Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Calories demystified.

For the uninitiated (you), calories are a mystery. I was once like you. Confused. Confounded. Carefree. But one day, I was forced to take a more active role in my health and started by reading nutritional labels. And then I took a nap because, wow, are they boring.

Nutritional calories are made up of varying percentages three things: Fat, Carbohydrates and Protein (there’s a fourth source, alcohol, but it isn’t represented on nutritional labels and is delicious).

Fat calories have a value of 9 calories per gram. Carbohydrates and Protein have a value of 4 calories per gram. Alcohol, if you’re interested, has a value of 7 calories per gram (and is delicious).

To add to the confusion (or FUN!), there are different types of Fat.

Trans Fat is the current trendy pick for being the worst of the worst. It’s usually placed in italics for emphasis, like the hair standing up on cat’s back—DO NOT TOUCH! At the moment, Trans Fat is seemingly being phased out, however, it’s most often found in baked goods, like muffins and donuts. If you haven’t figured it out by now, it’s best to avoid this type of fat altogether.

Saturated fat is the next worse type of fat, but you should be able to consume up to two grams per day without significantly increasing your risk of heart disease (or so they tell me; I am not a doctor).

Polyunsaturated and Monounsaturated fats are what are considered “healthy” fats, so long as you consume them in reasonable quantities, and are found in things like almonds. A handful of almonds per day is completely reasonable. A can of almonds the size of your fist? Not as reasonable.

Carbohydrates are also broken down on a label into smaller parts, basically “good” and “evil”.

Fiber is nature’s laxative. It keeps the food you eat moving along without any unplanned stops. I think the recommended daily amount is 35 grams of fiber. At that quantity it’s also recommended that you invest in some good reading materials for the bathroom. Fiber comes in two forms: soluble and insoluble. One helps you retain water better, but I forget which is which and, honestly, most of the labels don’t even break it down to that level. So let’s just say that all fiber is good fiber.

The Mr. Hyde side of Carbohydrates is sugars. Sweet, sweet seductive sugars. Natural sugars found in fruit and vegetables are considered healthier (although sugar is still sugar and should be limited). Refined sugars are less desirable, but, like saturated fat, can be consumed in reasonable quantities. Let’s say a good ratio of sugar to total carbs should be 1:2. That sounds pretty reasonable, right?

Thankfully, mercifully, protein is just protein. But you have to consider the source. Protein from animals brings with it cholesterol, which should be consumed in moderate amounts, and the less red meat the better. Protein from soy, beans or nuts doesn’t have cholesterol and is a major protein source for vegetarians. 

Put them all together and you should ideally get about 20% of calories from fat, 40% from fiber-rich carbohydrates and 40% from lean protein. Or a sandwich. Which you can wash down with some alcohol*.

*No, I'm not trying to get you drunk.