Busting The Calorie Myth

This article appeared as my Holistic Outlook column in The Times Herald Record.

Let’s bust some health myths. In the next few columns, I will discuss common beliefs that keep you from your optimal health, weight and body composition. People usually have the best intentions for their health and just need better information and understanding of how the body works. I can help you with that.

Let’s start by busting an almost universally accepted myth: the myth of calories.

Our bodies aren’t spreadsheets

How many times have you overindulged at dinner, thinking you’ll make up for it by skipping meals, drinking coffee or just eating salad the next day? After all, we’re told that if we just keep at a certain calorie level, we’re OK.

But our bodies don’t function like spreadsheets where you can move things around as long as they still add up to the same number. Nope, we are more like a chemistry lab, with everything changing and affecting everything else, all the time.

We are designed for homeostasis, the need to coordinate different systems to maintain overall stability. For example, the body will protect our organs and maintain core temperature, if necessary, by decreasing blood flow to our hands and feet.

When we restrict calories, our body goes into conservation mode. The oldest part of our brain, geared for survival, knows that less food means there may be a famine and so shifts our metabolism to make the most of every calorie we consume, with special attention to storing fat, in case there are times ahead with no food at all.

Don’t go to extremes

Not what you had in mind? Unfortunately, our survival mechanisms haven’t kept up with the times; they’re still the same as they were thousands of years ago, before the existence of refrigerators, supermarkets and fast-food drive-throughs.

Want to look like a Sumo wrestler? I didn’t think so. Yet that’s the extreme you’re going toward if you follow a pattern of overeating and fasting. It’s exactly how the body will put on the most weight.

Obviously, calories count. If you eat thousands of calories a day, you will probably be overweight (unless you are a teenage boy or a bodybuilder). But having three balanced meals daily of lean protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fat is much more important and helpful to your metabolism than playing the calorie-juggling game.

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