The claim: From Big Sugar’s Secret Ally? Nutritionists:
The first time the sugar industry felt compelled to “knock down reports that sugar is fattening,” as this newspaper put it, it was 1956. Papers had run a photograph of President Dwight D. Eisenhower sweetening his coffee with saccharin, with the news that his doctor had advised him to avoid sugar if he wanted to remain thin.
The industry responded with a national advertising campaign based on what it believed to be solid science. The ads explained that there was no such thing as a “fattening food”: “All foods supply calories and there is no difference between the calories that come from sugar or steak or grapefruit or ice cream.” [source]
So, the truth is that this is accurate, but not relevant to the actual concerns people have with regard to food choices and their impact on health.
In order to properly debunk this, we have to acknowledge a few simple, undisputed facts.
First, calories are merely sources of energy. When you consume calories, you either burn them shortly after consumption or you store them in the form of fat.
Secondly, there are three primary sources of calories—carbohydrates (or carbs), protein, and fat. For every gram of carbs, you can expect to receive four calories of energy. The same goes for protein—every gram of protein yields you 4 calories. With dietary fat, however, the story changes a bit.
Every gram of fat that you consume yields you approximately 9 calories, more than twice what you get from carbs or protein. This is how the anti-fat messaging was justified—a teaspoon or fat gives you so many more calories than a teaspoon of carbs, so fat must be the reason why we have been consuming so many more calories.
Protein also managed to inadvertently catch friendly fire here, because so many protein sources—primarily those that come from animals like meat or milk, dairy, eggs—also come packaged with fat. While it’s true that it’s rare for a food item to only be protein—most protein sources also often come combined with fat (like chicken thighs) or carbs (like milk) or both (like fried chicken)—we still identify foods by the dominant calorie source. There’s protein and fat in most bread, but bread is regarded as carbs. There’s fat in most cuts of beef, but beef is considered protein. So, the messaging went, if you can’t avoid protein without fat, then just don’t eat protein, either.
This was always wrong, for many reasons that are beyond the scope of what I’m doing here. We’ll get into that later.
People who tell you that “a calorie is just a calorie” just want you to focus on the fact that calories are merely sources of energy that you get from any edible object, so it doesn’t matter whether or not you get your energy from ice cream or collard greens—if you eat too much of it, you’re going to store that energy as fat anyway.
The part that’s being left out—and this is extremely important for those of us who may have a long way to go to achieve our goals—is that these three different kinds of calorie sources (protein, fat, carbs) all serve as energy to fuel different bodily functions, some of which actually aid us in losing weight and keeping it off.
Foods that are carb-dominant might include breads, pastas, and other grain-and-flour-based foods, but it also includes fruits and vegetables, which are some of the most nutritious things you could possibly eat. Nothing you could get your hands on is more nutritious than the collard green, which holds virtually every possible nutrient you could ever need within its leaves, and a respectable amount of protein. Lots of people cut breads and pastas and call it “cutting carbs,” but that’s not quite what’s happening, nor should you want to cut all carbs. Without them, you’re malnourished annnnnnd miserable.
Foods that are fat-dominant like olive, walnut, and flax seed oils are essential not only because they help you reach satiety and feel satisfied by your meal, but because there are some nutrients you simply cannot absorb without dietary fat. The nutrients that contribute to healthy hair and nail growth as well as preserve skin elasticity all require dietary fat in order for your body to absorb those nutrients properly.
Protein, however, is another story entirely. When you strength train, or do virtually any exercise that challenges your muscles (sprinting comes to mind), your body is stretching and squeezing the fibers that make up your muscles, and some of them stretch and squeeze so much that they snap. (Don’t worry, it’s a normal thing.) In repairing those muscle fibers, your body breaks down the protein you eat into little amino acids that are transported to your body through your blood stream to help ensure that those muscle fibers are repaired, rebuilt, and even added to when necessary.
What makes this so important? Why am I going through explaining all this? Simple. While carbs and fat have their responsibilities which largely center around internal health, protein’s most valuable purpose—at least, for the person who has a lot of weight to lose—centers around the ability to fuel and rebuild the process of muscle development and maintenance.
That process of muscle breaking down and rebuilding? That process increases your metabolism.
No other nutrient can do that. None of them.
In fact, the reduction of protein (the muscle builder) translates to a reduction of muscle, which means there are fewer muscle fibers to tear and rebuild, which actually reduces your metabolism. The reduction of all calories, thanks to the countless very low calorie diets that people try, for an extended period of time also results in the reducing of your metabolism. The over-consumption of processed foods, high in carbs but low in protein, also fails to fuel muscle maintenance, which results in a reduction of muscle mass and therefore a reduction of your metabolism.
There’s a huge difference between a steak and a soda—the steak is made up of components that are more satisfying, more nourishing, more filling, and more useful to your muscle and metabolism. There’s a difference between ice cream and say, a soda—traditionally made ice cream has cream that actually satisfies you, eggs which are full of protein and fat, and sugar; soda simply has sugar. Sugar that, when consumed in large quantities—as many people are wont to do—just turns into stored body fat.
Claiming that “all calories are equal” is a sort of sleight of hand, a completely and utterly unrelated statement that only shields people from digging deeper to understand the truth. If you focus on the fact that all calories provide energy, you never look at the fact that each kind of calorie fuels a different kind of bodily function and ensures a different component of your life expectancy, and before long you’ve got diabetes, high blood pressure, and yes, in many cases, a lot of weight gain… and no idea why. All calories are equal, right? I should just be able to cut the calories I already eat, and that should fix everything, right?
No. It was never that way, and will never be that way.
In short, all calories might be equal, but only one kind of calorie helps the active body develop and maintain the muscle necessary to achieve their ultimate goals. So, if the choice is between the sodapop and the steak… I’d choose the steak. (And I don’t even eat beef like that!)