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How Calories Become Fat

The basic physics of fat loss is "calories in - calories out = fat." The assumption here is that excess calories become fat. That assumption has yet to be overturned by evidence.

The equation raises some related questions:

  • When does the body consider calories as "excess?"
  • How does the body count calories?
  • When does the body implement the equation (when do excess calories become fat?)

Many whacko theories arise from not knowing the answers to these questions. The most commonly held of these theories is that you can overdose on calories via a huge meal, as long as you "work it off" within some reasonable time. Such theories are delusional excuses for overeating. The reality is you are bound by that equation.

Yet, the equation has a few twists. Let's take a look at what they are. In so doing, we will answer the questions posed above.


All calories are not created (or used) equal

Think of food as fuel and your body as a fire. Some fuel burns slowly, like firewood. Other types of fuel burn like woodshavings. And some burn like gasoline.

In the case of your body, we want to apply the analogy not to calorie consumption (burning) but to the transition of sugar from the food to the blood.

Some calories transition very quickly into the blood. How quickly this happens is known for many kinds of foods. You can see which foods spike your blood sugar by reading the glycemic index. Here are some highly glycemic foods:

  • Root vegetables (e.g., carrots, potatoes).
  • Sweet fruits (e.g., bananas, pineapple).
  • Dried fruits (e.g. prunes, apricots).
  • All fruit juices (you are essentially bypassing a portion of your digestive tract).
  • All "engineered" foods--corn (after 5,000 years of cultivation for sweetness) is the classic example.
  • Air-popped popcorn (the oil in traditional popcorn slows the transition enormously).


More, below....


Calorie shuttling

Your body isn't designed for today's way of living, but for an earlier era. If you had been stalking prey and then engaged in a battle to kill it, your muscles would have depleted much of their glycogen (sugar) stores. So, the first calories that showed up in your bloodstream (this is important to distinguish from "the first calories you ate") would go directly into the muscles to replenish the glycogen.

When you take in calories, the body looks for a place to put them. Your body must maintain blood sugar levels within certain limits. Too little, and you have insufficient energy to function. Too much, and you get excessive oxidation activity--important structures like nerves get destroyed. This too much problem is why diabetics have so many health issues--and suffer from blindness, loss of feeling, and so on.

The main hormone for controlling blood sugar levels is insulin. As blood sugar rises, the body pumps out more insulin to lower the blood sugar. Insulin will cause sugar to be taken up into the muscles, first. If the muscles have no room for the sugar, then the presence of insulin causes the body to turn the sugar into fat and store this fat. How long this takes is a function of how much sugar is left after storage in the muscles and how much insulin is circulating. This can vary considerably between individuals and even with the same individual, but it tends to be on the order of minutes.

Eat a potato, and you'll have new fat before you get up from the table--it's too late to "work it off."


Keeping calories from turning to fat

You can prevent calories from turning into fat, if you follow the advice here. It isn't especially hard to do, but you must decide to do it.

  • Eat 6 small meals a day, rather than 3 large ones. This allows you to put calories into the glycogen storage areas and have far fewer left over. This means fewer calories turn into fat. There are other benefits, as well.
  • Exercise, even if just a little bit, before you eat. This creates some room in the cells for calorie storage. 
  • If you are eating because you're hungry, make a decision that you won't do that for 6 days. That's all--just 6 days of misery. What you'll find is your body adjusts in about 3 days. When the 6 days are up, you are no longer fighting this problem. When hunger does hit, just tell yourself it's only 3 hours between meals and you can wait. Drink a glass of water or have some green tea to settle your stomach.
  • Are you eating your post-workout protein-carb combo as a seventh meal? Shame on you! Go back and do the calorie math.
  • Look at your portion size. Make a habit of cutting fruits in half. Store one half in a container for later. For example, eat half an apple rather than the whole thing.


Now let's see the answers to the questions raised by the equation:

  • When does the body consider calories as "excess?"
    When it has no room to store the sugars in the cells. At that point, it goes to Plan B, which is to turn those blood sugars into fat so they don't oxidize nerves and other vital structures.
  • How does the body count calories?
    It does this indirectly, by monitoring blood sugar levels. When these are too low, the body demands more calories. When these are too high, the body stores the calories via Plan A (glycogen in the cells, if there's room) or Plan B (fat, if there's "no room at the inn").
  • When does the body implement the equation (when do excess calories become fat?)
    See the answer to the previous question.


Some people try to work around natural laws, by consuming foods that contain poisons like fat blockers and left-hand sugars. These are not the answer. These are not sustainable, and they do cause problems in the body. The answer is simply not letting food control you. There is no reason you can't control portion size. If you find eating reasonable amounts of food hard to do, then follow these tips:

  • Turn off the television. Ever notice how many food ads there are?
  • Throw out all of your processed foods and refuse to buy more. If you are eating real food--not stuff laden with various forms of sugar--you will find it easier to control your intake. Read your labels, and don't eat junk.
  • If ordering at a restaurant, order and eat only foods you can identify. This means you simply do not eat things where undesired hidden calories can lurk.
  • Avoid or eliminate sauces, creams, dressings, and other items that simply cover up the good taste of real food while adding enormous amounts of empty calories.
  • Eat foods that are nutrient dense (e.g., dark green vegetables) instead of foods that are calorie sense.
  • Determine if you have an emotional eating disorder. This is easy enough to do. Every time you eat outside of your scheduled 6 meals or every time you take second helpings, write down a note as to what you were thinking about and feeling at the time or just prior. Keep this log for a week. Then, look for patterns.

If you are an emotional eater, you need this course:

Remember, excess fat greatly increases your risk of disease. For example, a man of average height is 400 times as likely to get prostate cancer if he carries an extra 40 lbs of fat than a man who does not carry extra fat. Excess fat is very costly in many ways. Control your calories, so they don't turn into excess fat, and you will save money while eliminating a major cause of suffering. Enjoy life by eating right!


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 Where an article is not bylined with a specific author's name, it was written by Mark Lamendola (see photos on home page and elsewhere on this site). Mark is a 4th degree blackbelt, has not been sick since 1971, and has not missed a workout since 1977. Just an example of how Mark knows what he's talking about: In his early 50s, Mark demonstrated a biceps curl using half his body weight. That's a Jack LaLanne level stunt. Few people can even come close. If you want to know how to build a strong, beautiful body, read the articles here.

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