Food For Thought: All Calories Are Not Created Equal

If you’ve ever attempted to lose weight at some point in your life, you’ve probably heard the popular concept that it’s all about “calories in vs. calories out.” Many health experts would argue that weight loss is as simple as eating fewer calories than you burn– regardless of where those calories come from.

I couldn’t disagree more.

[source]

First of all, this concept is based on the idea that a “calorie is a calorie.” In other words, it assumes that our body handles the calories from an apple the same way it handles the calories in a Twinkie. Common sense alone should tell us this idea is questionable.

Do we really think a Twinkie is going to enter and leave our bodies as easily as an apple?

According to Dr. Mark Hyman, “The food industry tries to convince us that all calories are the same; that a snack of carrots or Oreos is the same as long as they are 100 calories each. The science proves otherwise.  Sugar calories act differently in the body, driving biology toward diabetes.  And carrots aren’t addictive but sugar is.” [source]

Hopefully, we all knew that already.

But, even when only considering REAL foods, our bodies may actually handle calories differently–> depending on if the calories are composed of protein, fat or carbohydrates.

This was news to me.

Here’s an example of how our bodies handle macro-nutrients differently:

Two British researchers, Gaston Pawan and Alan Kekwick, developed one of the most dramatically effective weight-loss approaches ever researched. They created their break-through diet after studying overweight subjects and placing them into three groups. Each group received 1000 calories a day.

So, if it really is a matter of calories in vs. calories out, all the subjects should lose weight consuming such a low number of calories, right? 

Wrong.

Though they all were fed the exact same number of calories, the percentage of macro-nutrients was different for each group. One group was fed 90% carbohydrates, the second group was fed 90% protein, and the third group was fed 90% fat. And here’s what’s shocking–> the group fed 90% carbohydrates actually gained an average of .24 lbs a day during the study.

The group receiving 90% protein lost an average of .6 lbs per day during the study, and the group receiving 90% fat lost an average of .9 lbs per day during the study. [source]

So, whoever said “eating fat makes you fat” obviously has never heard of this research. In fact, some “fat fasts” that have proven to be very effective in terms of weight loss! (Dr. Atkins based his “fat fast” on the research above.)

Now, let me be clear–> I’m not recommending you try this at home!

No drastic measures are needed, nor are they recommended, without proper medical supervision. Fat is an effective fat burner only in the absence of carbohydrates, so this would mean taking drastic measures with your diet. I would never recommend cutting out precious fruits and veggies just for the sake of quick weight loss, since I believe gradual lifestyle changes are the key to lasting success anyway.

But this study does prove, in fact, that calories are not in created equal.

Different compositions do yield different results!

Reader Feedback: Do you watch your calories? Have you tried counting calories to lose weight? I’ve definitely “been there, done that”– falling victim to the standard 1200 calorie range, which I think is too low for most women— and I found it maddening to keep track of all those numbers each day.  It’s much nicer not worrying about it anymore!

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Comments

Angela @ Eat Spin Run Repeat

Wow, this is so weird because I was just thinking about the same topic yesterday! Like you, I’ve been a calorie counter in the past with great success – I lost 70lbs, but I’m also well aware that calorie counting can have its drawbacks! (Obsessiveness to name one). I totally agree with you that 100 calories from something like a Twinkie are NOT the same as 100 calories in an apple. I think it’s also worth mentioning that even though you might eat the equivalent number of calories in junk food, those foods are usually devoid of nutrients. I’d rather get the fiber and vitamins from an apple than the empty sugar calories in a 100-calorie refined sugar-laden packaged baked good! 😉

    Megan

    That’s so impressive, Angela! But, I agree, the obsessive aspect is definitely a drawback…

LizAshlee

Yes I have…in high school I would eat energy bars and add up the calories…I was so addicted..no longer do I count calories, rather I look at consuming whole foods, lots of fruits and veggies. Happy Friday!

    Megan

    You know, when I was counting calories I was consuming a lot more packaged foods– like energy bars and lots of fake soy products! It’s funny how when you start focusing on whole foods, it would actually be a pain to go look up the calorie counts!

sophie

what book did you get this info from? i’d like to do some reading too!

kaity

so interesting! i was obsessed with the calorie counting for awhile i even had a journal (i never even had to lose a lb tho im thin already) and through all the readin it bought me to vegan and i love itt, sometimes i do still count cals for desserts tho wich im tryin to let go of.. so interesting tho the fat thing i love my fats and its true people get it so wrong like i have in my past and stare at me when im putting coconut oil in everything lol

    Megan

    Ha, I still get some funny looks when I add coconut oil to my food, too!

Shallin

Thanks for bringing awareness to this, Megan! I have learned a great deal about this subject from The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson. It is the idea about living and eating the way our primal hunter-gatherer ancestors did and that your body has to burn its sugar stores (from ALL types of sugar) before it begins to burn the fat stores. For anyone that is interested for more information, this is a great resource!

    Megan

    I enjoyed reading Mark’s book, too! 🙂

Sam

I also recommend dr. jack kruse blog, he is has done the grat job and explain everything about leptin resistant and craving insulin weight issue hormones thyroid, eating disorder etc. I have read primal body primal mind great book, but I think jack kruse is step forward his result is outstanding. He is helping many people.
I have been counting calories when I wanted to gain weight when I was breastfed my little boy

    Megan

    Thanks for the recommendation, Sam! I’ll check out that blog. 🙂

Allyson

Great post, very interesting! I wish they would do a similar study using different types of Carbs – grains vs fruit vs starchy veggies…
and see who gains the most. All these studies seem to focus on weight but I bet “real” food has a tremendous benefit to overall health not just weight.
Thanks.

    Megan

    I agree, that would be a really interesting study! Unfortunately, I feel like investors aren’t willing to pay for studies unless it’s going to somehow make them money… and there’s very little money to be made on “healthy people.” (Frustrating!) I absolutely think real food has a tremendous benefit to health!

    Surprisingly, though, losing weight using ANY method seems to benefit health– at least, in the way we currently measure it. (using cholesterol levels, blood pressure, etc.) The professor who recorded his “Twinkie diet” lowered his bad cholesterol and triglycerides while lowering his BMI, too… which isn’t helping our case. However, I think we all know better, even if our methods for proving it aren’t quite as developed as they should be.

jeanne

Very interesting topic, thanks! In reading through the other comments, most of us use “obsessed” when talking about counting cals…I too was victim to this for a long time, resulting in anti-social behavior (avoiding meals out, drinking, etc) and just being a really anal and quite frankly, a boring person who always worried about food…plus I never really lost any weight because I’d be so hungry or craving or depressed that I’d binge! Now if I’m craving I indulge…last night after dinner pms hit and I had a whole dark chocolate bar and a tub of goat yogurt with gobs of honey, properly combined and I don’t feel guilt or bloat at all today…Lovely!

In terms of types of calories I’ve found that I agree with this as well. For many years the bulk of my diet was vegan…loads of grains, beans, etc I was hungry alot and never lost weight. I’ve since added in the dairy and a little meat and I feel awesome and can see some muscle tone for the first time…ever! I still have fruit every morning and I enjoy a good sweet potato or oatmeal …just not every meal every day 🙂

I agree with you 100%, it’s so much nicer not worrying anymore! We can go out with friends, enjoy delicious decadent (hello dark chocolate, cheese, nuts, avocado and wine!) foods, and loosen up about the whole food/diet thing. Such a better way to live and I truly believe that relaxing the obsession and sometimes indulging in a way that’s comfortable and safe for us increases pleasure, lowers stress, and assists in weight loss/maintenance 🙂 Sorry for the novel, have a great weekend!

    Megan

    Oh, I can relate, Jeanne. With the calorie counting came obsessiveness and eventual binging for me, too! I feel much better since ditching the calorie counting, as well as all of my previous vegan and vegetarian labels.

    Relaxing about it all seems to be much more effective, anyway! And way more fun. 😉

      Ashley

      What’s bad about sweet potatoes?

Red Deception

Counting calories is too complicated. I just aim to eat nutritiously and honor my cravings.

Nadya @ Spinach and Yoga

Megan, this is such an interesting topic.
While I do agree that not all calories are created equal and that macronutrients and micronutrients have to be considered equally when creating a balanced diet, there are way more things that come into play with weight loss. Emotions, snacking and blood sugar, internal image of self, etc…
But speaking just about the calories and where they come from, I strongly believe in different body types. According to my observations different people will have different weight loss success based on their particular body type. Vata types need a lot of fat in their diet. I eat Nutivas coconut manna by spoons and dont gain weight from it:). But it would not be the case for a Kapha person who doesnt do well on a fat-loaded diet.
Also fat vs carbs vs protein diets will also have a different effect on people emotionally. Fat will ground and calm down, while carbs will give more energy and lightness. Kaphas need light carbs from vegetables to get rid of lethargic heavy feeling.
Another interesting thing is that people with Vata imbalance usually suffer from constipation and adding more healthy fat like coconut oil often helps to solve the problem:).
Just my two bits:)
Happy weekend!

Christina W

Hey!

I have recently started counting calories, actually. I have always been overweight, and never found a good way, to lose some of the extra pounds. Until now. I use a danish webside (since I’m from Denmark…), which is called madlog.dk. It is a tool, where you write, what you have been eating, and it calculates for you, how many calories it is. You also enter your height, weight etc., and it tells you how many calories you should be eating a day, to lose weight. So far so good. It is based, on the thought that you should eat less calories than you burn. But, as you write, of course a calorie is not a calorie. Therefore, the Danish Health Department have made an official statement of how your calories should be divided. It’s 55 % carbohydrate, 25 % fat and 20 % protein. This is also shown in the website I use. The website also tells you the amount of minerals in your food, so you can keep an eye on that.

For me, it is the best way to lose weight. Yes, it reguires some obsession and control, but it has really been an eyeopener for me, to see how many calories I eat, but also how it is combined in carbohydrate, fat and protein.

/Christina

{lauren} the talking kitchen

Hi Megan, I just found your blog and love all the info I’m learning! I’ve tried counting calories but never stuck to it. Following the Zone’s ‘blocks’ was about as intense as I ever got, it really made me see just how many carbs I was eating, and how I never seem to satiate… until I felt really sick.

Lisa

Oh yes, I have fallen victim to the 1200 standard. WAY too low if you are an active individual and not under 5 feet tall. I do still count calories, and find it hard to not count because I definitely do not eat enough if I’m not counting, but also wish I could stop being so obsessive on hitting certain amounts each day. It is not normal for a healthy person to do. I like this study, but also different macro nutrients do have different ways of sitting in the body. For example, eating more carbs makes your body hold onto water, thus increasing your “water weight” a bit, so it would make sense their weigh was higher, and fat takes up less volume, thus not as much weight in your stomach resulting in people to weigh less. I do agree however, that a calorie is not just a calorie. You get way more benefit and nutrition from an apple based on 100 calorie pack of chemical induced products. Yuck. Great post!!

Don

Megan,
As much as I enjoy your site and agree with your sensible means to total health. I do however have to respectfully disagree with you on this point.
Taken directly from Dr. Jeff Schweitzer who wrote the must have book for those trying to understand the truth around calories and how to eat to stay healthy and lean. ‘Calorie Wars: Fat, Fact and Fiction’
-There are not different kinds of calories. A calorie is a unit of energy; just as there are not different types of inches or different types of degrees Fahrenheit, there are not different kinds of calories. A calorie is the amount of energy it takes to raise one cubic centimer of water by one degree Centigrade at atmospheric pressure. Period, end of story, nothing to argue about. A calorie is a calorie is a calorie just as an inch is an inch.

Of course different foods have different nutritional value and varying health benefits; we want to consume foods with a good balance of protein, fiber, minerals, etc. But the huge mistake people make is to confuse nutritional value with type of calorie. A calorie of fudge is precisely, exactly, perfectly equal to a calorie of broccoli. But of course the calorie from broccoli will lead to better health – not because the calories between fudge and broccoli are different – they are not – but because broccoli has better nutritional value.

I urge your followers to check out JeffSchweitzer.com and see for yourself. ‘Calorie Wars’ is a simple unbiased book on diet, that isn’t written to sell you on a particular diet but rather to educate you on what your body needs and how it deals with what you feed it.

AT

I have lost 80 lb in the past year using the myfitnesspal calorie counting tool. I strongly feel that calorie counting is a great way to get started toward healthy eating. I started out desperately needing to lose weight to resolve movement issues caused by being overweight. As I entered my calories, I began to learn what food provided the most satisfaction for the least calories. So I have went from terrible eating (fast food, frozen food, etc.) to all fresh meats, vegetables, fruits, etc. over the past year. Calorie counting really helped me move in the right direction naturally. Knowledge is power and tracking your calories helps you get that knowledge. I still have 40 lb to go, but I have learned so much over the past year that my life has changed. I will track my calories to maintain my weight forever because it is still possible to get too much of a good thing if you are not paying attention.

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