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Understanding Energy Measures in Nutrition and Metabolism

Energy Measures in NutritionTo an elite level athlete, these nutrition and metabolism fundamentals may be well known, but your everyday nutrition clients will need coaching on all or most of this information – therefore your knowledge of these items is expected and will be used frequently while in the field.

What is a Calorie?

A calorie is a metric unit of energy and in most fields, its use is archaic, having been replaced by the unit of energy, the joule. However, in many countries, it remains in common use as a unit of food energy. The kilocalorie per mole remains in use by a lot of health professionals.

Definitions vary but are all based on raising the specific heat capacity of water. A gram calorie, approximately 4.2j, is based on one gram of water. A kilogram calorie, equal to one thousand gram calories, is based on one kilogram of water.

In the field of nutrition, and especially food labeling, a larger unit is used and referred to interchangeably by the terms calorie (or Calorie) and kcals.

You can see that there are a couple of ways to express energy from food. The most common measurement in the metric system used in the United States is the calorie. Remember that a calorie is really a measurement of heat. More precisely, it is the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree Celsius.

Calories, due to their small size, are instead often referred to as a kilocalorie(s), commonly abbreviated kcal.

As noted, if you reside outside of the US you may know of kjoules instead of kcals or kilocalories as they are referred to commonly. Use of the term kilojoule is more common in other parts of the world and is actually the standard unit for describing or measuring energy in the International Unit System. 1 kcal is equivalent to 4.2 kj.

ATP and nutrition

As humans, we derive energy from the foods we consume as these foods go through the digestive system within our bodies to be both broken down and made into usable energy for our most simple biological systems and processes. Every macronutrient (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) plays an important role and provides various amounts of ATP. This transformed energy is then available for immediate use in the form of ATP. The ATP molecule is composed of three components (tri, meaning three). At the center is a sugar molecule (ribose) and attached is a string of three phosphate molecules (delineated as ‘P’ in the diagrams provided throughout this section).

During hydrolysis (breakdown) of ATP, an enzyme catalyzes the reaction when ATP joins with water. During the process, the outermost phosphate bond splits, releasing a considerable amount of free energy (which is then available for work). This energy can be used to build proteins, contract muscles, etc. Although this appears to be a laborious process, this occurs rapidly and does not require oxygen. The remaining molecule is adenosine diphosphate (ADP) because there are only two phosphate molecules remaining (di, meaning two).

ATP is both used and required by ALL cells in the body and also carries the potential energy to provide cells for use in the body as needed. As you can see the connection between ATP and nutrition.

Also, consider the same connection between ATP and muscular work – even just sitting upright in a chair requires that muscles work constantly, so the ability to maintain posture requires ATP. Taking things one step further, a physically active exerciser will need ATP in even greater amounts before, during and after each bout of exercise. It’s important to remember that during hydrolysis, the outermost phosphate bond is cleaved for all of this to be possible and the various metabolic pathways exist solely for the purpose of generating the appropriate amount of energy needed.

Energy From the Macronutrients

Carbohydrates are preferred by the body as the main macronutrient source of energy. Carbohydrate is unique in that it is the only macronutrient that in its stored form, can be used for anaerobic metabolism of ATP. Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in both the liver and muscles. Glycogen is easily converted to ATP; while limited in supply, the need to replenish this energy source will be necessary upon normal stores being depleted. This translates to the type of food intake the individual follows -high carbohydrate or low carbohydrate and therefore carbohydrate consumption also determines the level of glycogen storage. Higher carbohydrate intakes would allow for increased levels of glycogen storage, with the opposite being true for low carbohydrate diets.

Fat is another important macronutrient in human physiology. After carbohydrates stores have depleted, fat is then metabolized for ATP production. This aerobic type of metabolism can be on-going for extended bouts and as part of this design, there is always enough stored body fat in the body to tap into for ATP generation. In this process, the sources would be from adipose (fat) tissue and triglycerides stored within the muscle. While average carbohydrate reserves can provide about 2000 kcals for use, the fat renders nearly 50 times that amount. This is due in part to the energy density of fat, which means that each fat molecule provides up to 460 ATP, about 9 times that of carbohydrate energy totals. Fat metabolism also takes longer, as a process, by comparison to carbohydrate metabolism.

As a last resort, the body can turn to protein to make energy. Protein is tapped into when there are times of no food intake over extended periods. In times of carbohydrate restriction, protein is also used to make glucose – just as it is during extreme activity or physical activity bouts. As an inefficient source of energy, proteins are amino acids that must be converted to usable forms of energy through more complex metabolic pathways.

Before protein can be used for energy, the nitrogen ‘backbone’ of the molecule must be removed. This deamination leaves a skeleton of carbon molecules behind that can then enter the Krebs cycle to be synthesized into a glucose molecule for energy. As stated, this is a complicated process and involves the actions of the liver to support gluconeogenesis, as it is known.

Protein samples become more visible under a microscope only after they are stained – normally, molecules are not “colored” as they appear in books.

What about alcohol? A lot of people consume liquor but are not aware of their nutritional profile. Alcohol is sometimes considered a nutrient because it does provide calories but its use is not appropriate either before (including the evening before), during,  or immediately after activity or exercise. Alcohol should not be consumed above and beyond/over recommended amounts as it is not used as a major energy source during any activity. In some situations, consuming alcohol causes performance decrements because of its diuretic effects and due to its impact on liver function (glucose output is influenced by liver activity).

One significant difference in the eating plan for an athlete is the timing of food intake or consumption. This could include making suggestions to your client on proper complex carbohydrate consumption prior to a bout of physical activity and/ or simple carbohydrate consumption afterward. This basic nutrition information is what is expected to achieve results for your client, and to apply the principles of coaching, by relying on your science fundamentals and your specific knowledge of both macro and micronutrients.  Remember, if you possess knowledge above a ‘basic’ level, you may engage your clients in dialogue about nutrition without fear of penalties.

Avoid making suggestions about specific food choices and portions, but you can certainly provide feedback about food choices made, or explain to clients HOW to learn the difference between portions and serving from information provided on food labels. There are countless ways that you can strategize healthy eating options for ANY client, no matter what level of experience or circumstance – provided you are referring out clients when they present conditions outside of your normal scope.

Nutrients From Food

The foods that we consume provide nutrients and there are six different categories of nutrients. A nutrient is an organic chemical that an organism requires to live and thrive – or a substance used in an organism’s metabolism, which must be taken in (consumed or eaten) from its environment.

Nutrients are the substances that nourish the body, as they build and repair tissues, generate heat and energy, and act to regulate body processes.

Methods for nutrient intake vary, and as humans, we consume foods that are digested by an internal digestive system. Nutrients have a collaborative effect; meaning that they work synergistically with other nutrients.

The organic nutrients that we have already learned include carbohydrates, fats, proteins (or their building blocks, amino acids), and vitamins or macronutrients.

In addition to both types of organic chemical compounds discussed, there are inorganic chemical compounds such as dietary minerals, water, and oxygen. A nutrient is considered essential to an organism if it cannot be synthesized within the organism in adequate quantities and must be obtained from the environment. To review, nutrients needed in large quantities are called macronutrients; micronutrients are those required in only small quantities.

One-on-one coaching works best for Fitness nutrition…this is probably due to the individual differences that clients bring to the experience.

not know about nutritional intake or food labels. This is an informal measure or assessment of the client’s awareness and shows how well they understand the significance of each, both personally or individually.

How much does your client know about food? Food label discussions are one of the best methods a coach can use to begin a dialogue with clients and to assess their levels of understanding.

Programs such as the Lifestyle and Weight Management Specialist, also offered by NESTA, focus on making food intake strategies based on weekly assessments, as do other well-known weight loss programs. Weekly coaching for nutrition and eating planning is usually sufficient unless the needs lie outside of the norm. During these weekly sessions, the Coach is informally assessing compliance, knowledge, and understanding. This is an acquired coaching skill and will vary from client to client.

You will have to learn how your client learns. Are they compliant or do they need a lot of attention and focus? Are they clear on what is expected? All elements below should be clear to the client:

  • Serving size
  • Servings per container
  • Total Calories
  • Calories from fat – by percent, if possible

You are the coach. You actually have a starting point that precedes the actions of the client, as you ASSESS your client. Like all health-related professionals, a Certified Nutrition Coach will be required to both have and use a battery of assessment tools and skills. Only after an assessment can the FNC come to a point of making suggestions and to understand the client’s biometrics more clearly.

How You Can Help

The NESTA Sports Nutrition Specialist course is designed for personal fitness trainers, strength coaches and nutrition experts who want to learn cutting-edge techniques for increasing sports performance, reducing recovery time, and enhancing the overall well-being of your clients and athletes.

If you want to help clients with food, diet, weight management and improving the results of their fitness routines, the Fitness Nutrition Coach course is for you. You will learn about optimal nutrition, including proven techniques for increasing energy, optimal health and decreased dependence on medications. Instantly increase your job and career opportunities with this popular professional credential.

You can become a Certified Personal Fitness Chef and expand your current personal chef business, or add a new profit center for your fitness or wellness business. Many personal chefs cook and coach people in groups to help more people and earn more money per hour. Some chefs provide weekly meal prep service for health-minded customers and athletes.

Check out what it takes to start a career in personal fitness training. This is your most affordable and fastest way to become a highly qualified personal trainer.

NESTA coaching programs are open to anyone with a desire to learn and help others. There are no prerequisites.

That’s it for now.

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