Exploring the Concept and Flawed Application of the Caloric Measure

Sometimes it’s good to take a step back, check our logic and assumptions on a topic, and make sure our basic understanding still holds water.  Kinda like checking for that weak link in your strength chain.  A sanity check every now and then can save us from wandering lemming-like over the cliff of smug confidence.  And what could be more at the root, in reference to our understanding of diet, than checking our assumptions about the basic unit of nutritional measure, the calorie.

Well, not much of a surprise in this instance; the calorie – the unit measurement standard of nutritional science — is still a lousy standard for measuring human fueling requirements; a little like trying to accurately measure in inches with a metric ruler.

So here’s one major problem (among many) with mainstream nutritional science; in fact, I believe this problem to be, ultimately, the “shifting sands” that has bedeviled mainstream nutritional science’s foundation from the get-go: the concept of the calorie as being an accurate measure of the human body’s energy metabolism.  The problem is, of course, that the body does not “burn” fuel in the same way as does, say, an internal combustion engine.  And that single misstep – that simpleton way of thinking about human metabolism — drives the entire “all calories are treated equally in the body” mindset.  It’s an “error carried forward” that mucks-up the entire science.

The problem, of course, is that the body is not a simple, thermodynamic entity, but is more akin to a highly, highly complicated biochemical reactor; a calorie-equivalent amount of fat and carbohydrate will undergo radically different processes within the body, and result in two totally different metabolic outcomes.

Sanity check?  Yeah, we’re still on the right track.  It’s not the amount of fuel so much as the content that matters.

Carl Lanore, of Superhuman Radio, recently interviewed Dr. Peter Rouse (who wrote a guest post with respect to the “calorie standard flaw” on Carl’s blog, here).  Nothing new to those of us who’ve busted free of the “all calories are created equal” mindset, but an interesting interview and blog post nonetheless.

Thursday Night’s Beat the Storm Workout –

…another from the “it ain’t gotta be complicated to be effective” files…

Living in eastern North Carolina has hardened me to the scare tactics of Doppler RADAR, as a check of the region’s conditions on The Weather Channel for any given summer evening will reveal shifting splotches of greens, yellows, oranges and reds – enough to keep any (sane) rider from venturing out.  Not me, I saddle-up and hit the road anyway.  Last night, though, was different, as Doppler RADAR revealed the leading edge of a cold front marching west-to-east across the region.  Severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings began rolling in from counties to the west.  So what to do?  Drive to the gym?  Yeah, right.  What, and miss out on such great incentive?  I did what any true fixie man would do – I saddled-up and hit some serious sprints toward the gym.  And that hard tailwind had me feeling like superhuman – until I remembered that I’d have to fight the same wind on the return trip.  Oh well…

My idea here was to blast through these 4 sets as fast as humanly possible, then saddle back up and make the mad dash for home, hopefully beating the storm.  Autoregulation at the 6-rep range.  Only enough rest between exercises to allow for shifting stations.

deadlift (over/under grip): 225 x 10; 315 x 6; 365 x 6, 5

weighted dips: 45 x 10; 70 x 6; 90 x 6, 7

Nothing at all pretty here, but damn if it wasn’t metabolically taxing.  This was completed, door-to-door, in just under 40 minutes.  2.5 miles of fixed-speed intermittent sprinting, the blistering super-set, and a 2.5 mile sprint (with urgency!) back home.  The headwinds from the approaching storm had to be topping 40 mph, and that sprint home – especially on the heels of that dips/DL superset — was punishing.  The reward?  Watching the storm rage while frying up some post-workout NY strips 🙂

Insulin Response

“Men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all the other alternatives.”

Abba Eban

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photo cred: DeathByBokeh

Inundate yourself with Paleo-minded information long enough, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that insulin is the consummate “bad guy” hormone.  That’s a little too simplistic a way to look at insulin, though — even for those of us who, though not trained specifically in the medical sciences, choose to enhance our lives through proper diet, exercise and well-rounded knowledge.  Insulin is, of course, critical for life and optimal health, and it’s not the hormone per se that is inherently evil, but the gross tilting of that hormone level beyond anything that the human body has evolved to handle that defines the problem.

In this clip (alternatively, you can jump to the Nov. 8th, 2009 WOD from the CrossFit home site), Robb Wolf discusses a case study in obesity, metabolic syndrome, and (though he doesn’t get into it here), the classic indicators of carbohydrate addiction.   If you’re a member of the CrossFit Journal (I highly recommend it, though I’m certainly no shill for CrossFit, nor do I fully endorse all of CrossFit’s ideologies), you can view a much larger portion of this video (over 7 minutes worth).

The take-away message here — and what we, as Paleo-minded, physical culturalists need to keep in mind — is that, within the body, insulin’s dictate (when excessively elevated) is to is promote/accelerate energy storage, maturation, reproduction and decline (death).  And from an evolutionary prospective, of course, this all makes perfect sense.  Quicker turnover equates to a more nimble and adaptive species.  In your grandma’s day, young girls matured in their later teens.  Nowadays, girls as young as 9 have reached reproductive maturity.  I’m not saying all of this can be laid at the feet of a hyper-insulin environment — there are plenty of other notable suspects lurking about in our diets — but I’d be willing to bet that an out-of-control insulin level has a big hand in this.

And just as Robb alluded to in the clip, the body can’t be fooled by artificial sweeteners.  The key is to successfully break the desire for the sweet taste (and thus eliminate the carb jonze), not placate that need by the use of artificial sweeteners — the equivalent of handing out methadone to heroin addicts.

Though we use the metaphor frequently, the body is not a simple furnace that serves solely to liberate energy from raw material.   There are complex storage and release components at work as well; hence the truth of a calorie not being a calorie.  The amount of energy contained in a calorie is, of course constant; what’s not constant is the hormonal impact that calorie source will have upon its host.  The first law of thermodynamics works fine for a closed system (the “furnace model”), but not for an open system, i.e., a living being.

In health,

Keith