Not all calories were created equal

How many of you have been told that if you burn more calories than you eat, weight loss will be inevitable? How many of you have discovered that this advice does not seem to apply to you no matter how hard you try?

Then you think, “I must be doing something wrong, I’ll exercise more and I’ll eat fewer calories than I already am, that should work!” Unfortunately, more often than not it doesn’t.

You might think that a calorie is a calorie. But the way the body breaks down carbohydrates, protein and fat, and the effect they have on our bodies differ vastly. Instead of just counting calories, you should take care where these calories come from. The source of the calorie changes how you digest it and how you retrieve energy from it.  Even more important is the fact that different foods and macronutrients have a major effect on the hormones and brain centers that control hunger and eating behavior. The foods we eat can have a huge impact on the biological processes that govern when, what, and how much we eat.

Selection of food for weight loss

Protein

Protein keeps us feeling fuller for longer by slowing digestion, but its primary role in the body is to maintain and build new cells, growing and adding new tissues. Protein is beneficial for weight loss, as it contributes to satiety and offsets the amount of lean muscle that is burned for energy, in addition to fat, during a calorie deficit.

Proteins provide about 4 calories per gram but there are higher quality proteins, which may reduce appetite and optimize muscle repair and recovery (fish or eggs), and lower quality proteins (hamburger meat) that are loaded with branched-chain amino acids, which have been linked to metabolic disease and insulin resistance.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are by far the most complex because our bodies use the different types of carbohydrates (such as fiber, starch, and sugar) in very different ways. Carbohydrates are used by the body as a quick source of energy, particularly for the brain, liver, and muscles.

All carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram (with the exception of fiber, which our body can’t digest). Though not a source of calories, fiber is considered a high-quality carbohydrate since it slows digestion and moderates the absorption of other nutrients, like sugar. For this reason, high-quality carbohydrates typically contain fiber and are minimally processed. These include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Lower-quality carbohydrates almost always lack fiber and add little more than “empty calories” to our diets.

Carbohydrates have been categorized as simple or complex in the past but many doctors are pulling away from those narrow categories and moving toward glycemic index. An apple is a simple carbohydrate because it is digested quickly by the body, but the fruit is better for you than other simple carbohydrates like chips or crackers. That’s why the glycemic index as a more accurate measure of a food’s value (good or bad). When something has a low glycemic index, it raises your blood sugar levels slowly, increasing your insulin levels gradually.

Apple 600

Focus on low-glycemic foods like whole-grain pasta, wheat bread, fruits, beans, and nuts. High-glycemic foods include candy, croissants, and scones. By choosing the low-glycemic foods and thus the minimally processed foods, people can lose more weight, feel fuller longer, and remain healthier.

Let’s take it a step further and compare calories from two different types of sugar: glucose and fructose.

Starchy foods like rice, potatoes, and pasta are predominantly made up of glucose, a simple sugar that can be burned for energy by every cell in our bodies. It’s stored in our liver and muscles for a quick source of energy during exercise or while we sleep. Unprocessed starchy foods, like brown rice, potatoes with the skin on and whole-wheat pasta, contain the food’s natural fiber as well as some vitamins and minerals.

Fructose can only be broken down in the liver. It’s also the sweetest tasting of the three simple sugars. In nature, fructose is found in fruits bound tightly to indigestible fiber that, as we already know, reduces and slows its absorption. Unfortunately, the majority of fructose in our diets isn’t from fruits (it’s from calorie-containing sweeteners added to sweetened beverages and the majority of processed foods). Fruits also have fiber, water, and significant chewing resistance, which mitigate the negative effects of the fructose. So, try to change these processed foods for real fruits.

Calories in fruits [Convertido]

Fats

In addition to being a potent and flavorful source of energy, fats slow digestion, deliver important fat-soluble vitamins to the body, and provide important building blocks for every one of our cells.

All dietary fats provide about 9 calories per gram but some fats are better for our health than others. For example, polyunsaturated omega-3 fats, found in foods like wild salmon and flaxseed, have protective, anti-inflammatory properties, whereas artificial trans fats have been linked to increased inflammation and heart disease.

A study funded by the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) from the 1960s found that cholesterol and fat were the main contributors to weight gain and responsible for an increased risk for coronary heart disease. With fat removed, food lost taste and appeal, so manufacturers added sugar to combat this. The intake of sugar and processed carbohydrates went up, while our intake of fat went down. Dr. David Ludwig, a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says “Overall, these processed carbohydrates are worse than the fats they replaced.

Also, very-low-fat diets may actually slow a person’s metabolism down to a level where it is not burning calories as effectively as it could, says researcher David S. Ludwig, MD, PhD, who directs the Optimal Weight for Life program at the Harvard-affiliated Children’s Hospital in Boston.

The thermic effect of food

The thermic effect of food is a measure of how much different foods increase energy expenditure, due to the energy required to digest, absorb and metabolize the nutrients. Different foods go through different metabolic pathways. The more efficient a metabolic pathway is, the more of the food energy is used for work and less is dissipated as heat.

The metabolic pathways for protein are less efficient than the metabolic pathways for carbs and fat. A large part of the protein calories is lost as heat when it is metabolized by the body. This is the thermic effect of different macronutrients:

  • Fat: 2-3%
  • Carbs: 6-8%
  • Protein: 25-30%

If we go with a thermic effect of 25% for protein and 2% for fat, this would mean that a 100 calories of protein would end up as 75 calories, while a 100 calories of fat would end up as 98 calories. Studies show that high protein diets boost metabolism by 80 to 100 calories per day, compared to lower protein diets.

Put simply, high protein diets have a metabolic advantage. If people increase their protein intake, they start losing weight without counting calories or controlling portions. Protein puts fat loss on autopilot.

Ultimately, the quality of what we eat impacts not only our weight but also our overall health and well-being.  Counting calories alone doesn’t work because ultimately it matters where those calories come from; this matters more than the number of calories ingested.

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20 thoughts on “Not all calories were created equal”

  1. So if not all calories are created equal, why is all hamburger meat created equal? My family eats 94/6 GB where the standard is 80/20 (lean meat to fat). To suggest they’re the same is fishy to me.

    1. Jim, you need to read better, and twice before you write. Fish and eggs provide better quality protein than hamburger meat. I dare you to find where I said that all hamburger meat were created equal ;)

  2. That really made it easier to understand… thanks so much. I suffer from being a tad underweight so different, but still extremely worthwhile to read and understand. ☀️☀️

    1. Thank you! This applies if you want to gain weight 😉 Protein is key because you want lean muscle, not just gain fat 😀

  3. Great post. Most people unfortunately don’t ever learn about this aspect of eating. Manipulating what you eat as opposed to how much, is a more effective way of improving your health.

  4. Pingback: Would you like to lose weight? - Chape Fitness

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Lower Leg

The gastrocnemius and the soleus form what we know as calf. They are involved in activities such as walking, running, jumping… 

Hamstrings

A hamstring is any one of the three posterior thigh muscles in between the hip and the knee (from medial to lateral: semimembranosus, semitendinosus and biceps femoris). The hamstrings are quite susceptible to injury.

Quadriceps

The Quadriceps Femoris is the knee extensor muscle.  As a group, the quadriceps femoris is crucial in walking, running, jumping and squatting. It´s subdivided into four separate “heads”.

Glutes

The gluteal muscles are a group of three muscles which make up the buttocks: the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. The three muscles originate from the ilium and sacrum and insert on the femur. The functions of the muscles include extension, abduction, external rotation, and internal rotation of the hip joint.

Lower Back

The Erector Spinae is not just one muscle, but a bundle of muscles and tendons. Paired, they run more or less vertically. It extends throughout the lumbar, thoracic and cervical regions, and lies in the groove to the side of the vertebral column.

Obliques

The External Oblique is situated on the lateral and anterior parts of the abdomen. It is broad, thin, and irregularly quadrilateral. It is the largest and the most superficial (outermost) of the three flat muscles of the lateral anterior abdomen. 

Abs

The Rectus Abdominis is the most superficial of the abdominal muscles. It is this muscle which forms the six-pack shape! It is a paired muscle running vertically on each side of the anterior wall of the abdomen. There are two parallel muscles, separated by a midline band of connective tissue called the linea alba.

Pecs

The pectoralis major makes up the bulk of the chest muscles in the male and lies under the breast in the female.

The pectoralis minor is a thin, triangular muscle, situated at the upper part of the chest, beneath the pectoralis major. 

Forearm
(Posterior muscles)

The Extensor Digitorum muscle helps in the movements of the wrists and the elbows. It extends the phalanges, then the wrist, and finally the elbow. It acts principally on the proximal phalanges. It tends to separate the fingers as it extends them.

Forearm
(Anterior muscles)

The Pronator teres pronates the forearm, turning the hand posteriorly. If the elbow is flexed to a right angle, then pronator teres will turn the hand so that the palm faces inferiorly. It is assisted in this action by pronator quadratus.

Triceps

The Triceps Brachii muscles  have three muscle heads: Lateral, Medial and Long head. Primarily responsible for the extension of the elbow joint. The lateral head is used for movements requiring occasional high-intensity force, while the medial fascicle enables more precise, low-force movements.

Biceps

The Biceps brachii is  actually two separate bundles of muscles (heads). The two heads of the Biceps vary in length and as a result, are called the Short and the Long Biceps heads.

Infraspinatus

The Infraspinatus muscle is one of the four rotator cuff muscles crossing the shoulder joint and is commonly injured. It is the main external rotator of the shoulder joint.

Deltoids

The Deltoid muscle is the muscle forming the rounded contour of the shoulder. It is divided into three portions, anterior, lateral and posterior, with the fibers having different roles due to their orientation.

Latissimus Dorsi

The latissimus dorsi is the larger, flat, dorsolateral muscle on the trunk, posterior to the arm, and partly covered by the trapezius on its median dorsal region.

Trapezius

The trapezius is a broad, flat and triangular muscle. The muscles on each side form a trapezoid shape. It is the most superficial of all the back muscles.

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