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Nutrition: The over-rated calorie

What does a calorie look like? What’s in a calorie? Does it have any taste? There are no answers to these questions because a calorie is just a number.

Phrases like “caloric intake” and “sweet-tasting calories” or “burning calories” are sayings we relate to, yet calories are not things we eat or burn. Food does not “contain” calories like it contains fiber or vitamin C, but even if it did, should we really be so hung up on them?

This obscure little element controls the eating habits of so many people, but why?

Its beginnings had nothing to do with food, but rather scientific measurement. As it was first defined in the English language in 1863, a calorie is “the unit of heat needed to raise the temperature of 1 kg of water from 0 to 1°C at 1 atmosphere pressure.” Not an easy equation to relate to what we eat.

This is how calories came to be determined in food: A piece of food is massed, set inside the calorimeter and ignited. A tray with 1 gram of water sits above the ignited food.

When the food is burned out, experts analyze the temperature of the water - thus calories are determined. Go figure. Calories, in a sense, is the push behind the energy that we get from foods, kind of like the torque from gasoline passed on to the pistons in an engine; it really don’t have weight.

The word calorie as a food unit was adopted and later harnessed as the marker by which we determine how our food intake amasses weight on our bodies. It was publicly introduced as a dieting unit by a Los Angeles physician, Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters, in her book published in 1918. Her idea of counting calories was such an extreme success that her books were still selling long after her death in 1930.

What is more important than counting them is where are you getting your calories? Is it from a doughnut or from a bowl of blueberries? From a fresh bunch of asparagus, or from French fries?

People make the effort to count calories or carbs, and it’s not only a nuisance, but it’s unrealistic. It’s much more sensible and easier to make choices…if you are gaining weight, you are more likely eating the wrong foods!

Losing or gaining weight is all about how much fat is retained from foods, and this fat least of all comes from the saturated fat we consume. Fat primarily accumulates by the intake of the wrong sugars and refined foods that convert to glucose, and subsequently converts to fat; a normal biological process.

Something as simple as fruit juice can and will put on the pounds, not to mention the triglycerides, if exercise isn’t employed right after it’s consumed.

French research scientist Michel Montignac and author of books such as “Eat Yourself Slim” and “The French Diet”, states that “epidemiological studies show that there is no correlation between calorie intake and obesity.” Instead, obesity is based on the intake and conversion of glucose in your system.

As a person who grew up during the time saccharin and diet sodas were introduced, I could never understand the phenomenon with something with such a bad aftertaste. There are those who drink diet drinks because they are diabetic; some who are thin drink it because they want to prevent the weight gain from ever happening, and then of course those who are overweight, and truly believe every little calorie helps them keep the weight off.

Diet sodas claim to have no or little calories, and yet drinking a diet soda will in fact cause your body to gain weight, according to an eight-year study done at the University of Texas Health Science Center.

Sharon P. Fowler, MPH, who headed the study, said that, "What was surprising was when we looked at people only drinking diet soft drinks, their risk of obesity was even higher." She points out also that psychologically, the person drinking the diet sodas subconsciously realize they have saved calories with the sodas, so they don’t feel so bad in adding calories elsewhere.

But mainly, the simple no-calorie sugar molecule does major damage by confusing the mind, according to the Purdue study by Swithers and Davidson. As it is ingested, the body thinks that calories are coming because of the strong sweet taste; and when the calories don’t come the body wants to compensate by creating hunger in order to bring on more food to make more energy that the body needs.

These chemically mutated artificial sweeteners also have adverse side effects to note, but that’s a different story.

The Purdue study also found that rats on diets containing the artificial sweetener saccharin gained more weight than rats given foods laced with common white sugar. It has been very much proven that diet sodas not only do not work, they backfire.

After the high carb craze of the seventies with people gorging on pastas to lose weight, it was subsequently found that, yes, after all, carbs do convert into sugar, then into fat, and so weight loss is near impossible. With the present American diet being saturated with insulin-producing foods like sodas, refined grains, and sugar added to most everything we eat, weight gain is inevitable.

The abnormal increase in insulin caused by refined foods also confuses the body; enzymes are inhibited from doing their jobs, and fatty acids will stockpile into triglycerides. In the confusion, the insulin is a catalyst for weight gain.

It is the quality of the foods we eat that will allow you to lose or gain weight, not the calories. You have a choice between a hamburger, which is mostly dead food, and a salad with a little grilled chicken, which is mostly live food, containing the enzymes and fiber needed to process it in the body.

What good does it really do to count calories when a portion of junk food can contain the same amount of calories as a portion of something highly nutritious?

I know what you’re thinking, though. Why in the world would I choose salad with chicken instead of a hamburger? Are you crazy? I guess I am. GET CRAZY! IT FEELS GOOD! And, you just might feel better.

Linda Bergersen, M.S., is a Palm Springs nutritionist, and works with clients in the area, and conducts group discussions concerning nutrition. Contact her at 760.699.8765 or rlbergie@yahoo.com for information on services.