Over lunch with a friend of mine recently, I announced a nutrition plan for a certain amount of calories per meal and per snack I had heard about from a television show. He listened and then asked, “But what’s the deal with calories? Are they worse than carbs? Or are carbs worse? And where does fat fit in?”
“Good questions” I said to myself, pondering a moment while sipping my iced tea.
It seems that there is always a new diet fad out there and most recently the biggest diet obsession has been around carbs. Which is a shortened (and cooler sounding) word for carbohydrates. Apparently, they’re bad-- At least for your waistline.
Or are they?
Using my sandwich as a handy model, I explained it to my friend. “When I eat this sandwich, I’m getting carbs, calories, and fat – and a whole lotta other stuff, too.”
I took a bite. My friend giggled, “And a napkin, too?” he said.
I looked down at my napkin wrapped around my sandwich that had a large bite taken out of it. “Erm, yeah, and a napkin too. I guess I was hungrier than I thought.”
I plucked the napkin from my mouth and tried to recoup my dignity, “But that also helps to explain carbs (nice segway, I thought). If I’m really hungry, my body needs energy and will get that energy from the carbohydrates first. Carbohydrates are different forms of sugar, essentially. And sugar converts into energy the fastest because it is very simple.”
“Carbohydrates like the bread in this sandwich will be converted into energy to keep my brain working, my heart beating and my muscles working. How much I convert will depend on how active I am.”
“So if you go home and sit down…”
“If I go home and watch television all afternoon,” I interrupted, “I will be using energy, but not as much as if I went home and scrubbed my floors, cleaned my room, and then exercised…”
“Who exercises AFTER they do chores?” My friend interrupted.
I glared at him. “That’s not the point,” I responded. “The point is that if I went home and did enough and used up all the carbohydrates, my body would then move into converting the fats in this sandwich into energy. It’s harder to convert fats because they are more dense and complicated, but a body’s gotta do what a body’s gotta do.”
“So why are carbs bad?” my friend asked.
“They’re not really bad. I guess the idea behind carb restricting diets is that if you don’t eat any carbs, you will burn fat first instead of the carbs and get skinny. But I think it also leaves you feeling really hungry all the time because it takes so long to convert the fat into energy.”
“So what about calories?” asked my friend, “What are they?”
“Calories are the energy.”
“Come again?” asked my friend with a raised eyebrow.
“Calories are the energy that the carbs and fats are being converted into. Calories are what the body uses to keep going. And, in fact, “I said (I was really getting into this now), even when we are asleep we are burning calories. That’s called our basal metabolic rate.”
“Oooh. Fancy schmancy.” my friend said, “But what does that matter? Who cares how much calories we are burning when we are asleep?”
“It matters because everyone’s basal metabolic rate is higher or lower depending upon how old they are, how big they are, how active they are and various other factors…which is why a one-size-fits-all diet just doesn’t work. Everyone is burning a different amount of calories every day.”
“Interesting.” My friend said, “So how do I know how many calories I burn in a day?”
“Well, there are calculators you can use online although I don’t know how perfectly accurate they are. But they will give you a clue. And then you can calculate how much you need to eat from there.”
“Hmmm.” My friend said, “So what about the turkey? How does that fit into the equation. You talked about the bread and the fat, but what about the turkey and the lettuce and tomato?”
“Oh, well. The turkey is a good source of protein and protein rebuilds cells that get worn out every day. It is also a good source of vitamins and minerals that keep my neurons talking to each other and a bunch of other stuff. The vegetables have good vitamins and minerals, too.”
“Your neurons talk to each other?” my friend asked.
“You know what I mean.” I said, “And fiber, the vegetables have fiber, too. And that’s good for keeping my system clean and lowering cholesterol.”
“You’re really obsessed, aren’t you?’
I smirked, “A little.”
In conclusion, it’s important to realize that a one-size-fits-all diet is not as effective as you might hope. As long as you are eating healthy and exercising regularly, as I pointed out to my friend, you can be on your way to a healthy manageable lifestyle.