Understanding Calories And Fat Loss
Every substance’s ability to raise the temperature of water could be measured in joules per gram; these measurements would show how many degrees one gram of a substance could raise the temperature of water. Because (usually) one gram of a substance could raise the temperature of water by a substantial amount of joules, normal people who don’t want to deal with huge numbers are fortunate enough to use another system of measurement, Calories.
One calorie is 4.184 joules, and one thousand calories is a Calorie. And that’s the kind of Calorie we’re talking about, the capital-C Calorie kind, the sort that you have one and a half of in a tic-tac.
So let’s get this straight. A Calorie is nothing but a way to measure something’s ability to create heat. It is not something you can touch; it is not something you can (arguably) taste. It is therefore not something you can put into or take out of food.
Low-cal foods are not regular foods with the calories removed, they are foods created out of different ingredients that do not have the propensity to create as much heat. And although we wish it were true, on your birthday, the birthday cake still has just as many Calories as it has on any other day of the year.
I used to dream there was a magic vacuum that could suck the Calories out of food; when I found out there wasn’t one, I decided I would invent it, and then I discovered that a method for deleting calories had already been discovered, and it was called “exercise.”
I’m not just talking about running on the treadmill exercise. I’m talking about “any time you move your body voluntarily” exercise. You, like water, need Calories to create energy and heat to fuel and propel your body. You can use these Calories in three basic ways:
- Involuntary movement: the functions of just being alive, like a heartbeat, brain function, etc.
- Voluntary movement: from typing this article to lifting weights to talking to a friend.
- Eating: the energy needed to break down food.
Each of these forms of “exercise” uses calories. Calories that your body does not immediately use it puts into storage for later use. This is not a bad thing. If you didn’t have any calories in storage, you would die, as your body would have nothing to fuel its functional needs when you were not eating. The body has many different ways that it can store calories.
It can store them as glycogen (a complex carbohydrate within your muscles), as liver glucose (sugar in your liver), as tissue (muscles, bones, etc.), or as fat (adipose cells under the skin). Obviously we prefer the body to store the calories in the first three ways as opposed to the last one. We’ll talk more about how we can manipulate this storage in a minute, but first let’s talk a little more about calories.
Understanding Macronutrients and Insulin To Lose Fat
Everything has a “Caloric potential.” That is, all foods have calories. Even celery. Even sugar-free gum. We, however, are very lucky that foods can generally be classified into three groups of macronutrients, and each gram of these nutrients contains the exact same amount of calories. The main three macronutrient groups are carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Let’s start by discussing carbohydrates. No matter what carbohydrate it is – whether it’s in a lollipop, bread, pasta, or an orange – all carbohydrates have 4 calories/gram. That means that if you break down a gram of this food, it will create 4 Calories of energy/heat.
So if you are looking at a slice of bread with 40 calories and 10 grams of carbohydrates, you can be sure that all of the calories in that slice of bread come from carbohydrates, because 40 divided by 10 is 4. But here’s the kicker. All carbohydrates are not created equally. We have simple carbohydrates (monosaccharides and disaccharides: the sugars), complex carbohydrates (long chains of carbohydrate molecules), and fibers.
Examples of simple carbohydrates are glucose, fructose, and galactose. Your body’s favorite sugar is glucose. It knows how to use glucose, and glucose is the only carbohydrate your body breaks down for energy.
All the other carbohydrates your body must modify through chemical processes to make glucose so that it can use it for energy. In fact, your body must modify all nutrients into glucose before they can be used for energy.
Examples of disaccharides are sucrose, maltose, and lactose. Sucrose is table sugar, maltose is the sugar you find in many starches, and lactose is the sugar in milk. Disaccharides are just two monosaccharides hanging out with one another. The body can split them and get monosaccharides that it can then convert to glucose for energy.
Some foods have more complex sugars in them; these are called starches. Foods such as sweet potatoes, wheat, and oatmeal are great examples of starches. It is much harder for the body to get energy from starches simply because it has to work harder to break up all those molecules into glucose that it can use.
I hope you are starting to see a pattern here. The longer and more complicated the sugar, the harder it is for the body to get energy from it. The more the body has to work to get energy from carbohydrates, the more energy it uses overall.
Therefore, more complex carbohydrates are “better for you” because you have to use calories to get the calories in them. And there’s even one more level of carbohydrate: fiber.
Fiber is a carbohydrate your body cannot digest. That means: you cannot break down the carbohydrates in fiber and get out glucose to use for energy. This is why people will say celery is a calorie-free food; it is almost all fiber, so even though it has calories, you cannot use them.
So let’s look at some examples, how about a candy versus oatmeal? When you eat the candy, your body doesn’t have to do much work to break down the disaccharide sucrose that is in the candy. So you immediately get a rush of energy (sugar high) from the candy.
If you use that energy in exercise, you won’t end up storing much of that glucose. But if you don’t use it, your body will say, I’ve got some extra glucose, I guess I’ll just go ahead and put it in the muscle glycogen stores. When those are full up, it will say, “well, I’ve still got some leftover, let’s send it to the liver.” And when that’s full it will say, “well, might as well store the rest of this as fat. I’m not really using it right now, so maybe I’m going into hibernation. I better keep it around for later use.”
Now, with a bowl of oatmeal, the body is facing both fiber and starches. It has to work very hard to break down the starches. And it looks at the fiber and thinks, well, I wish I could break you down, so I’ll give it a try. So it works at the fiber (to no avail, hence why oatmeal makes you use the restroom since you’ve got to get the fiber out of your system somehow), and it works at the starch, which it eventually is able to use. And it takes time to do this.
So oatmeal gives you more sustained energy over time. The result is that you have more time to use up the energy you are getting from the carbohydrates before they are stored as fat.
So the bottom line on carbohydrates: the more complex it is, the less likely it is to make you fat, provided that you are engaging in exercise, which you always are.
Now on to fats. We are deathly afraid of fats, thanks to the 1980’s and terrible pasta diets. Let me first say one thing: fats are not bad. What makes people scared of fat is that fat contains 9 calories per gram. So if you eat 1000 grams of food a day, and all of it is from fats, you’ll be eating 9000 calories a day, whereas if you eat all of it from carbohydrates, you’ll be eating 4000 calories per day. However, no one eats a serving of butter the same size as a serving of pasta. That’s unreasonable and stupid. So there is no reason to fear fats, because we don’t eat as much of them!
Fat, in fact, has many values. First of all, it is good for your heart, joints, and brain. It keeps your digestive tract lubricated. It can be made into hormones. And best of all, when your body is making energy from glucose, it needs fats to provide the enzymes to complete that energy cycle. So you can’t burn fats without fats.
What many people fear about fats is other micronutrients found in foods that contain lots of fats, like cholesterol and sodium. The key is to understand that there are different sorts of fats, and knowing these sorts of fats will help you to choose fats without bad side effects.
There are unsaturated fats and saturated fats. A fat, also known as a lipid, looks sort of like a two-tailed sperm. Each of the “tails” of the fat is a long chain of carbon atoms. The more hydrogen atoms that are bonded to these carbon atoms, the more “saturated” a fat is.
So unsaturated fats do not have hydrogen atoms bonded to them as do saturated fats. This matters because, like in the case of carbohydrates, the more complex a molecule is, the harder it is to break down.
So brilliant men in the grocery industry discovered that by putting lots of saturated fats into foods, the foods wouldn’t decay as quickly! It was economical and great for them, but for your body, this causes trouble. Since the body needs to get energy from glucose, it must be able to break down the fats into enzymes it can use to metabolize glucose, or it must convert the fats into ketones (a molecule the body can “sort of” use for energy).
Saturated fats are much harder to break down than unsaturated fats. So as a result, your body just says, “I’ll just store these fats, since they are too hard to break down.” The body would rather break down carbohydrates and proteins than fats. They are just easier to use. Therefore, people believe that saturated fats make them fat, because saturated fats are the most likely to be stored as fats.
We do need some saturated fats to get essential nutrients like conjugated linoleic acid, and also there are minerals present in many foods containing saturated fats that are very important for health; however, we should try to have mostly unsaturated or very lightly saturated fats.
A good way to judge whether or not a fat is saturated is to look at its source. Fats from seeds and nuts are generally unsaturated. Fats from plants (corn oil, palm oil) are generally somewhat saturated, fats from animals are more saturated, and fats made by man (partially hydrogenated corn oils) are highly saturated. So pick your fat sources accordingly.
Remember, fats are necessary and good, and you are more likely to not store fat as fat if you choose mostly unsaturated or lowly saturated sources.
Next comes protein. In my opinion, and in the opinion of the Hippocratic oath, protein is THE MOST IMPORTANT. Protein is key. Protein is everything. Protein contains a wonderful thing that NO OTHER MACRONUTRIENT contains: nitrogen. Nitrogen?
What’s so great about nitrogen? Your body cannot synthesize body tissue without nitrogen. So if you need to repair anything (tired muscles, wounds, etc.) and you don’t have an adequate supply of nitrogen coming in from your diet, guess what, your body turns to the most available source of nitrogen it can find. Itself. It’s own muscles.
Your body will eat its own muscles before it lets you go unrepaired. That’s a lovely thought, isn’t it? But I know, right now you want to know about Calories. Well, protein has 4 Calories per gram. This is not incredibly important to know, except when you are reading food labels. What is important to know is the thing about nitrogen. It comes down to our other favorite misunderstood term, “exercise.”
In the most microscopic scale, exercise begins with a little blobby thing in your tissue cells called “mitochondria.” The mitochondria are constantly changing the amount of hydrogen within themselves relative to the cytoplasm (a sort of bath that they are floating in) so that they can create a hydrogen gradient, which, like a physical gradient created by a sloped pipe, allows movement to occur and energy to be created.
It has several different ways it can do this, some more complex than others, some requiring fats as enzymes to break down glucose, some needing creatine, etc. This process happens in your tissue cells primarily. And it happens mostly in the tissue cells that need energy. Like muscle cells.
I mean, have you ever seen your fat go lift a weight? No. That is your muscle’s job. So, the more tissue cells you have, especially muscle cells, the more energy you use. And the more energy you use, the more calories you burn through exercise.
So let’s say you are eating ONLY carbohydrates and fats. You have some great workouts and you have a lot of energy, but it seems like your body just isn’t getting toned. And you find that you are actually gaining weight! Why? Why do you think this is happening?
After you workout, your muscles have little tears in them that need to be repaired. Since you are not eating protein, your body searches for nitrogen. It can’t seem to locate any in your diet, so it turns to the next available source. Eureka! It says. I’ve found some, right here, in my own muscles.
I’ll just break these down and fix up my injured tissues. Well, when it breaks down those muscles, those mitochondria (and their energy using capacity) are gone. So you are not using up as much energy overall. Therefore, your metabolism drops, and you burn less calories overall. And since a Calorie is a unit of heat, and since any potential energy you take in as food that is not used has to go somewhere (to storage), you end up storing these Calories as glycogen and fat.
This, then, is the key. You must eat an adequate amount of protein. You can even eat extra protein. But you must NOT eat too little protein. Different folks will argue that too much protein can create havoc your body.
There have been studies done in variable circumstances that show that too much nitrogen may harm the liver. Then again, there have been studies done that show that excess nitrogen is just fine. The fact is, any nitrogen you don’t use you will be excreted, and the other molecules in protein your body will either use or store, as it is capable of breaking down protein just like it can break down carbohydrates. That’s right.
The other elements in protein can be synthesized into glucose for energy through a process that absolutely no one wants to know every detail of called gluconeogenesis. Note, however, that since protein is more complex than carbohydrates, your body must work harder to break it down into glucose and nitrogen. So you therefore burn, gram for gram, more calories eating protein than eating carbohydrates.
What is an adequate amount of protein? Different people make different arguments here, but I generally believe that protein should be at least one gram per pound of body weight. This is a good place to start because the math is easiest.
You may find (as I do), that your body feels better when you eat 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight, or you may discover that you feel rather terrible on a gram per pound, and need to go with .8 grams per pound of body weight. In no circumstance, however, should you go under .8 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
So there’s a basic overview on Calories. It’s not a matter of luck; it’s just a matter of time. Everyone says they hate them. You know those people who can eat ALL DAY LONG and not gain a pound. No one ever stops to think that maybe the reason they don’t gain a pound is because they eat all day long.
Once upon a time there was a hormone called insulin. Insulin works sort of like one of those “car sensitive” traffic lights. You know the kind. When you’re driving at night and you come across one of these lights, it turns green for you, regardless of whether or not you are the only car at the intersection.
When insulin sees food, it turns green for the food to be used and stored. It doesn’t matter how much food, or what food, when the body sees food, it turns the insulin (use and storage) hormone light green.
Now, if you are just a random morsel of food driving down the highway and the insulin light turns green for you, you can just zip right along into use or storage in the body. But what happens if there are several morsels of food on the highway. Even though you can cross the intersection, you cannot just zip right along into use or storage; there are other food morsels that need digestion and assimilation, too. The process takes more time. And during this time, energy can be used up.
All this is to say: when you eat food, you “spike” your insulin level. If you eat infrequently, your body has time to “clear” its highway, and when insulin turns on, the food can immediately go into storage. But if you eat more frequently, your body is still working on the last food.
When insulin turns on, the reaction is not as severe. The result is that you have more to process (you burn more calories involuntarily) and you have more time to do it (during which you could go off and voluntarily burn calories, if you chose to do so). So it is crucial to eat frequently.
It is also crucial to eat foods that take a long time to be metabolized. Remember what we talked about above with the different sorts of nutrients? The hardest thing for the body to metabolize (break down into glucose for energy) is fiber. It cannot break down fiber.
The next hardest thing is fats. It is harder to break down saturated fats than unsaturated. Then there is protein. It’s hard to break down because of the nitrogen. Next comes the complex carbohydrates. Finally, simple carbohydrates are the easiest to break down.
So if you don’t want your insulin to spike, and you know that you are going to be eating protein frequently (since it’s the most important), it is crucial that you include the other nutrients with it that will slow down its metabolism: fats, fiber, and complex carbohydrates.
When it comes to eating, you should be eating about six times per day. That would be once every 2.5-3 hours for most people. And, as we’ve already discussed, you need to be eating protein at each of these “feedings.” You’ve got to keep that nitrogen in your body so you don’t eat up your own muscles and slow your metabolism.
If your metabolism is already slow, this will also “get it going.” You will have to give it “time,” of course, to get started, maybe a few weeks… but it will get started, and you will not have to wonder about why some people can eat “all the time” and not get fat – you will know why – because you are doing the same thing and getting fitter and leaner than ever before!
Constructing A Food Schedule
Imagine if you went into a big corporate meeting and your boss had just seen a memo talking about how all employees must comply with a certain LP standard. You know that he would be very likely to spend a large portion of time talking about that standard, regardless of whether he intended to discuss it at the meeting or not.
Meanwhile, he might forget about other topics he needed to discuss with you. In a sense, this is how most people deal with food. We seize upon what is convenient, new, and accessible, and sometimes forget that proper eating takes proper preparation.
Some people will say, “Eat when you are hungry and don’t eat when you are full.” This is baloney. If I ate every time I was hungry, and I ate all I was hungry for, more than likely the world would have a massive shortage on brisket and limburgers. And if I didn’t eat when I was full, I’d probably go from about 10 am through about 5 pm without eating anything at all! This would cause me to get very hungry, at which point I would gorge myself on brisket and limburgers again. And obviously I would not stay fit on this schedule.
No, proper eating takes proper preparation, and the easiest thing to do is first to figure out how many grams of protein you need per day. We have already said that this will be 1- 1.5 grams per pound of body weight.
So if I (being unable to do math as I am) decide that 150 grams of protein per day is sufficient for me, the next step is to divide that number by 6, as I will be eating 6 meals every single day. Sounds like a lot, huh? Remember that meals and “snacks” are equivalent in my mind. When you sit down to eat, it is at a planned time, so I am calling it a “meal.” Well, 150 grams divided by six is 25 g per meal.
This is where nutrient labeling is so important. I know from reading package labels that on average, very lean meat will have about 25 grams of protein in 4 uncooked (or 3-3.5 cooked) ounces. I am not going to be a stickler about hitting 150 grams right on, and getting exactly 25 at every meal.
Suffice that if I get between 20-30 grams at each meal, I’ll average about 25, and my range will average from 100-180 grams, which will be very near my daily goal. I also know that when I am shopping for protein supplements, I need to find some that can get me 25 grams of protein, at least.
So with bars and shakes, I must find 25 grams of protein. Protein is found at the bottom of the nutrition label, right above vitamins and the disclaimer about how percentages are calculated.
But, you say, I’ve never looked at labels. How do I know if my proteins are lean? Well, remember what I said before about how protein contains 4 Calories per gram? If your protein has 25 grams of protein in it, and protein contains 4 Calories per gram, then the purest form of this would have exactly 100 Calories.
Any additional Calories must be coming from carbohydrates or fats. This doesn’t mean you have to avoid foods that have calories from other sources, just account for them. If your food has 136 Calories and 25 grams of protein and 4 grams of fats, you know you have a semi-lean protein, and you can just consider it as a source of protein AND a source of fat. Since your body needs fats, this is fine.
On the same note, if your food has 102 calories, 10 grams of fat, and two grams of protein, even though this food has less Calories, it is not as good for you as a protein source. You aren’t getting adequate protein in it. You could use it as a fat source, yes, but you’ll need to add some protein in with it.
Okay, so back to protein. So sit down and say, when am I going to work out on an average day? This is the most crucial feeding of your day, as you need to get nitrogen into your muscles as soon as possible. If you workout from seven to eight AM, then at 8:15 you need to be taking in some protein. Let this be a meal for you.
Here is a “stereotypical” schedule of a meal plan I would propose for someone working out from seven to eight AM.
- Breakfast (Meal 1): 4:30 AM
- Post-Workout Food (Meal 2): 8:15 AM
- Lunch Time (Meal 3): 11:30 AM
- Snack Time (Meal 4): 2:30 PM
- Dinnertime (Meal 5): 5:45 PM
- Pre Bed Snack (Meal 6): 8:45 PM
Now, in each of these meals, this person is going to take in one of the bodyweight in pounds times 1 to 1.5 divided by six grams of protein. Additionally, in each of these meals, the person is going to take in some of the other nutrients we have discussed in order to get an adequate amount of Calories and to foster daily needs.
Here are some key things that you should remember when constructing the rest of your meals:
- Meals done in the morning, or right before a workout, are good meals to have complex carbohydrates in. You are going to need complex carbohydrates to fuel the workouts or just the activities of the day.
- Post Workout Meals are great to have simple carbohydrates in. You need to spike that insulin here so that you can drive the protein back into your tired muscles.
- Meals after a workout but before bed are excellent to have complex or fibrous carbohydrates in, as these will provide slow-digesting energy that your body can use throughout the rest of the day.
- Pre Bed Meals should be the lowest in carbohydrates since you won’t need too much energy while you are asleep.
- Servings of carbohydrates vary person to person. Some people can only tolerate about 50 grams of carbohydrates a day; others feel dysfunctional on less than 200 grams per day. The best thing to do is to start out with more carbohydrates than you feel like you need.
- If you find you are not making progress, switch out some of your starchy or complex carbohydrates for vegetables. This will cut the accessible sugars by replacing them with fiber, keeping you at the same level of satiety but causing your body to store less!
- All meals, except for the post-workout meal, because you are aiming for a fast metabolism, should contain a serving of healthy fats. This will keep the meal from digesting too quickly.
- A serving of healthy fats is generally considered to be about 1/2-1/5th the grams of protein you are taking in. So with our subject, we’re looking at 5 to 12 grams of fats. Early meals should have less fats, later meals more, as you want your satiety to increase throughout the day.
But How Many Calories Do I Take In?
Please, don’t “count calories.” Count grams of protein, and keep track of your carbohydrate intake so that you can modify it (down if you need to lose, up if you need to gain).
If you count calories, you are going to struggle because every day brings about a different amount of exercise (the energy you expend doing daily tasks), and so your caloric burn every day is NOT equal. Additionally, with a more balanced macronutrient profile, you are going to burn more calories than ever before.
If you want to make things easier on yourself, it is good to think of your whole day like a ratio. Decide how many of your calories you want to get from protein (let’s say you are aiming for thirty percent).
So Protein = 30. Then think about fats. You do NOT want the fat to be less than 20%, else your body will not get the fats it needs to do its processes. So let’s say you are going to aim for 30 percent from fats. Then the remaining 40% will come from carbohydrates.
Now, using our handy math we know that if protein and carbohydrates both have 4 Calories per gram, and you are saying that 30% of a diet will be protein (so around 150 grams on our scale from beforehand), then 40% of this same diet will be carbs (so around 200 grams).
For fats, we must remember that they have 9 calories per gram, so if 30% of this diet is 150 grams of protein, that would be 600 Calories. Likewise, another 30% of this diet would also be represented by 600 Calories, and we divide this 600 by nine to get grams of fat, which puts us at 66 grams of fat. So if you must know Calories, you are looking at (in our example) a diet that contains 2000 Calories: 800 from Carbohydrates, 600 from protein, and 600 from fat.
As stated in the general rules, remember to take in those carbohydrates around workouts and those fats throughout the day, but more at night. So for our sample 2000 Calorie person, they might eat meals like:
- Meal 1: 50 grams carbohydrates, 25 grams protein, 10 grams fat
- Meal 2: 50 grams carbohydrates, 25 grams protein, 3 grams fat
- Meal 3: 30 grams carbohydrates, 25 grams protein, 10 grams fat
- Meal 4: 30 grams carbohydrates, 25 grams protein, 10 grams fat
- Meal 5: 30 grams carbohydrates, 25 grams protein, 10 grams fat
- Meal 6: 10 grams carbohydrates, 25 grams protein, 20 grams fat
This would put them at 200 grams carbohydrates, 150 grams protein, and 63 grams of fat. Did you notice the taper in the carbohydrates? And the increase in the fats? Good.
How Do I Burn Off These Nutrients?
You burn energy through exercise, planned and unplanned. Since you only have so long to spend doing planned exercise, I suggest you balance that time between three basic areas: flexibility, strength, and endurance. Try to work on each one every day.
If you have 45 minutes, maybe do 10 minutes of yoga, 20 minutes of lifting, and 15 minutes of bike riding. If you have longer, adjust accordingly. If you have less time, and you can only fit in one exercise, don’t worry. Do what you can do in the time you have. Remember: Something is always better than nothing.
That being said, you still have the other 22-23 hours of the day when you are not voluntarily exercising. Most of the calories you burn you are using during this time! So make sure your body is built to be an energy-using machine by keeping up with the nutrition we just discussed. It will make a big difference! And Sometimes, Don’t
Anything that we try to do perfectly for too long we will ultimately fail at. Something will get in the way. Life will get in the way. So there’s nothing wrong with a little grilled cheese every now and again, but plan for it.
If you feel a craving coming on, plan ahead. Say, okay, on Sunday, my rest day, I will eat this grilled cheese for one of my meals. Then I will just jump right back on my plan for the next meal. Look forward to it. Think about it. Enjoy it. And then be done with it. The key is making exceptions exceptional, and making the routine phenomenal. There are great ways to make high protein, moderate fat, moderate carbohydrate meals!
Diets aren’t just about weight loss. Nope, diet is a “way of eating” that you need to learn to keep for a lifetime! If you make a healthy plan, and you stick to it, you will get more toned and lose fat and feel better about yourself. You can do it, and now is the time to get started!! Learn, live, eat, and enjoy the new and healthy you!