Are All Calories The Same?

Are All Calories The Same?
Okay. So you’ve heard the formula a million times. 
  • If calories in equals calories out then you maintain your weight, no matter what.
  • So theoretically I could eat junk food all day long, all the time, as long as I keep within my calorie limit?
  • Sign me up! But is that really true?
What about the nutritional value of food?  Nutritional foods like fruits and veggies, the foods we are supposed to eat to be healthy, are expensive. So if it doesn’t matter where the calories come from, why bother?

WTF Is A Calorie?
First of all, let’s figure out what in the world a calorie is.  It’s not just a little number on the back of a package, it actually means something.  Surprise!  A calorie, in scientific jargon, is the amount of energy needed to heat one gram of water by one degree Celsius. What this really means is that a calorie is a small unit of energy, and the numbers listed on the label are telling you how much potential energy that food can provide your body with.

Lots of calories, lots of energy.

A Good Muffin Top?
But here’s where things get complicated.  Calories can come from Carbs, Proteins, and Fats, and while the energy from each type is the same, once they enter your body and get to work, they do vastly different things.  Carbs are pure energy and replenish your blood’s glucose levels and keep your body running.  Proteins work to rebuild muscles and create hormones and enzymes.  Fats absorb nutrients and cushion your internal organs (unlike that fat on your tummy, your organs actually love having a little internal muffin top).  Eating a balanced diet with the proper amounts of each type of calorie is important in ensuring your body functions properly.

An Epic Battle Looms Cheetos vs ChickenBut we still haven’t answered the basic question here yet.  Shouldn’t eat 100 calories of Cheetos equal eating 100 calories of chicken? The answer is yes AND no.

So, in terms of straight energy production, 100 calories really is 100 calories.  But let’s say you sat down with a little bit of each.  You finish your Cheetos snack pack, 100 calories, and how are you feeling?  Completely full?  Satiated?  Ready to take on the world?  Not likely.  Since most of those calories in Cheetos are coming directly from carbs, you’re not getting much bang for your buck and you probably don’t even feel a little bit full.

Now munch on 100 calories of chicken (not the fried kind, or the kind smothered in buttery cheesy sauce) just real, a whole chicken.  How are you feeling?  Completely full?  Satiated?  Ready to take on the world?  Most likely.  Chicken is made up of protein, its high in protein. The protein in the chicken helps your body feel full right away, and you’ll feel full longer.

Honestly, think about it.  How much chicken could you possibly eat before you felt like you were going to explode?  Not enough to ruin your overall caloric intake.  But with those sneaky Cheetos, you can pack down hundreds of calories at a time and never actually feel full.  The same goes for fruits and veggies which contain high amounts of water and fiber, both of which make you feel satiated.

You also have to realize that 100 calories of Cheetos contain literally zero nutrients. Okay, check the label maybe there’s 1 or 2 percent here and there of a vitamin, but nothing significant. Healthy foods, lean proteins, fruits and veggies, all have nutrients that improve your body’s overall function, help your body to work more efficiently, and protect against things like free-radicals that can lead to cancer.

But What About That Twinkie Guy?
Now maybe you’re seeing the value of eating “good” calories versus sugary, processed, empty ones.  Or maybe you’ve seen this article about Mark Haub.  Mark is a professor at Kansas State University that decided to put this theory to the test.  He lived off a strict 1,800 calorie a day diet consisting mostly of Twinkies.  He also enjoyed other standard snacks, cakes, and junk foods, for variety (great variety hey?!).

At the end of the experiment he had lost 4 points off his BMI, his cholesterol levels went down and he lost weight.  WTF? Lots of traditionalists point to this and say “Look!  Look here, all calories are equal! Stop challenging the status quo!”  And believe me, it’s tempting, I mean, I have a severe sweet tooth and I would gladly adopt a Twinkie diet if this really was the be-all-end-all study of the universe.

But you have to keep in mind that even though his experimental diet contained junk foods, he was only eating 1800 calories a day, no questions asked.  And before the experiment, he was averaging 2600 a day.  So he cut his calories in HALF.  And most scientists would agree (the smart ones anyway) that anyone cutting calories so drastically will lose weight.  Meaning that this study doesn’t prove anything having to do with the types of calories because the overall reduction in calorie intake was so great that there is no way to tell if the quality of the food had any effect, or just the fact that he was eating way less than before.

So Abraham Lincoln Was Wrong
So in conclusion, not all men… I mean calories, were created equal.  And that’s really what it all comes down to.  Diets rich in lean, healthy proteins, fruits, and veggies leave you feeling full and satisfied.  You’ll feel fuller for longer.  You get more nutrients.  You have more energy so you’re less likely to reach for that chocolate bar to pep you up mid-day.  When you’re constantly eating junk food, you’re not nourishing your body and you always feel like you want more, which leads to overeating.  So reach for protein-rich, fiber-rich foods and you’ll instantly boost your diet and cut calories without actually counting.

So conclusion, we believe that calories are used as a universal scale for all foods which does come in handy to compare how calorie dense each food it to another. What’s more important to look at with calories, especially when trying to lose weight, is that by eating 100 calories of carbs, this will not result in the same body as someone who eats 100 calories of protein. Eating the right types of calories influences the body type that you desire. The most important point you can take away from this is that you shouldn’t just look at the back of the package for ‘calories per serving’, look at what makes up each calorie, whether its proteins, carbs or fats, that is really where the secret lies.