Are all calories equal?
For the pedantic types among us, the answer is an obvious yes. But for the context of most conversations regarding nutrition, the answer is a resounding no! I believe that 99.9% among us would understand this point, however, there is always one in the crowd. I recently had a reader point out an obvious typo that got past us as if the word “misled” being misspelled as “mislead” made any real difference in the context of the article. So to appease the point one percent who might not understand, I will explain what a calorie is and why they are not quite right in their thinking.
What is a calorie?
A calorie is a unit of measure defined as the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. However, when we use the word calorie in terms of nutrition, we are actually talking about the amount of kilocalories a specific food item has. This is what we find listed on nutrition labels. One large kilocalorie (kcal) is the equivalent of 1,000 small calories.
When we eat, we are supplying our bodies with energy in the form of heat so that our bodies can function. In essence, the smarty pants among us are correct in that there is no difference in the energy provided by calories from any food. A unit of energy is a unit of energy, no matter where it comes from.
What are we talking about when we ask if all calories are equal?
Obviously, we are actually referring to the source of the calories. When we compare the calories from a chocolate bar against the calories from healthy foods, they are clearly not equal. They are not equal simply because they come from foods that are not equal in nutritional value. We do receive energy from the calories in a chocolate bar, but we do not receive any nutritional benefit from the chocolate bar. Therefore the calorie sources are obviously not equal in quality. Hence the term, empty calories which is commonly used.
Everything we do depends on the calories (energy) we consume.
Our bodies are constantly burning calories, just by being alive. No matter if we sit on the couch all day, or run marathons, we are constantly burning calories which must be regularly replenished. You might require two thousand calories per day to maintain your weight. However, if those calories do not come from nutritious foods, your health is eventually going to suffer. Your health will eventually suffer even if you do manage to maintain your weight. When you consume “empty” calories, you will eventually become malnourished and not even know it.
You can be at a healthy BMI and still be malnourished my friends. Malnutrition happens when you are not getting enough nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, through your diet.
Do you fully understand why we gain weight?
Based on the flawed concept that all calories are equal, you might believe that your sources of nutrition do not matter. I have known people who insist that they do not eat that much, yet still can’t lose weight. They will insist that on top of not eating much, they also exercise regularly. These people often believe there is something unique about themselves to prevent their weight loss. Only on a rare occasion might this be true. The problem is, they are eating too many calories from the wrong sources. Those sources are simple carbohydrates found in high calorie, low nutrition foods that spike insulin.
The most fattening foods we can have in our diet are those that have the greatest effect on blood sugar and insulin levels. These particular foods are those with concentrated sources of carbohydrates that we digest quickly. In other words, we are talking about food and drink that contain added sugars, refined flours such as breads and pastas. These foods flood the bloodstream very rapidly with glucose. When our blood sugar goes up, so does our insulin levels. These actions cause most of us to get fat.
Some of us get fat not solely as a result of eating too much and living sedentary lives…
We get fat because we eat too many foods with added sugars, refined flours and starches. The thing all these bad foods have in common besides spiking our glucose is they do not contain fiber which keeps our blood sugar and insulin in a healthy balance.
Insulin works to deposit calories as fat and to inhibit the use of that fat for fuel. Carbohydrates are required to allow this fat storage to occur. Since glucose is the primary stimulator of insulin secretion, the more we consume carbohydrates, the greater the accumulation of fat. This problem gets compounded even more when the carbs come from refined sources. Carbohydrates drive insulin, which is driving us to get fat. It is for this reason that I do not advocate diet programs that allow the individual to eat as they always have. It is a bold faced lie to tell people it is okay to still eat refined carbohydrates as long as they track it.
Not all sources of calories are equal!
We know that carbohydrates drive insulin which drives fat. However, there is no reason to quit eating all carbs. Our bodies need well balanced nutrition that includes foods that provide us with complex carbohydrates. It is the simple carbohydrates from refined sugars, refined flours and starches that cause us to get fat. Simple carbohydrates digest quickly as they do not contain any fiber which helps to regulate how quickly glucose is absorbed into our blood stream. Calorie count alone does not determine whether a food is nutritious. It is more about the type of calorie, such as whether it supplies vitamins, minerals, and fiber or if it is void of nutrition and more of an “empty calorie.”
Weight loss is a complicated process for almost all who have ever attempted to lose weight. Factors that matter in our weight management include a combination of genetic makeup, hormonal controls, diet composition and the impact of environment on your lifestyle, including sleep, physical activity and stress.
Life is not fair, some people seem to be able to lose weight more quickly and more easily than others. However, everyone loses weight when they burn more calories than they eat. To lose weight, you have to create an energy deficit by eating fewer calories or increasing the number of calories you burn through physical activity or both. Since not all calories are equal, if you are having trouble losing weight, you need to consider your food choices.
If you feel that you cannot cut your caloric intake enough to lose weight in a healthy manner, then you have to analyze the source of your calories.
Not all calories are equal my friends.