Not All Calories Are Created Equal

By Nunzio Signore (BA, CSCS, CPT, NASM, FMS)

Healthy Options

I listen to my adult clientele talk weight loss EVERY DAY. It’s great to listen in on what new fad diet or cleanse so-and-so is working on this week.  The jest of many of the methods they seem to be employing has to do with “calories-in, calories-out”.

There has been a lot of debate lately about the energy balance equation in the fitness industry. For long-term health, body composition, performance and quality of life, perhaps calories-in vs. calories-out is not the best way to lose weight long-term. Now many things must be taken into consideration when it comes to losing weight via body fat (gut health, inflammation, gluten tolerance etc.) but for the sake of this blog I will be only addressing the common myth of “just burn more calories than you consume”.  Let me explain.

If you expect your daily 500 kcal/day deficit to lead to a weekly 3,500 kcal deficit (roughly 1 lb.), this should theoretically lead to one pound of fat loss per week.  Well my friends, this isn’t how the body works. Once you start lowering food (calorie) intake, output gets lowered to account for that. And as you start losing weight, output gets lowered even more as a protective device. Plus, if linear math worked for weight loss, you would lose one pound per week indefinitely with that 500 kcal deficit, putting a 185 lbs. person at approx. 81 lbs. in 2 years!!  This clearly is not the case.

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Many things dictate body composition (body fat %) as well as weight loss. Such as:

  • Energy balance (calories in/calories out)
  • Macro-nutrient intake (especially protein, this is a whole other blog folks)
  • Age and sex hormone levels (testosterone, menopause, etc.)
  • Exercise style/frequency/intensity/duration (e.g. resistance training vs. marathon training vs. walking)
  • Medication use (e.g. birth control, thyroid)
  • Genetic metabolism
  • Sleep quality and quantity
  • Stress

Also, not all calories are created equal. This is for a few reasons.  Foods fall into two types of categories:

1. Minimally processed (i.e. lean meats, greens, healthy oils, etc.)

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2. Highly processed (as in fried foods, high starch foods such as white rice and high sugar fats and oils such as peanut butter and processed vegetable oils)

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These two types of foods:

  • Have different absorption (calories in) or digestion kinetics (calories out)
  • Cause different hormonal responses
  • Have different effects on bodily composition (i.e. body fat/lean muscle mass)

Absorption (calories in) and/or Digestion

Consuming 3,000 kcal /day of highly processed foods wouldn’t have the same long-term outcome on body weight as consuming 3,000 kcal /day of lean protein, high fiber vegetables, and minimally processed carbs and fats.  Why?

By consuming minimally processed foods, as well as getting enough protein, we can make controlling the calories-in/calories out (energy balance) a bit more manageable. There are numerous reasons for this. Among them being that minimally processed foods:

  • Are generally, less calorie-dense
  • Are higher in water content
  • Are higher in fiber content
  • Cause faster satiation (satisfaction to end a meal)
  • Keep hunger cravings down longer between meals

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Because the thermic effect of feeding (digestion) would be higher with the minimally processed food intake as well as the higher protein content (which requires more energy to break down), the “calories out” would be higher than that of the processed foods. In addition, there would be fewer “calories in” absorbed from the minimally processed foods. Thus making the minimally processed food intake cause a more calories-out, and less calories-in effect. A true win-win situation.

So, by focusing on eating mostly minimally processed foods, as well as adequate protein, it can make losing weight and keeping it off a lot more manageable.

See ya’ in the gym…