Sunday 17 December 2017

Shape Up: Sugar is full of sweet nothings

All calories are not equal - when it comes to shaping up it's quality, not quantity, that counts

Library Image. Photo: Getty Images
Library Image. Photo: Getty Images

Damien Maher

THE term 'calories' originated circa 1890 from a scientist named Wilbur Atwater. Atwater got the idea of putting food into a special machine, which he later called a calorimeter, setting the food on fire, and measuring the amount of heat it produced.

He decided to call the energy produced by burning the food into ash 'calories', and so he was able to figure how many calories were contained in just about any food you could think of.

Soon after, scientists applied the same concept to exercise. They figured out how many calories were 'burned' doing everything from sleeping to cross-country skiing. Thus evolved the notion that weight gain happened when a person took in more calories than they burned up.


The body, it was reasoned, behaves like a calorimeter. When we digest food, we use up the resulting calories in daily life and exercising. If there is more coming in than going out, you gain weight. If more goes out than comes in, you lose weight. Simple.

The problem with this theory is that our body does not act like a calorimeter and this misleading advice led people to believe that the only way to lose fat was to count calories. While there is some truth in this, advertisers have muddled the message.

Two hundred and fifty calories from a bowl of low fat, sweet-tasting cereal is not the same as 250 calories from poached eggs, even if the net calories are equal.

The low-calorie theory is great for infomercials. To them, it's all about the calories -- the sugar within these products is OK, and once you stick within your caloric range you won't get fat.

Unfortunately this doesn't take into account your body's hormonal response to sugar, and the time of day you ingest your calories.

Some sweet foods, like cakes, turn into sugar straight away in our bloodstream, and even foods like orange juice behave in the same way.

Our bodies cannot distinguish between labels, and so both are treated like sugar.

Sugar has been shown to depress our immune system, deplete our body of minerals such as calcium and it makes our pancreas work hard producing insulin to bring our blood sugar back down. If the body is unable to get energy into your cells, or you have been inactive, you could be left with high blood sugar, high insulin and the sugar ending up in your fat cells.


Calories are important but it's the effect and the source of calories on blood sugar and hormones like insulin that you need to understand. 'Healthy' low-calorie bars and fizzy drinks may only contain 200 calories, but they will have a different effect on your body than 200 calories of chicken and broccoli.

The low-calorie bars and fizzy drinks will spike insulin, while the chicken and broccoli provide nutrients for building bones and muscles.

Furthermore the fibre in the vegetables slows the flow of sugar into the blood stream.

Chicken and broccoli will help provide satiety and prevent over-eating, while cakes and biscuits will keep you on the blood-sugar roller-coaster that inevitably leads to health problems such as obesity and diabetes.

The timing of your meals is also important. Eating a meal containing 1,000 calories at night will have a different effect than if you had five smaller meals of 200 calories each.

If your goal is muscle gain and fat loss, five small meals is a much better way to help you achieve your goals.

The amount of calories you need will depend on your goal, physique, muscle mass and activity levels.

It is an individual thing, and the aim is to find out what caloric intake and activity or exercise frequency is necessary to create a net calorie deficit to achieve the goal of fat or weight loss.

You need to educate yourself on what type of calories work best for you, and how much. It isn't that complicated, but it does take a bit of time to nail down. A rule of thumb for getting into shape is to take in 10-12 calories per pound of body weight, assuming exercise levels are moderate, at three to four times a week.

Carbohydrate intake should depend on body composition, lean mass or muscle, and activity. By analysing your results regularly, with weekly body-fat measurements, you can determine if the weight you lose is muscle or fat.


Carbs, fat and protein intake and calorific intake are all influential if your goal is fat loss. A study by Harvard University's Dr Penelope Green demonstrated that both carbs and calories count.

She took three groups. Group one was a low-fat group eating 1,500 calories (1,800 for the men) while group two was a low-carb group eating 300 calories a day more than group one.

Group two, the higher calorie group, lost a bit more weight than group one, the low fat, lower calorie group. This demonstrates the principle that it's not just about calories.

Group three was a low calorie, low-carb one, where the women consumed 1,500 calories and the men 1,800. The results? This group lost the most weight of all.

To get the best out of your controlled eating plan, you need to pay attention to both carbs and calories.

Get your calories to the amount you need to run your particular metabolism, limit your processed carbs so you don't spike your hormones and increase your fibre. Then you will be well on the way to success.

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