Why a Calorie is NOT Just a Calorie

Why a Calorie is NOT Just a Calorie

Most of you know that I’m not a huge advocate of calorie counting and for those who are new, check out my take here and nutritionist Wally Bishop's perspective here. I recently watched an interview with Jonathan Bailor, author of The Calorie Myth, and absolutely loved the way he presented his take on calories and their role in weight management.

"We value science," Bailor said. "We celebrate innovation and progress. We seek to be in the know. So why are we following fat loss, eating and exercise advice from the 50s?”

It irks me to hear fellow nutrition professionals tell clients to just eat less and move more – there is so much more to it than that! I’m happy to finally hear someone else pioneer the anti-calorie counting movement and focus more on the nutrition contained within that calorie.

He pointed out four areas to focus on to help us measure the quality, not quantity, of a calorie so we can all reach our ideal weight. Are you ready? It’s time to get SANE!

1. Satiety

“Once you pop, you just can’t stop.”

“There’s always room for JELL-O.”

What do these two slogans have in common?

They both literally say, if you eat me, I will not satisfy you and you’ll still be hungry for more.

Satiety is the feeling or state of being full or nutritionally satisfied. It focuses on how quickly a calorie fills us up and how long it keeps hunger at bay. Foods that are rich in water, fiber and protein fit this ideal more than a bag of potato chips, pretzels, or a glazed donut. If the calorie myth were true, then a 300 calorie 24oz soda would fill you up as much as 300 calories worth of apples (about 4 medium apples). But it turns out Dr. Pepper isn’t what the doctor ordered – apples are!

2. Aggression

How aggressive is your food? I’m not asking if you think your broccoli could knock out your Oreos; I’m referring to how quickly the food you eat affects your blood sugar and hormones.

If you are familiar with the glycemic index, then you’re familiar with how certain foods can impact your blood sugar and insulin levels and that, by consuming foods rich in protein, fiber-filled complex carbs, and healthy fats, your blood sugar remains more even keel than if you were to munch on a box of cookies. Foods also widely impact our hormonal responses, such as our estrogen levels, thyroid, insulin, cortisol and leptin levels. Stay tuned for an upcoming article where I will elaborate more on how to keep these in balance, helping you reach your ideal weight!

For some low glycemic options and how to Blast for Blood Sugar Control – check this out!

3. Nutrition

Nutrient density is the key term here! Think about nutrients per calorie, or the quality of a calorie. For example, 100 calories of blueberries comes with the benefits of fiber, antioxidants, vitamin C, vitamin K and other phytonutrients, whereas 100 calories worth of pretzels only delivers energy-draining, simple carbohydrates.

Nutrition is not exponential; five bagels are not five times healthier than one. Instead of wasting your time on those, stockpile nutrients by eating a wealth of whole, colorful, vitamin and phytonutrient-rich foods. Decide where you’ll get the best bang for your buck and ditch those empty calories.

4. Efficiency

The fourth area most of us are less familiar with. It’s important to focus on how efficiently our body can take that calorie and store it as body fat. Basically, how long does the metabolic process take to break the nutrient down? How long does it take to get repackaged and turned into a triglyceride, the storage form of fat?

Simple carbohydrates are energy at your fingertips and are easily stored as fat if not used for fuel, whereas protein takes a bit longer to process. This is the science behind the research showing diets higher in protein help aid weight loss. I’m not talking full-on Paleo here, I'm talking a larger portion of your meal coming from quality, whole food protein sources.

The body has to exert more energy to turn protein into fat than it does to break down glucose molecules from carbs to store as fat - making protein an inefficient energy source. Only one third of the calories from this macronutrient are actually stored as fuel for your body - however, we do need some complex carbs from vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains for a well-balanced diet, so don’t ditch them all, just ditch the simple carbs coming from processed flours, cold cereals, breads and packaged foods.

By simply following these four SANE guidelines, you can dramatically make a difference in the quality of your diet without counting calories. When your calories count and the foods you eat are nutrient-rich, you are satisfied with less food overall. Calorie quality leads to hormone balance, which leads to our set point, the ideal weight at which our unique body functions at its peak.

Remember, 500 calories in the form of potato chips does not equal 500 calories in the form of nutrient-rich whole foods like broccoli, legumes, nuts, seeds, wild salmon, etc.

Our body is not a math problem; it’s a biological ecosystem that thrives on nourishment. Heal your body, don’t starve it because that DOES NOT aid weight loss LONG TERM! Low calorie diets may help with short-term weight loss, but over time, it will backfire.

The most important parts to any dietary approach are to first make it sustainable (something you will follow without deprivation day in and day out), get nutrition from whole foods made up of quality calories (most foods without a nutrition facts label!) and listen to your body (eat when you are hungry and stop when you are 80% full).

Like Bailor says, “It’s not that calories don’t count, but that you don’t have to count them!”

Registered Dietitian

Comment by eddiegotsole
February 17, 2014
Great article Krista! This is definitely the area where I have failed in the past, empty calories! Not that gaining weight has been an issue for me, I'm a slim guy, but nutrition wise I have only been hurting myself. My Cholesterol, among other things had suffered as a result! I'm ready to focus on the good stuff and put those empty calories behind me!
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