The Calorie Conundrum

By Jennifer Sage On November 29, 2012 Under Nutrition

Al fresco dining in Italy—a wholesome and sensual experience

I just read an article called The Calorie Conundrum by Brett Klika that I wanted to share with you. It begins with a description of dining in Italy and talking to the restaurant owner about the experience of eating in that country.

Brett Klika is an inspiring fitness presenter I’ve met a couple of times at the Fitness Fest in Scottsdale. He works at Fitness Quest Ten in San Diego, with one of the leading fitness trainers in the country, Todd Durkin. Brett has a blog on which he writes training and fitness articles that are excellent and thought provoking; I highly recommend following him. His recent blog post on the calorie conundrum hit home with me for several reasons. First, because I’ve experienced the exact same scenario he describes on his trip to Italy, where food is all natural, very healthy, and not really low calorie or low fat! Dining is a sacrosanct experience including all the senses. Although there may be a stereotype of the overweight Italian mama, and yes there is increasing obesity in Italy, it is nowhere near the levels you find in the US, where calorie counting and unhealthy food abound. Most Italians you see are relatively thin and healthy.

The other reason why I love this article is that I believe one of the big problems in the US is not just the unhealthy food that abounds, but the unhealthy relationship so many people have with food. Brett encourages you to analyze your relationship with food and with food portions, and to “reform” the way you look at calories. He encourages you to eat real food and enjoy the experience. Enjoy Brett’s article below, reprinted with permission. Click here to be taken to this article on his blog, where you can sign up for his free mailing list.


The Calorie Conundrum
Brett Klika, C.S.C.S.

On my travels, I was recently in a region of Italy called Cinque Terra. Cinque Terra is 5 small cliffside towns separated by terraced farmland and steep hiking trails. The region is known for its farm-to-table food as well as its olive oil, pesto, focaccia bread, and of course, wine.

My wife and I were enjoying a rich Italian fair of pesto, bread, pasta, and seafood at nearly every meal. The olive oil seemed to flow like the wine, without a glimmer of temperance. I struck up a conversation with the English- speaking owner of a small restaurant we were enjoying. “This food is so good. It’s so rich though! How could I make these dishes more healthy?”

The owner/chef/busboy/host/landlord looked at me puzzled? “Healthy?” he said, “I made the pesto with the basil grown in my garden and the olive oil is pressed from my neighbor’s vineyard. I made the bread and the pasta from scratch. Those tomatoes are from my garden as well. The food you are eating is very healthy. The ingredients are from the earth. It’s up to you to chose how much you are going to eat. If you eat too much it’s your mind that’s unhealthy, not the food.”

There you go America. Problem solved. With all the university research, conflicting diet claims, and a billion dollar industry designed to fight weight gain in our country, this humble Italian gardener/chef/restauranteur put it so plainly and accurately. Eat real food in non-pathological portions. He’s got some street cred too. The Mediterranean diet is considered one of the “healthiest” in the world when it comes to preventing heart disease.

Back in America, the fattest country in the world, we are more concerned about counting food calories than counting food quality. How is that working for us? We address the problem of obesity by trying to engineer “food” we can eat herculean portions of without accumulating caloric intake. As a result, the packaging the food comes in has more nutritional value that what it contains.

”Low calorie” and “low fat” foods are considered “healthy” in our country. Regardless of their actual nutritional content, you can jam more of them down your throat without accumulating calories, so, you know, healthy. It’s like I want my car to perform well, but instead of high-octane gas, I just put in a larger amount of the low octane stuff. What would that do to my car’s performance?

This way of thinking is spawned from the prevalent weight loss notion of “calories in, calories out.” This theory, based on the laws of thermodynamics, states that in order to decrease your weight, you have to “burn” more calories than you consume. If you want to lose weight, eat fewer calories, regardless of where they come from, and exercise to burn more calories.

The problem is that this theory doesn’t necessarily hold up in a long-term weight management model. I don’t absolutely discredit the validity of thermodynamics for nutrition, but in an “open system” like the human body, there is only so much application. In human body, the type of “calories in” affects the body’s ability to create “calories out.” This is especially true in a long-term weight management model.

For example, I can eat mountains of rice cakes and celery and get really “full” without taking in too many calories. Of course I wouldn’t be getting the vitamins, enzymes, amino acids, fats, and everything else my body requires to operate metabolism, so my system that actually utilizes calories would not be fueled.

If I were to eat deep water, fatty fish, green vegetables sautéed in coconut oil, and yams, my calorie count would definitely be up. However, I would be flooding my system with the vitamins, enzymes, etc. needed to operate an efficient metabolism and fight disease.

Under which eating system would my metabolism perform better, i.e. create more “calories out”?

Unfortunately, we look at eating food as “costing” us calories. What if we were to see it as “providing” us calories? Do the foods you eat cost, or provide? Can a 100-calorie snack-pack stare you in the face and say, “I’m providing you something”?

I don’t believe in 100 calorie anything. I really don’t. I can’t imagine providing fuel for your metabolism during any food intake for less than 250-300 calories. High octane foods like eggs, nuts, green vegetables, fish, grass-fed beef, brown meat chicken, coconut oil, and others carry a good deal of calories. Of course, they carry a great deal of essential things your metabolism needs to run as well.

When you eat non-pathological portions of these foods, your calorie intake will be higher than nibbling on snack packs. However, the bang you get for your buck is where these foods provide more than they cost. Long term, your metabolism will work better, burn more calories, prevent disease, and deliver the body you want.

There is validity to the notion that if you eat too much of anything, regardless how nutritionally dense it is, you will accumulate fat. If you’re eating too much natural, high-octane food, the problem is not in the food. It’s in you. To create positive change, it’s worth the time to assess why you are eating too much.

When it comes to desserts, I don’t really believe in the low calorie theory either. Desserts are fuel for your taste buds and certain pleasure centers of your brain, not your metabolism. If your goal is to have a healthy long-term metabolism, obviously desserts should not be a large part of your fueling process.

That being said, when you do eat a dessert, eat a dessert! Treat your taste buds, pamper your pleasure centers. If you feel you need a dessert every meal or every day, again, you are dealing with a personal mental/emotional issue. Don’t take it out on the food. Frozen yogurt, low fat cookies, and other snacks are merely methadone to a heroin addiction.

Craving sweets is normal. However, if it is what is standing between you and your view of health, it’s worth it to do some introspection as to why the impulse is so strong. You may need to change your behavior, your diet, or just the way you think about food.

One of the most effective resources I have come across on this topic of our relationship with food is my friend, colleague, and co-author’s book, “The Darkside of Fat Loss.” If you want more on the truth behind nutrition and fat loss, this is it.

I challenge you to reform the way you look at calories. Make the calories you eat serve you, not cost you. Re-shape your thoughts on “healthy.” Look for the highest quality, natural food you can find. Don’t make nutritional indiscretions so frequent that you have to compromise the quality of your food to satiate your needs.

Eat well, live well, be well!

1 Comment Add yours

  1. John Chappell
    November 30, 2012
    9:43 pm #comment-1

    Excellent article. Thanks for posting it!

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