Calories are simply units of measure. They aren’t actually things in and of themselves; they are labels for other things, just like how an inch really isn’t anything, but it measures the distance between two points.
So what do calories measure?
Easy: they measure energy.
Yup, the evil calorie – the bane of the dieter’s existence – is really just a 3-syllable label for energy.
And it’s important to highlight this, because the body itself, despite its vast intelligence (much of which medical science cannot yet understand, only appreciate in awe) does not really do a very intelligent job of distinguishing good energy from bad.
Actually, to be blunt, the body doesn’t care about where the energy comes from. Let’s explore this a little more, because it’s very important to the overall understanding of how to boost your metabolism, particularly when we look at food choices.
In our choice-laden grocery stores, with dozens of varieties of foods – hundreds, perhaps – there seems to be a fairly clear awareness of what’s good food, and what’s bad or junk
For example, we don’t need a book to remind us that, all else being equal, a plum is a good food, whereas a tub of thick and creamy double-fudge ice cream is a bad food.
Not bad tasting, of course; but, really, you won’t find many fit people eating a vat of ice cream a day, for obvious reasons. So what does this have to do with calories and energy?
It’s this: while you and I can evaluate our food choices and say that something (like a plum) is a healthy source of energy, and something else (like a tub of ice cream) is an unhealthy source of energy, the body doesn’t evaluate. Really.
It sounds strange and amazing, but the body really doesn’t care. To the body, energy is energy. It takes whatever it gets, and doesn’t really know that some foods are healthier than others. It’s kind of like a garbage disposal: it takes what you put down it, whether it should go down or not.
So let’s apply this to the body, and to weight gain. When the body receives a calorie – which, as we know, is merely a label for energy – it must do something with that energy.
In other words, putting all other nutrients and minerals aside, if a plum delivers 100 calories to the body, it has to accept those 100 calories. The same goes for 500 calories from a (small) tub of ice cream: those 500 calories have to be dealt with.
Now, the body does two things to that energy: it either metabolizes it via anabolism, or it metabolizes it via catabolism. That is, it will either convert the energy (calories) into cells/tissue, or it will use that energy (calories) to break down cells.
Now the link between calories/energy, metabolism, and weight loss becomes rather clear and direct.
When there is an excess of energy, and the body can’t use this energy to deal with any needs at the time, it will be forced to create cells with that extra energy. It has to.
It doesn’t necessarily want to, but after figuring out that the energy can’t be used to do anything (such as help you exercise or digest some food), it has to turn it into cells through anabolism.
And those extra cells? Yup, you guessed it: added weight!
In a nutshell (and nuts have lots of calories by the way, so watch out and eat them in small portions…), the whole calorie/metabolism/weight gain thing is really just about excess energy.
When there are too many calories in the body – that is, when there’s too much energy from food – then the body transforms those calories into stuff.
And that stuff, most of the time, is fat. Sometimes, of course, those extra calories are transformed into muscle; and this is usually a good thing for those watching their weight or trying to maintain an optimal body fat ratio.
In fact, because muscles require calories to maintain, people with strong muscle tone burn calories without actually doing anything; their metabolism burns it for them.
This is the primary reason why exercising and building lean muscle is part of an overall program to boost your metabolism; because the more lean muscle you have, the more places excess calories can go before they’re turned into fat.
The word calorie has a bad rap. We constantly come across calorie reduced or low calorie foods. And it’s not uncommon to overhear someone gasp about the immense calorie content of certain foods, such as a rich and creamy desert, or a giant fast food
All of this anti-calorie rhetoric therefore has made a lot of us pretty calorie-phobic; as soon as we see something that has lots of them, we run away. But is this wise?
Yes and no. Yes, it’s wise in the sense that avoiding that double-layer chocolate fudge cake for desert is probably a good idea (actually, scratch that; it is a good idea).
The calories that come from the cake are really going to be the so-called empty calorie kind; which means that there’s no real nutritional value that your body can squeeze out and make use of.
But in the bigger picture, it’s unwise for your metabolism to become calorie-avoidant.
Why? Because your body is a marvelous machine that tries, at all times, to do what it can to make your life easier.
Indeed, while it may not always function at optimal levels (for a variety of reasons, including genetics), it still tries to do its very best. The body, for all of its limitations and so forth, is not a lazy thing!
With this in mind, the body is always trying to keep is alive and functioning in the manner that it deems to be healthiest.
And that’s why if you suddenly decrease the amount of calories that you need, your body won’t try to do more with less. In other words, your body won’t respond in the way that you want it to: it won’t necessarily provoke catabolism and thus reduce weight and fat cells.
Instead, your smart and wise body will try to keep you alive by slowing down its metabolism. It will simply believe that something is wrong – maybe you’re trapped somewhere without food – and it will just begin to become very stingy with energy.
So what’s the end result? If your body needs 2000 calories a day to survive, and you suddenly give it only 1000, it won’t begin to burn off 1000 calories worth of cells that you have lying around on your love handles.
Instead, your body will slow down its metabolism. It will really try and get as much energy out of those 1000 calories, because it doesn’t want to waste anything.
Physically, you’ll naturally feel more tired because your body is being very miserly with energy, and will devote its 1000-calorie ration to essential systems, like blood and oxygen supply (and others).
Metabolically, you won’t be burning off extra calories. In fact, you can actually gain weight by dramatically reducing your calorie intake!
The flipside of this, of course, is that you should consume a daily caloric intake that is proportionate to your body size, type, and weight loss goals.
And then, once you determine the amount of calories that you need (probably with the aid of a qualified nutritionist or fitness expert); you can provide that to your body via healthy, efficient calories.
For example, if your body needs 1500 calories per day, and one slice of double-fudge chocolate cake delivers a whopping 500 of those, then you can see that eating just one of these slices will take up a full 1/3rd of your daily caloric needs; and that’s not good!
On the other hand, you can see that drinking a tasty fruit smoothy made with yogurt and nuts can deliver half as many calories, but provide you with essential nutrients, vitamins, and other elements that your body needs to healthily do its work.