Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Exercise Essentials - Part 1: Calories

For this first installment of Exercise Essentials, we'll discuss the physiological basis of a Calorie (and why it's capitalized), how they're "burned", and how it all fits into our health.

Carbon-y Goodness

Everyone has heard and used the word "calorie". It's all over the place. It's no longer a unique word used only by food scientists. But believe it or not, foods don't actually contain "calories" in the sense of a physical substance. You can't pull out the calories from food like you could pull out thread from a sweater. A calorie is simply a tool for measuring the amount of energy in a food.

Foods contain energy and nutrients - it's why we eat. Our body uses food and gets energy from it. Now there's a very long process to do so, but I won't bother to go that in-depth. Instead, I'll just simplify the whole thing for the sake of this article.

We need the "stuff" inside food (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats) to provide energy to keep moving and breathing and binge watching the latest TV shows on Netflix.

Binging has a new meaning

So all this "stuff" in foods gets broken down into energy through digestion. Again, this is where it can get complicated, so I'll make it as simple as possible for the sake of time. Food has stuff in it, this stuff gets broken down into a bunch of carbon, and the carbon provides energy.

Now you may be thinking: "Wait, carbon? As in 7th grade science carbon?"

While carbon itself doesn't give us energy, it has a neat little habit of bonding itself to other carbons and making long chains. Digestion is simply breaking up these chains which releases heat. An example of this would be to bend a paperclip back and forth until it breaks. You'll notice the paperclip gets nice and warm. Every time our body breaks a carbon bond, we get a little bit of heat and energy.

So to simplify it even more, food has a bunch of CARBON BONDS inside of it which release energy when digested. Simple right?

Not a trick question, it's that simple.

The only thing to add now is how we measure the heat given off by those carbon bonds. This is where Calories come in handy!

Counting on Calories

Remember when I said a Calorie was a tool used to measure? Let's expand on that idea for a moment. Scientists like to quantify and qualify everything; neatly measured and organized. This is so that we can observe differences or changes in things when doing experiments.

Also to frustrate you during school.

 Heat can be measured by different units - we're mostly familiar with Fahrenheit and Celsius.

A calorie is a unit of measurement. Technically speaking, it's the amount of energy required to raise 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius. So if you took a match, held it next to some water, and measured the temperature change, you could measure it in calories. 

In the scope of grams, our bodies are big. This is why we measure our weight in kilograms (to save decimal spaces). Now when it comes to measuring the potential heat of food given off by those carbon bonds, we would be talking thousands of calories. So scientists came up with a second way to measure heat. They call it Calories. With a capital C. 

Calories vs. calories - Simple, right?

A Calorie (with a capital C) is 1000 calories. Alternatively, it can be written as kilocalories or kcals. Now, just so there's no confusion, almost nobody nowadays uses the word calorie (with a small c). In food science, common vernacular, and for the purpose of 99% of fitness articles, all calories are talking about the BIG Calories.

This is actually 3000 calories - but only 300 Calories. Totally confusing, right?

Implementing Calories in our Daily Life

Now that we have a basic understanding of calories and food, we can start to become specific as to what we're eating. I mentioned before that there's a bunch of "stuff" in food that provide energy. Let's get a bit more specific.

Carbon bonds form in a bunch of different ways. Some carbons can bond in short chains which are easily broken up. Others form in long chains which are harder to break up. This creates a fundamental difference with how our body digests food. When we look at food, there are three distinct formations.

Carbohydrates, Fats, and Proteins

Carbohydrates are short chains of carbons that are easily broken up and digested. They provide quick, accessible energy. Think a roll of quarters when accessing a vending machine.

No pennies, please.

Fats are long chains of carbons that have bonded in such a way that breaking them up is more difficult. They provide a ton of energy (lots of heavy bonds), but take longer to break. Imagine a bankroll of large bills. You'd have to change the bills for smaller coins before you could access that vending machine. 

I can deal with that.

Both carbohydrates and fats provide energy, but the structure of the carbon bonds makes a physiological difference in how we digest and utilize that energy. 

The third thing that can be found in food is protein. Protein is unique in that it doesn't provide energy in the same way that carbohydrates and fats do. Protein is structured differently, and as a result gets utilized for different purposes. Rather than energy, proteins can be utilized for the immune system, muscle, and tissue repair. Because of their structure, proteins don't fancy being broken down for energy. However, if no other form of energy is consumed, the carbon bonds in protein can be utilized for energy. This process takes a very long time and is not a ready source of energy.

In our vending machine analogy, proteins would be like trying to use a money-order to get a snicker's bar. It's doable, but takes too much time.

I thought we were on a diet?

Wrapping it all Up

Because calories are almost a day-to-day term in today's fitness industry, it's worth understanding how they work. Food is essential in providing energy and life-sustaining nutrients, but we need to know exactly how it works before we can start manipulating it to serve our fitness purposes.

My hope is that by deepening your level of understanding, we can improve on your fitness success. There's no magic to nutrition and diet, just a lot of structure and willpower. If you're interested in learning more about nutrition, diet, and exercise, check out my website at www.bushongtraining.com, don't forget to check out my nutrition resources to see how many Calories you should be eating, as well as my FREE nutrition packet which offers some insight into a few diet programs.

If you have any questions, feel free to email me at info@bushongtraining.com


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