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5 Reasons Why a Calorie is Not a Calorie

"A calorie is a calorie." How many times have you heard that? Usually closely followed by "It's a matter of calories in versus calories out. To lose weight, all you need to do is consume fewer calories than you're burning."

WRONG!! All calories are not created equal, and our bodies do not process them all equally. The more I learn about nutrition, the more strongly I believe that there are other factors at work that promote or hamper weight loss. Counting calories gives us one type of information, and it can be useful information, but it is not the be-all and end-all.

Here are my top five reasons why all calories are not created equal, and why it's not as simple as calories in versus calories out:

  1. Macronutrients. Our bodies need a good balance of the three macronutrient categories: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. We can't survive (or at least can't thrive) on any one of the three by itself. To take just one example, people don't do well on extremely low-fat diets because our bodies need fat to absorb certain vitamins—so without sufficient dietary intake of fat, we can become deficient in these vitamins. On the flip side of the coin, you can't eat 2,000 calories of pure coconut oil and call it a day because you've met your caloric intake. Your body needs a varied diet.

  2. Micronutrients. These are the vitamins and minerals our food contains, and they also support all the functions of the body. For example, without sufficient amounts and a proper balance of potassium, magnesium, calcium, and sodium, our hearts will stop. Our bodies are extremely efficient at regulating this delicate balance, but it's also easy to imagine that someone with a very limited diet, or one that doesn't include foods with these minerals, could become deficient and suffer a heart arrhythmia or worse. It's not as simple as calories in versus calories out; we need to look at micronutrient content, too. Furthermore, if your body is deficient in a key nutrient, you'll probably experience cravings for foods containing that nutrient. I'm not a big fan of counting calories because it discourages us from listening to the natural wisdom of our bodies.

  3. All carbs are not created equal. Simple carbohydrates such as those found in white flour break down are assimilated and absorbed very quickly during digestion, resulting in a blood sugar spike and a large insulin response from the body. Insulin prompts our fat cells to take up excess glucose from the bloodstream—and the resulting drop in blood sugar can cause cravings that drive us to eat simple carbs that start the cycle all over again. Complex carbohydrates, such as those found in whole grains and legumes, are more slowly absorbed and assimilated by the body, meaning the effect on blood sugar is more drawn out and is less pronounced overall. A bagel made from white flour scores 95 out of 100 on the glycemic index, indicating it will case a sharp spike in your blood sugar. In comparison, quinoa scores 53 on the glycemic index and lentils 29. Even if you take in the same number of calories, these foods will have vastly different effects on your blood sugar. Certain ways of eating (such as adhering to a low-glycemic-index diet) help defeat cravings, which can help keep your caloric intake in check—but in order to bring this about, you need to pay attention to more than just the caloric content of your food.

  4. Hormones matter. Hormonal issues are the main reason it makes me so upset when I hear the "calories in vs. calories out" argument. When someone's thyroid isn't working properly, they will either gain or lose weight, regardless of what (and how much) they are eating. The underlying issue needs to be addressed so that the person can get to a healthy weight. Adjusting caloric intake is not going to solve the root problem. Similarly with insulin resistance, weight gain results not exactly from eating too much, but more so from eating the wrong things. A high-glycemic-load diet, coupled with a lack of exercise, impairs the body's normal insulin response, leading the body to mount a last-ditch attempt to manage blood sugar levels by sending out more and more insulin so that excess glucose can be stored in the fat cells. In order to address the underlying problem, it's important to exercise and follow a low-glycemic-index diet—not just track caloric intake and attempt to reduce it.

  5. Healthy fats and inflammation. Gram for gram, all types of fat have the same number of calories, but all fats are not created equal—far from it. Different types of fat we ingest have dramatically different effects in the body when it comes to inflammation, a condition that plays a key role in the development of many diseases in the body, including insulin resistance and diabetes as well as some types of thyroid problems. Specifically, omega 6 fatty acids (such as those plentiful in soybean oil and canola oil) promote inflammation in the body. Omega 3 fatty acids (such as those plentiful in salmon and flaxseeds) and monounsaturated fatty acids (such as those plentiful in avocados, nuts, and seeds) have inflammation-fighting effects, meaning they protect against many disease processes in the body. When we choose the fats we use for cooking, baking, and food preparation, we can choose those that promote inflammation or those that fight it. It's tough to feel good in a body with chronic, systemic inflammation; over time, this "blah" and sluggish feeling can lead to emotional eating or just eating more than we need in an attempt to get more energy. So here, the reason one type of choice leads to weight gain is more due to the downstream effects (such as increased caloric intake and insulin resistance) over time. Better to choose the healthy fats that fight inflammation to keep our bodies feeling good and functioning well.

As with any article about nutrition, I want to take a moment to remind you that it's not about attaining perfection; it's about what you do most of the time. If you mostly choose a varied diet with a balance of macronutrients and a wide range of micronutrients, low on the glycemic index and generous in anti-inflammatory healthy fats, then it's fine to throw it all out the window once in awhile for that special treat of Christmas cookies or birthday cake! I still do that sometimes... Just not as often as I used to (heck, those used to be staples of my diet)! Once I noticed how good I feel when I make healthy choices, I started to crave that feeling—and most of the time, those healthy cravings outweigh the junk food cravings, but it's taken me awhile to be able to say that.

Ready to work on making healthier choices in your diet? Check out my list of upcoming programs and email me at the address below to talk about how we can work together!

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