Is A Calorie Just A Calorie

We all know that limiting the number of calories we consume equals weight loss. But, is a calorie just a calorie?

No.

Of course, weight loss will happen if you restrict calories. But, will you be in optimal health?

Well, that depends on the source of the calories you consume. For instance if you went on a crash diet and ate just sugar–but less than 1200 calories per day of just sugar–you’d lose weight.

You’d also die.

Harsh, I know. But it’s the truth as sugar contains no nutrients.

Recently, I was reading The Paleo Solution as I am always intrigued (and often outraged) by the latest diets.

What I love about the Paleo “diet” is that it’s not really a diet. It’s a lifestyle, based on our ancestral history of hunting and gathering. Based on seasonability, availability and the quality of foods. Based on nutrient density. All these principles really resonate with me.

As I was talking with a friend who wanted to lose weight, I mentioned following a Paleo type diet.

He asked, “what about counting calories?”

I said, “Let’s not focus on calories. Let’s just focus on eating organic, grass-fed protein, fat, veggies and low-sugared fruits. No grains. No artificial or processed anything. Just protein, fat, veg and low-sugared fruit.”

He got what I was saying, but not really. “So, I don’t need to limit my calories? You’re saying I can eat bacon and eggs every day for breakfast and I’m going to lose weight?”

“Yes.” Was my answer.

He looked at me puzzled, but heck it was worth a try.

So together we ventured into our Paleo eating plans–not eating a single grain and eating as much fat and protein and vegetables as we wanted. And not counting a single calorie. I pretty much live gluten free, however I do like my occasional serving of rice or quinoa–so I cut them out entirely and didn’t miss them at all. What we both noticed was that we got full more quickly and craved a lot less sweets and carbs. 

And, as predicted we both lost weight. After two weeks my friend lost the 10 pounds he’s been trying to drop for  nearly six months. And he doesn’t feel even slightly deprived. For me, I didn’t need to lose much weight but I did definitely trim down, especially around my waist. And, we both noticed increased levels of mental clarity, improved energy and just an overall feeling of wellness.

OK.. back to the calorie discussion (there is a point to this blog, lol!)

With this plan we followed and the weight loss (and other health benefits that came along with it) it started me on a tear of finding research to support the notion that a calorie is not a calorie–rather, that it’s all about the nutrient density of our foods. And, that if we are eating the same amount of calories of nutrient dense foods (the foods with the most nutrients per calorie) versus the ones that offer us calories with zero nutrition (think bagels or pasta) are we losing the same amount of weight and maintaining (or improving) our health? Because, as I recall when I was in college and ate very few calories and even fewer nutrients (I thought fat would make me fat) I was so not healthy! My skin was pale, my period irregular, my hair brittle, my nails peeling… you get it.

In my research, I found that the American Dietetics Foundation stands firm on their stance that a calorie is a calorie but most nutritionists and scientists disagree. Based on science and my own clinical and personal experience, I’m siding with the nutritionists and the scientists. Here’s the information I found to support my decision…

An interesting article I came across, written by Dr. Michael Eades, a medical doctor, author and obesity expert really drives the point home that a calorie is not a calorie. In this article, he discusses two different studies on calorie restriction. One study conducted on young men, restricted their calories to 1560 per day with their nutrients intakes as follows: 25.5% protein, 17.2% fat and 57.3% carbohydrate. As Dr. Eades points out:

“Over the twenty-four week starvation part of the study, the subjects not only lost a considerable percentage of their body weights, but suffered a number of problems as well. As the time wore on the men thought ceaselessly about food, they became lethargic, they were cold all the time, they became depressed, they developed bleeding disorders, their ankles became edematous, and some developed more serious psychological disorders.”

Next, Dr. Eades points us to a another study conducted–this one for only two weeks as opposed to the above one which ran for 24 weeks. In this study the men were not restricted in their caloric intake, rather they were instructed to eat “between 10 and 20 oz milk daily, and as much meat, fish, eggs, cheese, butter, cream and leafy vegetables as they wished.”

What happened was interesting–all the men only consumed 1560 calories on average–they stopped eating when they were full. They didn’t crave more food nor feel starved or obsess over when their next meal was coming. And, it seems to have a lot to do with the fact that they took in from their daily diet an average of: 21.3% protein, 60.6% fat and 17.1% carbohydrate.

Just to point out the differences, in the first study, where the men felt starved, lethargic and mentally unstable, they consumed:
25.5% protein
17.2% fat
57.3% carbs

And in the second study where the mens health flourished, they lost some weight and felt an increased feeling of well-being, the consumed:
21.3% protein
60.6% fat
17.1% carbs

The most significant differences is in the fat and carb intake–fat intake more than tripled between the two groups and the carbs were cut by a third.  Both groups lost weight but  the ones who ate more carbs and less fat suffered significant health problems while the other groups health flourished.

Hmmm… a calorie is not just a calorie.

Another article I came across written by one of my favorite columnists, Mark Bittman, discusses this subject as well. He interviewed two research scientists who authored the book, “Why Calories Count”. The big takeaway from Bittman’s interview is this: Because calories change as they enter the body, the nine grams for fat and four for everything else (protein and carbs) turn out to be not very accurate measures at all; besides, foods are only rarely one thing or another.

Basically, Mr. Bittman and his scientists colleagues are saying that a calorie is not just a calorie.

And in yet another interesting article I found, nutritionist and author Jonny Bowden discusses why one study comparing volunteers who snacked on candy versus those who snacked on peanuts (20 extra calories per each half pound of body weight) showed that the candy snackers gained two thirds more pounds than the peanut snackers.  Why?

Bowden states, “simple carbohydrate calories found in candy kept goosing the levels of the hormone insulin. Insulin signals sharp increases in blood sugar and enhances the storage of body fat, so when it’s constantly elevated you’re primed for weight gain.”

To sum up–a calorie is not just a calorie. If you want to lose weight, consume less processed and refined foods, avoid added sugars and eat more protein and fat.  You won’t need to gauge calories as you will get full faster and remain fuller longer as you are giving your body the nutrients it needs.  If you want to count calories, count them. I think you’ll notice that you fill up a lot faster eating nutrient dense foods versus nutrient empty ones.

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