Calories and Campfires

Our metabolism is like a campfire. When we eat food and drink, it’s sent to the liver to be metabolized and burned away like wood to produce heat (calories). If we hork down too much, like three out of every four people in America, we’re tossing a large amount of wood on a fire that won’t get burned. This extra wood is then stacked up in our body as glycogen and fat, and saved for later.

Glycogen is extra carb storage in our liver and muscles. It’s readily accessible and our body’s first choice for fuel when food isn’t around. But glycogen storage is limited. When it runs out, we convert extra calories into fat, which is stored virtually everywhere in the body–around our organs, in our bloodstream, or packed into our guts, asses, and hips.

When we have an abundant storage of “wood,” things can get out of control. Since our bloodstream is like an interstate system, when it gets too crowded, it doesn’t work efficiently. Too much fat on our freeway can cause traffic jams, car accidents, and jack-knifed 18-wheelers, inhibiting the performance of our daily physiological needs. Over a period of time, this leads to obesity and resulting diseases–like type 2 diabetes, fatty liver, heart disease, and cancer. 

So what are the sources of calories? 

Carbohydrates, protein, alcohol, and fat can be burned down to produce energy. Carbs and protein give off the least heat, at 4 calories per gram. Alcohol (my favorite) comes in second place at 7 calories per gram. And fat provides the most heat at 9 calories per gram.

Sticking with the campfire example (pun intended), carbs are like kindling. They burn quickly and are a necessity for getting things started and building a fire. They are great breakfast foods. 

Protein is like a bundle of wood you buy at the grocery store that costs about $10. It is good for building your fire and providing a framework. Protein takes longer to burn.

Fat is like that big fat tree stump you put on the fire. It takes forever to start burning, but when it does, it provides fuel for a long time. 

Alcohol is like lighter fluid. You might use it if you suck at building a fire from scratch. At first it produces a bright, amazing flame and you think: This fire is awesome. Who needs wood when you got lighter fluid, brah? But the fire, and fun, doesn’t last. The flames usually die off in about 10 seconds and you’re back where you started from. 

Drinking alcohol has the same effect. The moment you take a shot, pound a beer, or drink a fancy glass of rosé, the alcohol gets absorbed into your bloodstream and the flame ignites, releasing fun, drunken energy. But the flame burns away, and you soon feel like a burnt out stick. 

How much fuel do you need?

Well, it depends. The size of your body, and how much you use it, determines how much wood to toss on your campfire. The smaller you are, or the more inactive you are, the less wood you need. If you’re tall and active, you’ll need more.

Most people follow the 2,000 calorie-a-day standard, but this is an average amount. A small, sedentary female will get fat eating 2,000 daily calories because her campfire is small. But a gigantic, active manbeast will lose weight because his bonfire is ginormous.

Bottom line:

Your metabolism is like a campfire. Know how much wood you need to toss on it or you’ll get fat. To find out, google “calorie calculator,” choose one of the millions of calculators, and plug in your information. This knowledge will help ensure your campfire burns bright and incinerates anything you toss into it.

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Keeping Your Foundation Strong. A Message from Vitamin D.

Dear humans,

Hello, my name is Deon. You may know me by my Earth name: Vitamin D. With winter upon us, I thought it necessary to provide you with critical information.

First, I ask that you keep this message confidential. The Academy of Nutrients, Vitamins And Minerals (ANVAM) has made me swear not to reveal my true identity—that I’m one of many sentient nano beings employed to work inside the human body to ensure it functions properly.

I work closely with my friends, Cali and Phred (you know them as Calcium and Phosphorus) to keep your bones and teeth healthy. I also do some work on the side to keep your immune system and genes healthy, but for the sake of this discussion, my primary job is in the Bones and Teeth Division. 

I don’t live inside your body, I just work there. I travel via pills, food, or on a beam of ultraviolet light. I prefer light travel—it’s fast, efficient, and I enter through your skin in a greater capacity. Food is a much slower vehicle, and humans rarely ingest me because I’m found in disgusting foods like sardines and cod liver oil. However, for the past ninety years, food scientists on Earth have been fortifying me in milk and cereal, so many humans onboard me during their breakfast.

When I travel to your body I’m always in hypersleep, which means I’m dormant upon arrival. I must be transported to the liver or kidneys to be activated. There my work shift begins!

My job classification is a Regulator. Along with my supervisor, Paul Thomas Harold (aka Parathyroid Hormone), we make sure Cali and Phred are in the right place and in correct balance so your bones and teeth work at optimal efficiency. I’m the only member of ANVAM that possesses the magic keys that will unlock the doors to bones and small intestines, which is where Cali and Phred are absorbed and begin their work shift. I especially need to keep an eye on Cali. She’ll sometimes get lost or try to leave work before her shift is over, so I make sure she doesn’t hop aboard a pool of your urine and exit the body. Losing too much of her could lead to weak bones.

Sometimes, if you don’t eat the right foods or see enough sunlight, I’m unable to report to work. This is especially common during the winter months in Earth’s northern regions (and the reason I’m sending this message). When this happens, Cali and Phred are on their own, gathering outside your bones and small intestines waiting for my magic keys. But since I’m not there, they can’t do their job. Potentially, this could lead to an outbreak of osteomalacia or rickets—and your bone foundation might deteriorate like a house whose structure has been digested by termites. Not fun.

So this winter, make sure you eat vitamin D-fortified foods or take supplements. I put in a lot of hours taking care of you; I’d hate to see your bones slowly crumble into a pile of dust.

Happy new year!

-Deon

Deon Dihydroxy III
Regulatory Communications Officer
Bones and Teeth Division
Academy of Nutrients, Vitamins, and Minerals


How to Trick the Undead this Halloween

It’s damp, cold, the last warm breath of summer whisked away with a pile of leaves. You grab your now musty jacket and sit on the porch glider, swinging and shivering, telling yourself fall is better than summer because of the beautiful leaves.

You shift your eyes away from your half-dead tree in the front yard and notice a pack of people walking down the street. At first, you think they’re children walking to the nearby middle school. But as they get closer, you notice something much more horrific than pre-pubescent teens.

This can’t be happening. You rub your eyes, and look again. The people are not children, but undead creatures—zombies, wraiths, and skeletons—floating and limping towards you. You can’t believe your eyes! Their bony fingers on outstretched arms are holding small colorful packages—oranges, browns, reds, blues, yellows—the only things bringing color to their lifeless bodies. You squint and reveal one of your darkest evils, a caloric evil you have successfully avoided all year:

Peanut butter cups!

Chocolate bars!

Candy!

The undead are on your front yard now, tempting you to binge on their treats, wanting you to inhale as many calories as possible until you feel depressed and miserable, until you feel as if you’ve gained five pounds in one day. You stand up from the porch swing, checking your hips and love handles. Determined, you shout, “NOT THIS YEAR!”

Don’t let Halloween and the annual return of the undead transform your hard-earned 4-pack stomach into love handles by the end of Christmas. Don’t put yourself through another haunting New Year’s resolution filled with promises of weight loss. Instead, use the following tricks to fight back and free yourself from the impending holiday doom.

Trick #1: Learn control

Like a famous soothsayer once said, “Control, you must learn control!” Whether you’re invading your kids’ trick-or-treat bag or eating everyone’s chocolate donations at work (because they would rather you get fat than them), the key is control. Only mental prowess and will power can save you. Only then can you conquer the undead.

Trick #2: Limit yourself

Don’t let Halloween turn into World War Z. It’s okay to treat yourself, but try to limit your candy consumption to a max of three pieces. A mini peanut butter cup is about 50 calories. A fun size chocolate bar is around 75 calories. Keeping yourself under 200 calories for a treat is okay, and it will help satisfy your cravings. If you find yourself chowing down on a sack of sweet tarts and fun-size chocolates like it’s a bag of microwave popcorn, then the candy zombies have won.

Trick #3: Balance things out

It’s all about balance when maintaining weight. You probably hate hearing that—hell, as a dietitian I hate saying it—but unfortunately it’s the truth. If you eat candy, balance it out with exercise or cut back on a snack or beer later in the day. It’s easy to burn off 200 calories—just hop on the nearest elliptical machine for a quick 15-20 minute stride, or take a walk or two around the block and admire the dead (colorful and beautiful) leaves. Or if you don’t want to exercise, and would rather be a sedentary snail, opt out of a second helping at dinner or pass on the late night soda, chips, pumpkin ale, or goblet of wine.

You have a long haul ahead of you this holiday season. It’s important to get off to a good start. There’s a big fat turkey with cheesy potatoes and pumpkin pie waiting in the wings, only to be followed by calorie-laden holiday parties filled with grandma’s Christmas cookies and ginormous feasts large enough to feed the city of Whoville instead of a family of four. Without a little discipline, it’s easy to gain 5-10 pounds in two months. Over your lifespan that adds up—and if you’re not careful—you’ll be 70-years-old and 300 pounds, and the undead crawling up your front yard won’t be holding candy, they’ll be holding heart and diabetes medication.


Fat is on Your Freeway. Understanding Good and Bad Fats

Gone are the days when we simply looked at the Total Fat value on a nutrition label and could tell if a food was healthy or unhealthy. If the fat was too high, it was bad for us; if the fat was low, it was good for us. Done!

Well, it’s not the 1990s anymore. We now know there are many different types of fat—and we need to distinguish between them. For example, a fat could be saturated or a trans fat. Or it could be an unsaturated fat, which is an umbrella term for many different types of fat, including: monounsaturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids—and Omega-3, Omega-6, and Omega-9 fatty acids.

Omega-WHAT? Sounds like Omega Supreme, the old-school Transformer that transforms into a giant space rocket!

No, these fats are not the names of Transformers, even though some may sound like it.

Not only do we have to decipher their pronunciation, we also have to figure out which are healthy, which are bad, how much are in our food, and how much we need to eat—or not eat—everyday!

This can wrinkle one’s brain. So here is my attempt to unwrinkle it.

Evil Fat
Saturated fat and trans fat are the bad guys—the antagonists of our story. These fats are solid at room temperature and include foods like lard, shortening, tallow, stick butter, coconut oil, marbled meats, and partially hydrogenated oils.

Saturated and trans fats are bad because if you eat them, your cholesterol levels increase. This could lead to blockage in your arteries.

Imagine these villainous lipids sludging around your bloodstream like semi-trucks or “OVERSIZE LOADS” on the freeway. They move slower than the rest of the traffic, take up a crapload of space, and impede your blood’s progress as it seeks to drive downtown and deliver oxygen, nutrients, and other cargo to the heart, brain, or any other one of your body’s megalopolis of organs. Too much evil fat leads to nasty bottlenecks and traffic jams, restricting your bloodmobiles from getting to their important destinations. If they get stuck in traffic, say goodbye to downtown—power’s out—and say hello to blood clots, aneurysms, strokes, hemorrhages—AND the number one cause of death: heart disease.

Good Fats
Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, are the protagonists. The good guys. These fats are are liquid at room temperature. Common food sources include fish, seeds, nuts, nut butters, and vegetable oils. These good fats zoom down your body’s interstate, forcing semi-trucks and oversized loads to pull over at truck stops and weigh stations (where they belong). Unsaturated fats help improve our cholesterol levels and protect us from heart disease, clearing the freeway for our bloodmobiles to make it downtown.

How Much do we Need?
According to the latest dietary guidelines, we need about 40-80 grams of total fat per day (about 20-35 percent of our total daily calories). Simply put, we shouldn’t eat more than 20 grams of saturated fat per day. All other fats should be good fats.

Trans fat will be banned from the food supply by January 1, 2020 (they are no longer recognized as safe by the FDA), so you probably won’t need to watch out for these vilifying fats much longer—unless you’re eating deep-fried pigs feet at the county fair—then you might have other issues to worry about.

To find out how much unsaturated fat is in a food, look at the total fat value on the nutrition label, subtract the saturated and trans fat—and presto, not only are you the next John Nash, you’ll also know the amount of good fat.

So the next time you see a high total fat value on a nutrition label, don’t freak out. It’s not the 1990s anymore. Look closer. Most of the fat could be your body’s protagonists clearing up your freeway, enabling your bloodmobiles to cruise downtown and do their job: keeping you alive.

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Antioxidants: Cleaning up Your Body’s City Streets

The word Antioxidants is tattooed everywhere we shop for foodfrom cereal boxes and sports drinks to waters and nutmilks—you’d think consuming them would lead to immortality. But through all this antioxidant hype from food marketers, there’s one question that comes to my mind:

What in the hell is an antioxidant?

As a registered dietitian, I don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about nutrition. The technical definition of antioxidant should probably be stored in my permanent dietetic memory banks. But the fact is, it isn’t. Ever since I’ve become a parent of twins and turned 40-something, my memory bank only seems to store information it has to. So when I want to remember something scientific or technical, I make a point to translate the complexities into information that’s easy—and more fun—to understand.

That said, antioxidants are vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients found in food that help protect our cells from things called free radicals. Free radicals are troublemakers. They pollute our body, cause disease, and make us age faster—and no one likes that. Think of them as vandals, terrorists, and criminals. They roam around our body’s streets, carrying guns, knives, sledgehammers, steel pipes, and bottles of spray paint, damaging our cells and DNA, and causing a myriad of diseases—like heart disease and cancer.

The antioxidants, on the other hand, do the opposite. Think of them as your body’s police squad and construction crew. Like the police, they cruise around, patrolling the body, and arresting the free radical thugs from smashing through windows or blowing up buildings. They are also like construction workers because they repair everything the free radicals destroy—kind of like how a construction crew fills potholes, fixes broken down power lines, or adds a fresh coat of paint to old, graffiti-laden buildings.

Antioxidants are the good guys—the Avengers to our Thanos. You can find them in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and beans. They come in many identities, including: vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, quercetin, catechins, and anthocyanins (just to name a few).

So eat more salads, grill more vegetables, snack on mixed nuts, and hork down fruit instead of candy bars. The more colors you eat, the more diverse your antioxidant supply, and the more superheroes you’ll have to fight off the bad guys. You probably won’t achieve eternal life, but you might just live a little longer to enjoy the many fruits that life has to offer.

That is the simplest way I can define an antioxidant. I may have left out some details, but I think it’s close enough—unless we’re obsessed with biological and physiological systems and want to dig into the science, which is probably interesting. But for me, I’m saving space in my brain for other things.

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