Is a Calorie a Calorie?

Weight Loss: Calories In vs Calories Out

Whether or not you’ve done any research on weight loss, you’ve heard a variation of this statement: to lose weight you must expend more calories (out) than you ingest (in). I started watching Fed Up, by Stephanie Soechtig with Executive Producers Katie Couric and Laurie David, on Netflix and haven’t stopped thinking about this question. I’ve also been hearing a lot of nutrition “advice” lately that I’m uncomfortable with. So, naturally, I’ve been digging in.

So, is it really as simple as: Eat fewer calories and exercise more?

There’s a bunch of research on whether a calories from an almond is the same as a calorie from soda. According to Dr. David Ludwig, director of the Boston Children’s Hospital obesity program, they are not.

His studies have found that calories from low glycemic foods (nuts, beans, and non-starchy vegetables) do not spike blood sugar or stimulate hunger and cravings like high glycemic foods (sugar, potatoes, bread) tend to do.

This would indicate that, at least for weight loss and maintenance, one calorie does not equal another.

Dr. Ludwig acknowledges that people can lose weight on calorie-restricted diets, though not for the long term. It appears that many who count calories as their sole “diet plan” tend to fail eventually due to difficulty resisting temptation.

I think there’s more to it, but I’m not a PhD. Honestly, as a teenager, I lived by my calorie intake and output. It was dangerous. I don’t believe all or even most people will have this problem. The issue is the amount of effort it takes to constantly be counting. Then, when you intentionally or unintentionally forget to add that fun-sized candy to the calorie count, you’re left with feelings of failure or resentment. These emotions, which we often attach to food, can undermine even our best efforts if you give them enough time (see: Rethinking Emotional Eating).

The implicit suggestion is that there are no bad calories, just bad people eating too much. But the evidence is very clear that not all calories are created equal as far as weight gain and obesity. If you’re focusing on calories, you can easily be misguided. Dr. Mozaffarian

In Fed Up Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, from Harvard Medical School, also weighed in. His research expands on Dr. Ludwig’s in that Dr. Mozaffarian’s studies show that, while 100 calories from the macronutrients fat, protein, and carbohydrates were the same thermodynamically, they perform differently when ingested by a complex organism.

Studies show that different types of calories are absorbed in different ways. For example, high-fiber foods tend to reduce caloric absorption by about 25%. In other words, people who eat high-fiber foods tend to absorb only 3/4th of the calories contained within that food. The rest is excreted as unused waste.

What Does it All Mean?

It means, it’s complicated. The documentary, Fed Up, definitely skews toward the concept that all calories are not created equal.

There are other studies that refute this. Some arguments include a study by Dr. Y. Claire Wang of Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, which indicates that a calorie is a calorie, the issue is that high-glycemic foods are just more easily consumed.

A piece summed up Dr. Wang pretty well when they wrote, “studies consistently show that sugary beverages, potato chips and other high-glycemic foods are indeed associated with weight gain. But this is because they are rapidly digested and easy to consume in large amounts, “not because they bypass our energy balance.””

This is an interesting point. Are potato chip calories the same as legume calories and are we just more inclined to eat a full bag of chips (7.75 oz bag = 8 servings) than a can of beans (15 oz can = 3.5 servings)?

If you’re not sure where to find this information, don’t worry! The website has you covered. You’ll find Nutrition Label information to help make choices that meet your dietary needs. They even make it easy, check it out.

So, what do you think? Is a calorie a calorie or is there more to it? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter, or FB.