Home Health News Science Catches Up: A Calorie Is Not A Calorie

Science Catches Up: A Calorie Is Not A Calorie

by Erika Nicole Kendall

For a long time, I’ve whined – loudly – that a calorie is not a calorie, and I don’t care how many people with alphabet soup behind their name try to tell me otherwise. It just isn’t so.

Seems like maybe the message is getting attention:


A calorie is just a calorie, right? So just dig in! from thisiswhyyourefat.com


But experts like Jonny Bowden, a certified nutritionist and author of Living Low Carb, (Sterling, 2010) insist that all calories are most certainly not created equal. As proof, he points to studies like this 2009 Swedish investigation where volunteers snacked on candy or peanuts to the tune of about 20 extra calories per each half pound of body weight. For example, someone weighing 150 pounds would overindulge by eating a gut busting 1,300 calories a day.After two weeks, you might expect that both groups were popping the buttons on their pants but this was the case with just the sweet eaters. The peanut snackers did gain a small amount of weight but only about a third of what the candy eaters gained and only the candy group showed an increase in waist circumference, cholesterol and overall blood fats.

“The reason for this is that the simple carbohydrate calories found in candy kept goosing the levels of the hormone insulin,” Bowden explains. “Insulin signals sharp increases in blood sugar and enhances the storage of body fat, so when it’s constantly elevated you’re primed for weight gain.”

Bowden says that, because peanuts contain virtually no carbohydrates, they don’t trigger the same effect on insulin and the body doesn’t rush to pack on the pounds. Even more interesting is that peanut eating group alone experienced a significant rise in their resting metabolism. This could indicate that the fats and proteins from the nuts rev up the body’s ability to burn calories which might also help suppress weight gain.

Researcher Richard Feinman, a professor of biochemistry at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, notes that insulin sensitivity impacts how you experience hunger as well. “It’s a well established fact that eating protein increases satiety and if you feel fuller on fewer calories then you are going to eat less,” he points out.

Numerous recent studies have established that dieters do initially lose more weight when they eat the same number of calories but fewer carbs and more protein. What’s more they seem to do it without ill health effects. Even after two years, a 2010 Temple University study reported that those who eat a diet higher in protein had blood fat profiles and other cardiovascular markers that were just as healthy as those who stuck with the traditionally recommended low fat, high fiber diet.

Additionally, Feinman says there is also a small but very real and meaningful effect in how you digest, absorb and metabolize the energy in different types of nutrients — and it’s greater for proteins than it is for carbs.

“For the same number of calories, you add fewer from protein to the body because they get burned during the digestion process,” says Feinman.

What irritates Feinman, Bowden and others who agree with their line of thinking, is that the ADA and most mainstream nutritional organizations refuse to acknowledge that the composition of your diet and not just the calorie count can impact your waistline, even though there’s plenty of evidence to back up these claims. [source]

To many, that point about “fewer carbs and more protein” might sound like “Oh, you mean I’ve got to get on Atkins?!” To that I say, no… and to me, that’s the problem with a lot of nutrition science. To put someone on a diet means to change their eating habits. But, what differed? What kind of carb is the person no longer eating? Refined carbs from french fries and white breads? Wheat bread? The two consist of very different kinds of ingredients (for starters, white bread is full of sugar), and that needs to be noted. That lack of consideration (or, rather, the lack of information detailed in the article) annoys me to no end. Details matter.

A body cannot thrive on cheez-twisterz. A body cannot thrive on double-freaking-downs. A body cannot operate optimally on poor nutrition, and a body that cannot operate optimally will experience difficulty with efforts to lose weight. The quality of the nutrition is absolutely determined by not only the quality of the calorie, but its origins as well. I don’t understand why this is not base level common sense, but then again I suppose most scientists haven’t experimented with this philosophy with their own bodies like a lot of us who are losing weight and trying to keep it off.

The problem with the mentality that says “the quality of calories doesn’t matter, it’s just the quantity!!!” is the fact that its advantageous to a ginormous food industry that doesn’t want the quality of its product called into question. It’s no surprise that the largest factions of nutrition science (which I have huge problems with, personally) are the ones also aligned with the USDA (and their ridiculous food pyramid) among other entities that seek to refute any claims that the quality of the product matters. Take this gem, from the article:

“While I don’t disagree that the body may not process all calories the same in theory, in practical terms it means very little to the average person,” he says. “There really isn’t much you can do with this information that will help you manage your weight. Your best — and healthiest — strategy is still to eat variety of foods and cut back on total calories.” [source]

Flag on the play. Seriously.

I hope you realize how far-reaching this debate is. Sure, on an individual level, we can process this information as proof that we need to be better stewards of our kitchens and seek to improve the foods we eat… but it’s about more than us as individuals, too. As long as we continue to devalue the claim that the quality and kind of calorie is more important than monitoring the quantity of calories… there is no reason for the government (or anyone) to take action to improve the access to calories of better quality for us all. The very thing that we need to thrive successfully will continue to be seen as a luxury, only for the things that simply keep us “belly-full” to continue to harm us.

I’m a cynic. I’m not sorry about it, either. I don’t believe this conversation will ever change… because for the conversation to change means that the policy would have to change, and there’s too much money to be lost if change happens. Oh well… until then, it’ll just be me and my broccoli.

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Streetz October 29, 2010 - 10:36 AM

Are we talmbout the actual calorie itself or the food associated? Cause I agree that all calories are not created equal. another thing is that people will cut ALL carbs from their diet, while not understanding that fruits and veggies are good carbs, wheat is a good carb. They do need to be specific.

Also when you go 100% off cARBS , then try to reintroduce them, you run the risk of gaining double the weight.

Lynn Franklin October 29, 2010 - 12:05 PM

Well I like having information like this myself even if they feel like it is not really helpful. How is it not helpful? If I know that a sweet calorie will cause me to gain more fat than peanuts or almonds then I would be more inclined to try and eat less sweets. I totally agree also because I recently have been kicking sweets and have noticed that i have been losing fat more readily than I was on the same calorie diet. Like you said in the article the companies don’t want people to have this information because people will make the government take responsibility in this situation and make big businesses stop lasing all of the processed foods with sugars that not only eventually causes obesity but also diabetes and other illnesses. As long as they can continue to keep the public fooled into believeing all calories are equal they can continue poisoning us and pretending it is just over eating that is causing the whole problem. When really even if you are on a reduced calorie diet because of all the foods lased with sugar you still keep producing fat and can’t for the life of you figure out why you are not losing or are not losing as quickly as you would have if you were not eating the wrong types of nutrients. Thanks for the info.

Tamara October 29, 2010 - 4:45 PM

This is my first time posting. I read you constantly and have been for months, but this is so outrageous I just couldn’t keep quiet this time.

You know, it used to be so simple. Go outside, skewer a protein animal on a stick, and go roast it over a fire with the veggies or fruits you found that day. It’s so much easier to know what to eat when you have base knowledge of nutrition and aren’t being told day in and day out to buy everyone’s frozen pasta dinners, pizza, take and bake pizza, microwave sweets, chips, crackers, cookies, pasta sauce, etc. It’s amazing how many people think the food industry only has your health in mind when feeding you ads about the newest XXL Chalupa at Taco Bell. Of course a sugar calorie is nothing like a protein calorie! They’re shaped differently, made of different components and processed differently in the body. They’ve known that for decades! Lol, so yeah, you’re right and have been in all the articles I’ve seen so far. I think it’s just a shame that they had to do a scientific study to prove that common sense is ‘scientifically proven as correct.’

I think it’s a crime that we’re essentially being forced to buy everything we eat in the first place. It’s true, they’d lose money to set things right, but there IS a price for health, and someone has to pay for it. Though in this case, it would really only be ‘perceived loss’. But that’s a whole different story. Anyways, long post, but keep doing your thing! Your story is really inspiring!

Divinely Naptural July 22, 2011 - 3:04 PM

Great response. On my way to weight loss, it has become quite clear to me that calorie counting merely isn’t enough. The type of calories you consume is vitally important as well. People who continue to eat processed junk devoid of fiber and filled with fat, sugar, and sodium, aren’t getting the nutrients their body needs to function.

I am in the middle of a juice fast right now…. juicing fruits and veggies, and let me tell you my body is functioning pretty well, and any fats I need to function are coming from the fat in my body already stored. We need to let our bodies actually use the fat stores that we have for a rainy day.

Your post also got me to thinking about the way that our ancestors ate. They would butcher a freshly caught animal, eat on that animal for months with whatever fruits and veggies they could find. More sophisticated cultures might have baked good with fresh whole grains, or caught fish. It just makes no sense we are all so fat in American culture.

This and another article Erika has written really has me thinking…

Kris @Krazy_Kris October 29, 2010 - 4:55 PM

Amen! Seriously… In my opinion, and I am not a pro, a calorie is not a calorie. Granted, portions & clean eating are critical but I’m a big believer on this “insulin” thing as it pertains to weight. I spent a while eating REALLY clean and the RIGHT CALORIES and even with a NICE amount of exercise and activity, no result. I finally saw results when I watched my portions AND proportions of protein, veggies, carbs. Some meals are 50/50 protein & veggies. If I have “carbs” it’s 50/25/25 (50% protein) and the carbs are the low on the glycemic load/index (apples, berries, melon, quinoa). When I made that change (and I was super strict for 2-3 weeks) I really feel like my body started getting into balance with how it metabolizes food. And after 6 months of clean eating and exercise, I finally saw results in terms of inches and pounds when I watched the proportions.

Thanks for sharing!

Kris @Krazy_Kris October 29, 2010 - 4:59 PM

PS – Don’t get me wrong – I do eat carbs…. Hell, I even made a tortilla pizza that was delish, but it wasn’t the main course, rather the side. hehehe

And, my mindset is not about NOT eating carbs (ie. diet mindset), but rather its about eating MORE protein & veggies 😉 It’s a totally different approach and its really worked for me.

Mia November 1, 2010 - 1:34 PM

Great post and comments. I completely agree and have been trying to follow clean eating with the result of a cool 1.5 pounds a week loss. YAY!!! Thank you again for posting and inspiring.

Laurie November 1, 2010 - 5:31 PM

Thanks for posting this Erika!
It may also be important for your readers to know:
“The deleterious effects of fat have only been measured in the
presence of high carbohydrate. A high fat diet in the presence
of high carbohydrate is different than a high fat diet in the
presence of low carbohydrate.”
Quote by Dr. Richard Feinman

Also – I believe we can do something! If everyone wrote a note to their congress person (5 minutes of your time)telling them that as more & more people follow the ‘low fat food pyramid’ the epidemics of diabetes and obesity continues to grow. Ask that they include all the science when forming the new recommendations (& not just that the science that uses high carb diets & blames the fat for the ill health effects!)
Here is a link to find your congress person:

Thanks, again for a great post Erika! I hope you’ll do what you can to get people involved in making a change!

Laurie Cagnassola
Assistant to Dr. RD Feinman
Director, Nutrition & Metabolism Society

Patrice July 19, 2011 - 10:20 PM

Hi Erika.

This is my first time on your site and I absolutely love it! I have been stalking the Internet for months looking for a black person that blogs on clean eating. I don’t know why I’m only stumbling on this now. Anyway, great job.

Back to the topic. I agree with the above poster that this is common sense. Who have you ever seen, in the history of the world, get fat on lean meat and veggies. It’s almost impossible. However, add in some sweets and white flour and see how fast you balloon. I’ve long noticed that pizza and burgers lead to immediate weight gain, no matter how many calories I had. But more importantly, as a rule, refined flour and added sugars are nutritionally bankrupt, and displace healthier, more nutrient-dense foods. You just don’t need them!

Alison April 26, 2012 - 12:23 PM

Erika as always, a very well informed and thought provoking post. This is why the whole dieting situation is so confusing. At the beigining of my weight loss journey, I really thought all that matter was cutting overall calories. I did lose weight. However, once I started to eat “clean” not only did I lose weight, I started to feel better. My workouts were more effective as I had more energy and endurance. So i def agree they type of calories are as important as the number. At least in my case….

Annette April 26, 2012 - 3:45 PM

I totally agree with you. I don’t think they have the information cause they don’t know.

I know when I just changed by snack food from fruit to mixed nuts it made a difference. I notice with pasta I changed to gluten free cause I felt I was having withdrawals.

Right now my diet is trial and error. I eat what feel good and digests well in my body. If it doesn’t it makes me sick I don’t have it again. I have chocolate but dark chocolate. Milk has been an issue so cheeses are out. Coconut milk that is similar to Milk and Almond milk works much better for me. I have more veges to full up with. I use spices, and add favors to make it tasty.

But I notice when I take certain supplement which probably means I am deficient in them it made a different in how my metabolism burned up the calories.

Taking Omega 3’s, Vitamin D, Vitamin C and E with Magnesium in addition to all the protein, foods and veges have helped.

Gerry March 12, 2014 - 5:15 AM

Thanks for the post. In a realated tv program the Horizon team at the BBC (March 2014) took two identical twins (who were both medical doctors) and put one on an exclusively high fat/protein diet and the other on a sugar – high carbohydrate diet. The results were totally unexpected. The high sugar diet faired much better on mental tests, physical tests etc, where as the high fat / protein guy ended up on the verge of diabetes, bad mental tests, had gained weight etc.

The program concluded after looking at experiments on rats (not truly representative I know) that maximum weight gains only occured when high sugar and high fats were mixed in food stuffs (cheescake). These foods effectively switched off the I’m full mechanism and allowed massive over consumtion with no built in regulation.

If you can get access to the program in the US it’s definitely worth a watch.

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