A Calorie is Not a Calorie!

by Steven Carney on August 27, 2012

Many health practitioners, especially those educated years ago, continue to repeat the mantra that “A calorie is a calorie.” To lose weight, many recommend cutting calories (a crude measure of energy) below your current level, taking the position that calories from fats, proteins and carbs are the same! Many doctors and weight-loss companies also focus on cutting calories to lose weight. We even have computer apps to track and count calories, making the approach seem legitimate. It’s not!

That overly-simplistic approach to calories is a myth, based on a lack of understanding metabolism. People who use calorie restriction for weight loss often gain all the weight back, plus more! So if you follow that advice of cutting calories to lose weight, it will backfire! Why?

Calorie restriction is neither wise nor healthy. You’ll lose important vitamins, minerals, lean muscle, and bone. It also puts your body into starvation mode, which slows your metabolism further! And any loss of muscle means you now have a smaller engine to burn food calories, making weight gain faster and easier once you stop dieting. In fact, the whole concept of “dieting” or cutting calories/food intake for a few weeks to lose weight is a false promise!

Digestion and metabolism are the key

The reason that “all calories are the same” is a myth is that it doesn’t account for digestion and metabolism, where different foods are processed differently (you can’t use food for energy unless you digest and metabolize it).

During digestion, sugars and refined carbs like wheat break down quickly, from chewing and saliva, and are quickly absorbed after leaving the stomach. Proteins and fats need more stomach acid, bile (from the gall bladder), and other enzymes to be broken down, so those nutrients take much longer.

A simplified scale for the speed of food digestion is this: fats are slowest, then proteins and fibrous carbs like veggies or whole fruits, then refined carbs like sugar, soda, cookies and crackers, are quickest. Refined carbs often spike blood glucose and high levels are toxic to tissues! The result is often extra weight/fat.

And this point is also key: Unlike foods burned in a chamber to find calorie energy, our bodies don’t “burn” food work that way! We aren’t 100% efficient in digesting food, which is good! The slower digesting foods take longer and require more effort, which is a second reason why they don’t tend to add to weight gain.

Consider 2 meals with similar total calories (all values approximate)

Here is a comparison of 2 meals, a 4-oz. chicken breast, a large serving of mixed veggies, a medium serving of brown/wild rice and mug of green tea, VS. a 3-oz. beef burger on a bun, small french fries, and a small, 6-oz. soda.

1. For the chicken/veggie meal, the overall totals are (more details in #1 below):

  • 480 calories for the chicken breast, veggies, rice mix and tea
  • 32 grams of protein
  • 28 grams of complex, high-fiber carbs
  • 22 grams of fat, mostly healthy types

2. For the burger/fries meal, the overall totals are (more details in #2 below):

  • 500 calories for the burger, bun, fries and small soda
  • 24 grams of protein
  • 54 grams of low-fiber, high-glycemic carbs
  • 23 grams of mostly unhealthy fat

NOTE: It was a challenge to get the calories to match exactly (I had to use smaller servings of fries and soda for the burger meal or would have been much higher). I got within 20 total calories which is very close.

Results

  • What stands out the most is that the burger/fries meal has far more refined, low-fiber carbs, and almost twice as many total carbs, 54 vs. 28. Those refined carbs (bun, fries, soda) will spike your blood sugar more quickly, whereas the veggies and rice blend in the chicken meal are more complex carbs. They will digest far more slowly, even slower than protein.
  • The chicken meal has more protein grams (32 vs. 24 grams for the burger), meaning the chicken meal will also digest more slowly because of the extra protein.
  • The fats in both meals were similar but the chicken meal has more healthy, monounsaturated fat.
  • The chicken meal will give you more sustained energy over a longer period of time, resulting in little or no weight gain!

Similar total calories bring different outcomes

The impact on weight is clear! The lower-nutrient burger meal has 54 grams of more high-glycemic carbs, along with lower protein levels. That combo will spike your blood sugar faster and higher (think of a steep rise and fall like a sharp mountain peak), adding to weight gain and inflammation (the sugars, carbs and veggie oils are more pro-inflammatory).

The higher-nutrient chicken meal with nutrient-rich veggies, rice blend and higher protein will digest far more slowly. It will keep blood sugar more stable compared to the burger meal (picture a gradual rise and fall over several hours like a small hill). With the slower rise, you can burn off those calories with normal activity, resulting in less fat. You might even lose weight! It’s also a low-inflammatory meal because it has more complex, healthy nutrients and fats. The green tea adds anti-inflammatory polyphenols.

So the outcome on health is very different for the 2 meals: One leads to probable weight gain and inflammation (the burger meal), while the other leads to stable weight or weight loss, and can actually help to lower inflammation (chicken/veggie meal).

In fact, the typical meal of a burger, fries and soda will spike your blood sugar in an hour (or less), adding to weight gain after insulin is released and glucose is removed from the blood and stored as fat. Unless you are very active after you eat, you will probably store them!

I can burn those calories!

How much activity does it take to burn off the glucose-spiking burger meal? How about 45 minutes of running, cycling or jumping rope to keep from gaining weight! That’s about how much exercise you will need to do to burn up 500 calories and the surge in blood glucose! How many people have these fast-food meals (or make them at home), and are working out for 45 minutes every time they eat that way?

Keep in mind, many burger/cheeseburgers, fries and soda combinations have much larger portion sizes than I used, reaching 700-1,000 calories. That means it would take a good hour (or more) of exercise to burn off the calories and spiking blood sugar for one meal! No wonder so many people gain weight, year after year!

If you’ve seen my other posts, you know that the burger-type meal, with its refined carbs and inflammatory foods, will also contribute to a host of health conditions and diseases, such as heart disease, atherosclerosis, high BP, diabetes, arthritis, cancer and more! Those problems add to the misinformation that all calories are the same. They are clearly not!

Questions or comments? Comment after the post or drop me a line! You can also follow me. See social media icons in upper right.

Nutritional details (values are approximate):

1. Chicken breast meal (baked/broiled with brown mustard), about 160 calories, 25 grams of protein, 0 carbs, 3 grams of fat

  • Veggies (3/4 cup carrots, corn and peas), with spices and 1 tablespoon of olive oil, a healthy, monounsaturated fat: about 200 calories, 3 grams of protein, 18 grams complex carbs (14 grams of fat from olive oil), with vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants
  • Brown and wild rice mix, 4 oz: about 120 calories, 5 grams protein, 20 grams complex carbs, 4 grams of fat
  • Green tea, 10 ounce mug, heated to below boiling: 0 calories, 0 protein, 0 carbs, 0 fat but good antioxidants and hydration

2. Burger meal, 80% lean: about 210 calories, 20 grams of protein, 0 carbs, 15 grams of fat

  • The small bun has about 100 calories, 3 grams of protein, 20 grams of carbs, 2 grams of fat
  • Small serving of fries (about 3oz.) Has about 120 calories, 1 gram protein, 14 grams of carbs, 6 grams of fat
  • The small, 6 oz. soda has about 70 calories, 0 protein, 20 grams refined carbs, 0 fat

Helpful links:

http://www.livestrong.com/article/489260-how-does-body-absorb-carbohydrates-fats-and-proteins/

http://www.ehow.com/facts_5116421_food-longer-digest-others.html

http://www.myfitnesspal.com/food/calories/generic-chicken-breast-4oz-no-skin-baked-broiled-roasted-33095215

http://www.myfitnesspal.com/food/calories/generic-ground-beef-20-fat-patty-hamburger-85-g-3-oz-29119114

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6-oM (Dr. Listig’s breaking video on sugar)

http://www.endsicknessnow.com/blast-5-pounds-and-boost-energy

http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/01/how-is-the-calorie-content-in-food-determined/

In August, 2013, I found this insightful article:

http://health.yahoo.net/articles/weight-loss/calorie-counts-virtually-meaningless-experts-conclude-digestion-too-intricate-be-described-neat-numb

Here is a new 2015 article by Dr. Robert Lustig about the myth of calories:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-lustig-md/sugar-toxic_b_2759564.html 

 © 2012 by Steve Carney/End Sickness Now

{ 2 comments }

James Springer September 13, 2013 at 3:47 PM

This is great information. I lost 145 pounds and never counted a calorie. I’ve maintained my weight for the last 5 years. Having been diagnosed with T2 diabetes I had to change my eating habits, to higher protein and complex carbs to avoid blood sugar spikes. I attribute my weight loss and maintenance primarily to an a1c that hasn’t been above 5.8 for that time period. Generally it runs between 4.8 and 5.3.
When I coach people, I generally tell them if they eat like a well controlled diabetic they will most likely see dramatic results.

Steven Carney September 13, 2013 at 6:35 PM

Hey James:

Yes, controlling blood sugar spikes is the key to stable weight and keeping many chronic diseases at bay. Great job on the weight loss too!

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