For me, a healthy life is all about balance. Balance between work and play, exercise and rest, family and friends. A healthy lifestyle is underpinned by choosing the right foods to create balance in our diets along with regular exercise. Every mouthful we consume gives us energy and we need to use that energy if we don’t want to gain weight. Do you remember science class, learning the ‘Law of energy conservation’? It states that ‘Energy can neither be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another’. This is what happens with digestion. Virtually everything we consume has energy in it, in the form of ‘calories’. This energy is converted by our digestive system into energy for our cells and building blocks for our bodies.
This is a perfect equation, when in balance. But like everything in nature, when the balance if off, problems arise. When we consume more energy than we expend, that energy is converted and stored. As glycogen, in the case of carbohydrates, then fat. And this is the very simple cause of the obesity and overweight epidemic.
I have written many times about this topic, presented to audiences around the country and in Europe and dealt with many clients who are tackling being overweight and by and large, it comes down to energy imbalance. In fact, I was presenting to an audience in The Hague in Holland recently. I was doing some research into the incidence of heart disease and obesity in their country. I noticed that Holland was one of the countries in Europe that had the lowest incidence of obesity and consequently, heart disease. I always like to acquaint myself with the hard facts of something and then just look around and observe people and their habits. And there was one massive difference between the Dutch and any other country I’d visited. They cycled. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I’d arrived at the main train station in The Hague. I jumped in a taxi (the irony is not lost on me!) and as I was sitting in traffic outside the station I was looking at the people coming and going. There was a huge ramp, coming from what looked like a multi story car park, but it wasn’t cars parked in there. It was bikes, thousands of them, as far as the eye could see. I’d never seen anything like it before, I was so taken aback, I took a photo of it. See for yourselves. On the journey to my hotel I passed tons of cyclists, the pathways and cycle lanes were littered with them, young and old, male and female, families and commuters. It really was something else and I bet if you’ve ever been to Amsterdam, you’ll know that the locals cycle everywhere, even to nightclubs!
Anyway, the point of that story is to show that when we move our bodies the way they’re meant to be moved, really, worked, the energy we consume is balanced out with what we expend.
We all have a basic requirement of energy, just to be kept alive, at rest. This is called our Basal Metabolic Rate, (BMR), the least amount of energy required for our hearts to beat, blood to circulate, kidneys and liver to function properly, our lungs to inhale and exhale, our intestines to absorb nutrients, to maintain our body temperature and our brain to control the lot. This accounts for about 60-70% of our total energy needs. After that, we need extra energy to be able to get out of bed, brush our teeth, work, play, exercise, ride that bike.
So how much do we need? This changes depending on age, gender and activity levels. Even hormonal fluctuations slightly alter our energy requirements – well, we need energy to secrete hormones! Because of these fluctuations, you can see the flaw in adopting a ‘one size fits all’ approach to calorie control.
The guidelines for calorie intake are a good place to start and you can tailor your specific energy requirements based on your BMR and your activity levels. You can work this out by looking up the Schofield Equation 1991, but bear in mind that these values have an estimation error value too. One of my mentors told me years ago that the easiest guide to figuring out someone’s BMR is to find out their perfect weight, I like to call it your ‘fighting weight’, the weight you’re most comfortable at, and convert it to pounds then add a zero. So if your fighting weight is 10 stone, you’re 140lbs, your BMR is 1400. Please bear in mind that this is a guide and estimate ONLY. But again, it’s a good starting point. Now, you can calculate the extra calorie requirements based on your activity levels throughout the day. Check out http://www.coca-cola.ie/health/work-it-out-calculator.html# for an easy way of calculating each activity and its energy usage.
Knowing the calorie content of what you consume is also important but equally important is being aware of portion size. Labels will detail the calories per 100gm or 100ml of something but oftentimes, you may consume more than that so you must calculate accordingly.
We have free choice over what it is we consume. Along with that we need to be mindful and aware of what that is, how much of it we take in and what we have to do to offset the energy. A calorie is just a measurement of energy, its what you do with that energy that counts!