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The Different Versions of Calories

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andrea_henkel_burke_The Different Versions of Calories

The question about nutrition comes up at least as much as the question about training.

Before I talk about nutrition, I want to put out one fact: when cutting down on physical training, the best food can not do much. 

Just picture a perfectly healthy eating athlete who only joins outdoor practice when the sun is shining. This body doesn´t get the same stimulus as the body of an athlete whose training plan is periodized based on physical adaptation processes. Just had to say this (again).

Still, nutrition plays a significant role. That´s the reason it is such a big topic. Since this is a blog post and not a book, I can only cover so much, but bite-size pieces are easier to digest anyway.

The headline is saying it already: Calories don´t equal calories. Calories tell us how much energy is in food; that´s it. One gram of carbohydrates has four calories (to be specific, 1g kilo-calories), 1g protein, four calories, and 1g fat, nine calories. But what happens with those calories in our bodies? 

Let´s take a look at all three of our so-called macronutrients, which carry calories.

 

  • Carbohydrates

 

100g carbohydrates in white bread are 400 calories. Those calories don´t come with lots of other nutrients like vitamins and minerals, and all those calories get absorbed in the intestine to enter the bloodstream. Our blood only tolerates a certain amount of sugar - that´s basically what carbohydrates are - sugar molecules. All extra sugar is stored in our muscles and liver, exactly where we want it to be, to generate energy. Also, the brain wants to have some carbohydrate energy. When those storages are filled up, and there is still more than the ideal about of sugar in our bloodstream, this sugar needs to find another place, like fat cells. 

100g carbohydrates in a carrot, on the other hand, are not fully absorbed in the intestines. Fiber, which is not included in white bread, is used to feed the microbiome in our gut. A healthy microbiome protects our intestine walls and produces important health components like SCFA (short-chain fatty acids). A carrot also carries vitamins and minerals, so-called micronutrients. 

The bottom line is that some carbohydrates go directly into the bloodstream, while others feed your good and healthy gut bacteria. This also means that a carbohydrate calorie from a carrot has another effect on our body than a carbohydrate calorie consumed through white bread. 

  • Protein

Proteins are mainly building blocks for our body and are not used as energy if not needed. A protein is a long chain of amino acids. If the amino chain is shorter than 100 amino acids, we are talking about peptides, are there more than 100 amino acids, it's a protein. For example, a di-peptide has two amino acids, a tri-peptide has three - you got the system. Eating a protein from meat or a plant source gets broken down into amino acids, its single building blocks. Those blocks then get put together again so that it becomes a body-own-protein. If we would not break up the protein in foods and make our own of it, we become the thing we just eat - a chicken, pea, spinach, or whatever was on the menu. For this process, we need all the amino acids the body's protein is made out of. 

When building a wall of a house but missing a board, we can not make it the way it should be. Fortunately, our body can make some of the amino acids, but nine of the 21 amino acids are essential and must be consumed. 

You can see those calories from a protein as your renewing energy that keeps your body functions up and running. That´s why athletes often use protein drinks for recovery, not to fill up energy storage. Recovery for athletes often means making structures, like muscles, stronger and more resilient. 

  • Fat

Fat slowly is getting seen as something good, but mostly still has a bad reputation. I talked about different carbohydrates and different proteins. There are also different kinds of fat.

At first, we can divide fats into two groups - saturated fatty acids, mostly found in meat and animal products like milk, and unsaturated fatty acids, in plants and fish, and meat. Especially the calories from unsaturated fatty acids are not used for energy but for the structure of cell membranes or immune processes. A healthy blood cell membrane, for example, is made of a lot of Omega-3 fatty acids, which keeps it flexible to fit easily through our vessels. If there is not enough Omega-3 to build cell membranes, the cells take what they get, like saturated fat, for example. It´s like having fish oil in the fridge vs. a piece of butter. Butter gets hard; the fish oil stays liquid. The cell with the “butter membrane” is not as flexible anymore and doesn´t float as well through the blood vessels. But in this case, the problem might not be the saturated fatty acid but the missing Omega-3. 

Now you can see that all the calories in a fatty fish don´t count for energy but are important building materials. But what's up with the so-called healthy plant oils, which are mostly Omega-6 fatty acids? Yes, those are important, even essential, like all unsaturated fatty acids. And here we are going to open a whole other can of worms. There often is too much Omega-6 compared to Omega-3. When this is the case, also Omega-6 can replace Omega-3 in cell membranes. Even when those 6-ers are not as hard and unflexible in their structure, like the saturated fatty acids, those Omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory vs. Omega-3 which are anti-inflammatory. The solution again would be to have enough Omega-3. But what´s enough? Enough is when the ratio between pro-inflammatory Omega-6 and anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fatty acids is correct. Ideally, this ratio is 1:1. If it is 4:1 Omega 6: Omega-3, it might still be acceptable, but these days, we see ratios of 15+: 1. In those cases, it´s not enough to ramp up Omega-3 intakes through fish, algae, or supplements. It´s also a good idea to cut on sunflower oil and other plant oils, which you find everywhere. Check the labels. If you see sunflower oil on a pesto as the first or second ingredient, just put it back on the shelf, buy some greens, and good olive oil, which mostly has anti-inflammatory Omega-9 fatty acids, and make the pesto yourself.

I hope it helps to see calories from a little bit different perspective. It´s not only about the total amount it´s also about the kind of calories our food provides. Obviously, we need all the macronutrients. Some people say carbohydrates are not essential because our bodies can produce glucose. I still would not recommend athletes leave out carbohydrates, but I do agree that pasta is not essential. 

Obviously I wouldn´t need to stop here since there is a lot more to cover, but I mainly wanted to make the point that there is more behind calories than a number on the label. We need macronutrients for many reasons, and not every calorie converts directly into energy to use for athletic performance, but some are used indirectly for healthy cells and body functions, which leads to energy from a different perspective.

 

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