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Metabolism Math: Why Counting Calories Doesn’t Add Up

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Most of us are all too aware of what calories are. We tend to define them in one of two categories — high calorie foods are bad and low calorie foods are good, right?

Is it really that simple? If so, then surely a 198 calorie pop tart is superior to a 289 calorie avocado.


To muddle matters even more, there’s a grave shortage of accurate or even helpful nutritional information. One source may say, “everything in moderation.” Another says, “nothing is safe!”

What’s the truth?

In future newsletters, we’ll dig into more specifics regarding how to support our overall health and immune system with nutrition. This is vital information as many of us with chronic illnesses such as fibromyalgia, ME/CFS, arthritis, and autoimmune conditions deal with nutrient deficiencies that contribute to our ongoing symptoms.

This article focuses on the way in which a body processes calories and why this key principle can help to point you in the right direction.

As you can imagine, how we metabolize our foods is a bit more complicated than “calories in / calories out.” To better illustrate this concern, let’s view the metabolism as if it were a bank account. I hear this analogy all the time, but often those descriptions fall short of creating a clear picture. I intend to demonstrate a version here that comes closer to fact than to fiction.

To begin, let’s look at Simple Math. This is where simple deposits and simple withdrawals are made. The math is easy. Let’s say you make a $40 deposit and then a $20 withdrawal. You’re still left with $20. That’s your balance – your bottom line.

Next is Compound Math. The math gets a bit more difficult here, but it also gets very exciting. That same $40 deposit and $20 withdrawal can turn your $20 balance into $200 or $2,000 (and more) over time when compound interest is applied. In this example, it’s not just what you deposit and withdraw – it’s the interest rate that adds the punch. Over time, even small deposits can, and do, make a big difference.

The Principles of Metabolism Math

Now let’s look at what I call, Metabolism Math. This is where things get interesting. In this example, Simple Math applies as well as Compound Math. So far, so good. But here’s the twist. What if the rate of interest constantly changes? This fluctuation in rate could depend on the amount of the transactions, the type of transactions, the time of day they’re made, and even who makes them. The fluctuations, therefore, are unique to each and every person’s banking habits.

If this sounds complicated, you’re right! But you can clearly see that by using a bit of strategic banking habits, your dividends could add up exponentially.

Now, back to the metabolism. Simply counting calories (adding what you consume and subtracting what you burn) is like the Simple Math example above. If this were true, our weight would be easy to predict. It would be a matter of Simple Math. It’s obvious then, that things just don’t add up. We all know people who consume large amounts of calories and never gain weight while others consume very little, yet pack on the unwanted pounds. Our bodies are not basic, rudimentary Simple Math machines.

Relating our metabolism to the example in the Compound Math scenario comes a bit closer. That not only takes into account the amount of calories you consume and burn, but also how often you do so each day. It shows that your behavior – over time – has an effect on your “bottom line.”

But yet, this illustration still needs a few more tweaks.

The Metabolism Math explanation demonstrates that many factors relate to your bottom line balance. To begin with, not only are the calories you consume important, but so are the types of calories. For example, healthy fats and fiber have a direct effect on how fast or slow calories are processed (as well as how they’re stored). There’s a measurable difference between how the body metabolizes a sugary, empty-nutrient food such as a pop tart and a nutrient-dense and fiber-rich food such as an avocado. (HINT: Choose the avocado.)

Metabolism Math takes into account many other factors, too. Factors such as the overall health of the body (and of the digestive system in particular), the specific health of the immune, hormonal, and adrenal systems, the time of day, a person’s stress and anxiety load, how the foods and nutrients are combined, the hydration levels of the body, the accumulative effects of a nutrient-poor diet, a person’s ancestry/genetic makeup, and much, much more.

Applying Metabolism Math – The First Steps

As you can see, the metabolism is a complicated topic, but here’s the good news – eating well is not! Use simple concepts when planning your meals. Look for whole, natural, nutrient dense foods. Look for packaged foods that list a few ingredients on the label. Better yet, look for non-packaged foods with no labels at all (i.e., fresh produce).

You may feel that these simple changes couldn’t possibly make a difference. But do the math. Little changes result in great dividends down the line when Metabolism Math is considered.

Here’s how this probably relates to you. A body dealing with chronic illness is already compromised. Among other things, the inflammation we experience affects our ability to process, absorb, and put the nutrients we consume to use. Because of this, many of us are (unknowingly) malnourished. Due to an unhealthy digestive system, we may not be able to efficiently absorb the healing nutrients we need. This contributes to a cascade of systemic (throughout the body) problems including immune system dysfunction, hormonal dysfunction, and an inability to effectively eliminate toxins from the body.

I remark in my book, FibroWHYalgia, that fibromyalgia should be referred to as “Systems Gone Berserk Syndrome.” While I was poking fun at the inability to define our condition in just one word, the fact is that fibromyalgia does affect every part of the body. The fibromyalgia body reveals significant imbalances within each body system. Restoring balance is therefore not easy, but oh-so worth it.

The good thing is that simple actions can provide all-over benefits. Proper hydration is a great example of this. Here are just a few of the many benefits of drinking adequate amounts of water:

  • Improved digestion
  • Improved blood flow (assisting with cardiac health)
  • Improved removal of toxins from the body (detoxification)
  • Pain relief – both joints and muscles
  • Improved cognitive function (mental clarity)
  • Improved skin health
  • Helps to regulate body temperature

As mentioned, we’ll dive into more nutritional topics in the future – especially about how foods can support your health goals. But for now, just take a few small steps toward improved health. Include drinking clean, pure, filtered water into your daily habits. Make fresh and unprocessed foods a larger part of your meals. Keep it simple.

Considering that May features Fibromyalgia Awareness Day, isn’t it a great time to increase your awareness of how your actions can improve your overall health? Now is a perfect time for a healthy beginning. Eating, after all, is the one consistent activity that you do each and every day.

So … what’s on your fork? Your healthy future begins today and is important enough to make every bite count!

Sue Ingebretson ( is an author, speaker, certified holistic health care practitioner and the director of program development for the Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Center at California State University, Fullerton. She is also a Patient Advocate/Fibromyalgia Expert for the Alliance Health website and a Fibromyalgia editor for the ProHealth website community.

Her #1 Amazon best-selling chronic illness book, FibroWHYalgia, details her own journey from chronic illness to chronic wellness. She is also the creator of the FibroFrog™– a therapeutic stress-relieving tool which provides powerful healing benefits with fun and whimsy.

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