When is a Calorie Not Just a Calorie? The Biochemistry

Aug 29, 2011

When is a Calorie Not Just a Calorie?  The Biochemistry

I was brought up in the tradition of calorie counting, and as a result, once I understood what I was spending and despite some serious eating issues – both behavioral and nutritional – never again gained my weight back. So, naturally I had a bias for that particular tool.  To this day I think that many folks have no idea of and would be shocked by their calorie intake.  Haven’t you been appalled when you have seen the published calorie numbers for some of your favorite treats?  I know I have.  Remember when Nutrition Action Magazine listed the calories of the Pecan Cinnabon as roughly comparable to a Denny’s Grand Slam Breakfast, or when a popular national asian restaurant chain admitted that the average calorie content of any of their dinner entrees was 2000 calories?  Who knew?

However, that said, there are biochemical pieces of the puzzle that we are currently unravelling that do influence metabolism, fat storage and hunger.  The content of your diet, metabolism issues, the exact way you exercise, chronic stress (Uh-oh!), even time of day you eat do have an influence on a many biochemical pathways in your body that influence your weight.  See Nature’s Appetite Managers for even more detail.  There are times when just working the numbers isn’t enough.  And this is just the biochemical side of things.  Perhaps even more importantly, there are plenty of times when a calorie is absolutely not just a calorie because of your associations and history with the food.  But that is a story for another day.  See the September Morning Musings for more on this topic.

For instance, when insulin is high it can decrease sex hormone binding globulin and therefore more of your estrogen is free and in its active form – hence more fat storage and the potential for excessive breast tissue in overweight males.

When stress hormones stay elevated from continued chronic stress, the body can convert more of your T4 (the precursor to T3, the active form of thyroid hormone) to something called “Reverse T3”.  This form of T3 works against the active form.  When cortisol levels are too low, it can interfere with the function of thyroid receptors and again thyroid hormones may not work effectively.  All these conditions potentially contribute to “inexplicable” weight gain or difficulty losing weight. 

More problematic too is that the extra calories eaten when stressed are more likely to be stored around your midsection due to the action of cortisol.  If those extra calories come from insulin-raising carbohydrates like processed starchy carbs and sugars (and I don’t know anyone who, without deliberate training to do so, is stress eating vegetables!), the action of insulin also contributes to midsection fat storage.  Then that extra midsection fat itself increases insulin resistance in a sort of triple whammy effect, and around we go.  Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

The high fructose corn syrup (arguably an “obesogen”) found especially in soft drinks (like sports drinks) can interfere with the function of the insulin receptors, and broken insulin receptors are a step on the road to diabetes.  HFCS is one of the substances that can be used to induce insulin resistance and hypertension in laboratory animals so that they can test drugs on them.  Scary thought.  “When insulin is out to play, growth hormone and testosterone go away” to quote one nutritional biochemist.  Elevated insulin also promotes fat storage.  Seems a little self defeating, don’t you think, to drink a sports drink containing HFCS that both interferes with the growth hormone and testosterone you would want to be producing, and at the same time interferes with fat burning post exercise?

I spent years torturing myself with my bingeing/starving  eating style as well as the high processed carb content of my diet.  I craved those carbs all the time and didn’t understand why.  I don’t think we were aware at that time that the nutritional guidelines being promoted were bound to have this appetite enhancing effect.  Many of my clients were around my age, and like me, their 30‘s and 40‘s fell in the “fat is bad” era where everyone just ate carbs, and especially those that turned to sugar quickly – pasta, bagels, and a myriad fat-free dry crunchy things.  Mind you, in all fairness, when they said to eat low fat and high carb, they meant broccoli and brown rice, not Snackwells and bagels.   One wonders if I needed those anti-depressant meds because I literally had no raw materials (proteins and Omega 3 fats) to even make a neurotransmitter!

The content of our diets has long been exacerbating what many of us experience as a broken appetites.  I think I can fairly say that virtually every new client I get who complains about constant hunger and low energy has been starting their day with cereal and skim milk, or something nutritionally comparable.

Most people in the nutrition field absolutely abhor the very idea of calorie counting because they see so many of us just working the numbers, or “gaming the system” and paying absolutely no heed to our nutrition.  I have faith that an educated consumer (whether deliberate study or by the greatest teacher of all – crashing and burning) will eventually acquire the wisdom to make some of their own guidelines!  Telling people not to try to balance their calories, but just to eat right is like telling someone just to spend their money wisely and if they don’t, not to bother to balance the the checkbook.  Why not do both?

Many nutrition experts will say:  your body is not a bank account, it is a chemical factory.  I don’t know.  It is still my observation that the reason most of my clients can’t eat predominantly processed carbs and continue to keep their weight off is because they can’t manage their appetites, not just because there is some unique biochemistry of insulin mismanagement that makes their body store everything. They understandably cannot keep their appetites, and thus calorie consumption, in check.  Calorie knowledge allows you to do your part in maintaining accountability.  But clearly calorie knowledge alone cannot override your biochemistry and it only makes sense to eat in a way that gives your body the best possible opportunity to run efficiently and not plague you with constant cravings.

So to the question “Do calories count or is there something else going on?”, I think the answer is:  yes, and yes.  Both are true.

Eventually my cumulative science knowledge guilted me into improving the content of my diet, and I no longer set the standard for the black sheep of the nutrition community.  I still overeat on the weekends, but it is more likely to be real food these days (like steak or chicken saltimbocca), not 1500 calories of Pepperidge Farm chocolate chip crumb cake.   At least with real foods I eventually get sated.  Truth be told, I got exhausted by the struggle with my appetite all the time.  Finally, after years of torturing myself to pay off the caloric debts of my hedonism, the disappointment of not having the pleasure of these foods in my diet as much as I want is far outweighed by the relief at the removal of the obsession.

And who knew that after enough time had gone by, it wouldn’t even be that hard.  I’m sure that it is because (aside from the now ingrained habit of controlling my environment) some biochemical change has been brought about by that very change in my diet.  Believe me it is not virtue on my part or even my professional status.  Somehow, food is more in its proper place of importance in my life these days.  If you cancelled our Saturday night dinner date, I wouldn’t feel compelled to go out and eat something indulgent by myself (or order in) anymore.  It’s no longer the be all and end all.  I can actually enjoy other things as much as I do eating…well most of the time.

Begin your final weight loss journey now…

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