Why a Calorie is not a Calorie
Of all of the nutrition dogma out there, the concept that a “calorie is a calorie” is one of the most confused. The idea that simply counting calories and following the “calories in, calories out” philosophy is the answer to health and weight is highly misunderstood. It is true that calories have the same amount of energy regardless of the source, but the human body is much more than a simple math equation, so understanding why a calorie is not a calorie is vitally important to our health.
When it comes to calories, the biggest difference between the calories from real food and processed food is the nutrients that they contain. Yes, 1 sweet potato and 1 granola bar may both contain 200 calories, but the nutrients that those calories come with is the biggest reason why a calorie is not a calorie. Our bodies are more than just simple computers calculating calories in vs. calories out, our bodies are complex systems that have thousands of chemical reactions occurring at one time, and it is the nutrients present in the food that we eat that are responsible for these reactions. Carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals are the building blocks of our bodies, determining how efficiently they function, not the number of calories we ingest. A sweet potato and a granola bar may both contain 200 calories, but a sweet potato comes packed with fibre, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, and many more nutrients, while a granola bar comes packed with added sugar, vegetable oils, and toxic food additives.
Although many people are concerned about calories, I would argue that most people don’t actually know where calories come from. Calories are sources of energy that are derived from the food that we eat, namely from the carbohydrates, proteins, and fats that we consume. For every 1 gram of carbohydrate and protein you eat, you consume 4 calories, for every 1 gram of fat that you eat, you consume 9 calories. The thing is, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats all have vitally important roles in our body, and consuming an appropriate balance of these macronutrients is vital to our health. Eating 2,000 calories per day solely from carbohydrates does not provide the same health benefits as consuming 2,000 calories per day from a balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Experts often talk about consuming a balanced diet and this is exactly what that means. A daily intake of 2,000 calories from cereal, bread, and pasta (carbs, carbs, carbs) will have a very different impact on the body than a well-balanced day of oatmeal, broccoli, chicken, olive oil, and avocado (carbs, proteins and fats). Where your calories come from is far more important than how many you are consuming.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that different foods impact different systems in the body and have different effects on our satiety. Trying to consume 500 calories from ice cream is much easier than trying to consume 500 calories from eggs; you’re talking 2 scoops of ice cream vs. 6 eggs. Whole foods, especially whole food sources of protein and fat, are incredibly filling and satiating to our bodies, while processed foods are hyperpalatable making them very easy to over-consume. Eating 500 calories of eggs will not only provide nutrients, but will keep us fueled for hours, where 500 calories of ice cream is likely to disrupt our blood sugar and trigger more sugar cravings within hours of eating. The satiety index is a measure of the ability of foods to reduce hunger, increase feelings of fullness and reduce calorie intake for the next few hours. Calories from real food are high on the satiety index, as you need less to stay full, while processed foods are low on the satiety index, as they end up leaving you hungrier than before.
The final reason why a calorie is not a calorie is the most complex, but also the most important. Every time that you eat something you trigger is signal of chemical reactions in the body that influence your hormones, including insulin, leptin, and ghrelin, just to name a few. Insulin helps to manage your blood sugar, and in turn your fat storage, and works in conjunction with all of the other hormones, however, the quality of the food that you can really impact the efficiency of these hormones and whether they are working for or against you. All of these hormones work together to determine what you eat and how much you burn, and the calories from oatmeal and Fruit Loops are going to affect this relationship very differently. Everything that we put in our mouth affects our hormones, which affects our hunger cues, which affects our cravings, which affects what we eat next, how our body stores those calories, and how our body can burn body fat.
The Bottom Line
I’ve said it before and I will say it again, when it comes to eating well food quality will always trump food quantity. You can count your calories until you are blue in the face, but if you are not focusing on real food, you will never get the lasting results and long-term health benefits that you are looking for.