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1200 Calorie Myth

Anyone who’s ever tried to diet has heard, followed or been told they need to eat less and exercise more or some version of that.

Every woman who has struggled (still are) with their body composition has been told at some point they need to consume 1200 calories a day in order to lose weight.


Why is eating less and exercising more still the leading advice when it comes to weight loss yet we’re more obese and unhealthy as a country year after year? Where did 1200 calories come from? Honestly, take a second to think does it even make sense? Millions of women throughout the last 100 years have tried to follow this advice with no consideration of individual factors (body type, height, weight, ethnicity, activity level, etc), but have continued to struggle to reach their goals.

Hopefully by end of this article you will have a better understanding of the purpose of the calorie and how to put them in the right place.

Where Did The Calorie Come From?

When the calorie first showed up on the scene (early 1800’s) it wasn’t used to measure energy in food, instead it was a measurement tool in physics and engineering. Fast forward 100 years in 1918 a physician named Lulu Hunt Peters published a best selling book called Diet and Health, with the Key to the Calories. This book sold over 2 million copies which was huge considering there weren’t things like Amazon, Kindle Reader, or any of the technology that makes getting access to information so easy back then.

Dr. Peters brought into culture the idea of thinking of food in terms of calories. She made claims such as “Hereafter you are going to eat calories of food. Instead of saying one slice of bread, or a piece of pie, you will say 100 calories of bread, or 350 calories of pie.” This took no consideration into the quality of the food. This is also where the 1200 calories a day paradigm was born. She brought into culture the association of morality with food. If you weren’t able to maintain your weight you were considered to have a character defect. During this time it was World War I so rationing food and restricting calories were considered an act of patriotism. She stated, “That for every pang of hunger we feel we can have a double joy, that of knowing we are saving worse pangs in some little children, and that of knowing that for every pang we feel we lose a pound.” Though Dr. Peters intentions were in the right place, it has had some negative lingering effects that are still widely believed to this day a century later.

What Is The Purpose Of The Calorie?

The calorie is the currency that we as a country use to describe the value of energy in food. But, what is a calorie and how accurate is it? Scientifically a calorie is a unit of energy. One calorie is the amount of energy you need to heat up 1 gram of water by 1 degree of Celsius.

To measure the amount of calories in food, manufacturers used something called a bomb calorimeter. This process worked by placing a food source in a sealed container, then placing that container in another container that's filled with water. The food was then burned with electrical energy until it was completely incinerated, afterward the water temperature is checked to see how many degrees it was raised thus how many calories that food contained.

This is great from a very simplistic standpoint, but the human metabolism isn’t that simple. The other issue with a bomb calorimeter is that it measures all the calories in food. But, some foods like fiber are generally not burned in the human digestive system.

Companies have now switched to an easier method called the Atwater System to measure calories since being required to put caloric nutrient labeling on foods (1990 Nutrition Labeling Act). Companies use some simple math equations to come up with the calorie amounts to place on their labels. Counting calories and tracking macros aren’t completely wrong, but the human digestive system is way more dynamic than this. Food is more than fuel (energy) when it enters into the human body. There are other factors that need to be considered that affect how the calories we eat will be used.

5 Factors That Affect How Calories Are Used:

Thermic Effect of Food:

It cost calories to absorb calories. It cost the body calories to chew, to swallow, to produce stomach acid and digestive enzymes, to churn the food, and move it through your digestive tract, and the list goes on and on. It’s generally understood that protein costs the most to digest, costing approximately 20 to 30 percent of the total calories in protein to digest, followed by carbohydrates being about 5 to 10 percent of total calories and 1-3 percent to digest fats.

Digestive Efficiency:

Digestive enzymes in the mouth, stomach, and intestines are required to break down complex food molecules into simpler structures like fatty acids and amino acids. If enzyme production isn’t efficient it’ll influence how many nutrients and calories you’re able to get from that particular food. Take two people who have a bowl of ice cream. One person produces the enzyme lactase (needed to break down lactose) and the other doesn’t, one will be able extract the energy from the ice cream while the other person will be blowing the bathroom up and clearing out rooms with their farts. Also your stomach acid production is crucial when it comes to breaking down and digesting food leading to the next factor.

Food Type/Quality:

Certain foods are more digestible than others as well as more giving of their calories than others. Processed foods tend to be stripped of essential nutrients (micronutrients) needed in order to break down and to absorb the nutrients from the food. This plays a big part in why so many people suffer from digestive issues and things like sugar cravings and energy crashes. Another thing we have to consider here is that certain foods have built “defense” systems to not be digested. We have to stop thinking of food as simply fuel for our body. Every living thing on this planet's first priority is survival. Humans, a zebra, blueberries, a virus, and bacteria number one priority is survival. Let's look at blueberries: they allow whoever consumes them to take nutrients from them while hopefully having their seeds move through the digestive tract intact out the other end and hopefully land in some soil to begin the next generation. On the other hand food sources like grains (wheat, rye, barley, millet) contain things like lectins that are antinutrients that wreck havoc in our digestive system leading to things like leaky gut and autoimmune diseases. Now that we have an understanding of how the type and quality of food we eat impacts how well we absorb the nutrients from food we also have to consider…

How We Prepare The Food:

Your ability to cook food has enabled you to develop the most complex and powerful brain on the planet. Cooking has given humans the ability to procure and eat certain foods. Cooking has allowed humans the ability to unlock and deliver more calories to the body (and brain). The department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University affirmed that by cooking starch rich foods and meats substantially increases the caloric density gained from the foods when eaten. Cooking whether its baking, boiling, air frying, microwaving, etc changes the chemistry, structure, and caloric availability of the food. We can’t leave out a major player in the equation...

The Microbiome:

Your microbiome can be thought of as the final frontier of your metabolism and your ability to utilize calories. It’s estimated that humans have 1 to 2 pounds of microbes in their gut and the diversity of these microbes will affect how well nutrients are extracted from the food. The International Journal of Obesity revealed that a higher diversity of gut bacteria is directly correlated with less weight gain and improved energy metabolism (ability to utilize and burn calories). This also shows why two people (same height, weight, and age) can follow a 1800 calorie diet and one person will lose weight while another will either stay the same or continue to gain weight. The microbiome is affected by food quality/type, sleep, stress, exercise, emotions, time of day, time of year, age, ethnicity, and many more things.

In addition to the five factors described above the ability to utilize calories are also affected by how our immune system is functioning (inflammation or sickness), how much muscle mass you have (more muscle means faster metabolism = more calories burned), as well as the length of your digestive tract.

All this information is not meant to prove calories are not important, instead it’s to shine light on the fact that the human digestive system and overall metabolism is way more complex and fluid which is why every woman shouldn’t be eating the amount of calories needed by a toddler (1200 calories) to lose weight. Calories are there for guidance and to allow us to track progress, but when you solely focus on numbers you miss the bigger picture. Whether the goal is weight loss, weight gain, or to just be healthy it should never come at the cost of feeling terrible and having to suffer to have it.

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If you have any questions or comments please leave them below, email or DM me on social media.

Thank you for reading.

~Coach Wendell~

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