A Calorie Isn’t A Calorie, Isn’t A Calorie

I know I normally tend to focus more on the weight loss side of things, but I’d like to stop and also address actual health. Because as some people may not know, they have some distinctions.

Let’s address a myth known to almost anyone who has even slightly researched anything involving weight loss:

A calorie is a calorie, is a calorie.

No. Absolutely not. Stop it.

A popular form of weight loss is daily calorie restriction, and if you’ve ever scrolled through any forums on MyFitnessPal or other weight loss sites who primarily promote this way of eating, you’ll see people who swear that “eating clean” is unnecessary for health or weight loss.

“Yeah, but it’s low calorie…duh…”

We have three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Proteins and carbohydrates only have 4 calories per gram, while fats have 9 calories per gram. So if your food had 10g of carbs, 3g of protein, and 4g of fat, it would likely have 88 calories. It’s a good estimate.

10g carbs x 4 = 40 calories
3g proteins x 4 = 12 calories
4g fats x 9 = 36 calories
Total = 88 calories total

Let’s put this in perspective!

A package of 2 Reese’s Cups has 232 calories, 14g of fat, 4.6g of protein, and 25g of carbs.

A half cup of cashews has 360 calories, 28.5g of fat, 12g of protein, and 19.5g of carbs.

If you’re calorie restricting every day, realistically the candy looks like a better option when you’re only thinking of the calories. But if you weren’t being terribly strict about your calories and instead you were focusing on health, you would reach for the cashews.

As this Harvard Medical School article explains, food has something called “Glycemic Index” which is basically how fast your body can digest it and start the release of insulin. If something has a low glycemic index your body will digest it slowly. This keeps you full for longer, keeps your blood sugar more stable, and slows the release of insulin which in turn means your body is less likely to store it as fat.

The NIH said it nicely in this study:

Glucose, a simple sugar, provides energy for cell functions. After food is digested, glucose is released into the bloodstream. In response, the pancreas secretes insulin, which directs the muscle and fat cells to take in glucose. Cells obtain energy from glucose or convert it to fat for long-term storage.

This is your body on sugar

Which macronutrient is more likely to spike our blood sugar and send our insulin soaring? Carbohydrates. Which in turn will send our body into overdrive, most likely storing those calories as fat.

Let’s talk about Protein for a minute!

Protein keeps you full and reduces your chances of eating too many calories. We have something called a “MOR system” in our bodies. It stands for mu-opioid receptors. Basically, it’s the lining of this blood vessel that drains blood from your stomach. As you’re shoveling food into your face, it screams at the brain “abort mission,” and you’re suddenly full. Protein specifically will block the MOR system for longer.

Another cool effect of Protein is that it can boost your metabolism. It’s called “TEF” or “Thermic Effect of Food.” Essentially your body has to work extra hard to digest your food when it’s consuming proteins. Pro-tip, this is also the case with spicy food and staying hydrated! The increases are modest, but after a while the benefits start to add up.

Fat is an entirely different beast. The brain is nearly 60% fat, and consuming fat keeps it working properly. Alternatively, not consuming enough fat can affect memory and cognition. Not only that, but it turns out that if we eat a high fat/low carb diet, we actually burn more calories during the day. Sometimes, up to 250 extra calories. So if Mr. “I eat whatever I want as long as I count my calories” eats 1,700 calories a day, but those calories included 150g of carbs, then sure he’s going to lose weight. Unfortunately, it’ll probably be at the same rate as someone who’s done their research and decided to eat 1,950 calories but only had 40g of carbs. More food, same payout.

Do you see what I’m saying?

So a calorie is not a calorie. Not for health and not for weight loss. There’s a lot more to this that I may go into on a different post, but for now this is enough to get the general idea.

You can optimize your weight loss by focusing on consuming more fat and protein and slashing your carbohydrates, and you can optimize your health by not just reading the first number at the top of the nutrition label. Calories aren’t the end-all-be-all.

If you’d like to tell me about your experience, or just add something that maybe I missed, let me know in the comments!

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