diet, I think it would serve a great majority of people to drastically reduce their sugar and starch consumption.
2. Exercise releases growth hormone which leads to Energy Usage
Exercise, especially of high intensity, sends signals for your brain to release growth hormone. Not the artificial, Barry Bonds type growth hormone, but the one that is found normally in your body all of the time. This same growth hormone tells the liver to go into gluconeogenesis which starts making plans to release the energy that is being stored. The result is the body dipping into its glycogen and fat stores in order to accommodate for the body’s needs.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t permission for people to follow a dogmatic nutrition or exercise program. I’m just asking you to think about the impact that your actions have on your body. I’m no nutrition expert, but if you want to know more, check out Robb Wolf’s blog. Here’s one of my favorite posts. He brings a rational and scientific view that’s not often seen in the world of nutrition.
Any change into the neuro-endocrine system will create lasting changes in the body. The thing is, our nervous system and endocrine systems are primed based on habits. New habits take time to take place. Just like how Rome wasn’t built in a day, a spine doesn’t change overnight, your body’s programming takes about 90 days for a pattern to take place. Once you’ve set new patterns, then you can make CHOICES for when you want to eat poorly or be lazy without experiencing some of the severe consequences.
If we can push through those 90 days, give ourselves some positive reinforcement for those changes. Your body may thank you for it in the long run. Rather than counting calories, or worrying about what that next piece of will do to your caloric intake, take a moment to figure out how this food may impact your metabolism. Don’t play tedious, play smart.