Is A Calorie A Calorie??
Many of us have tried to lose weight or live a healthier lifestyle and have gotten the advice that the key to success is “Calories in vs. calories out!” or “A calorie is just a calorie no matter where you get it from!” I have heard this countless times from professors, friends, and coaches. At first glance it makes sense that the body uses a calorie or a carbohydrate from any source in the exact same way.
However, this concept could not be any more WRONG!
The main reason the body does NOT treat calories equally is that our bodies metabolize (break down) foods differently. People who are on the Ketogenic diet, Paleo diet, Atkin’s diet, or just eat a high amount of protein, fat, and complex carbs break down their food much slower than someone who is eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) of high refined carbs.
Our bodies use energy (calories) to break down food!
Let’s look at an example:
Josh ate a burger patty for lunch with cheese and no bun. He took in about 700 calories mostly from protein and fats. Since these are complex macromolecules his body has to WORK HARD to break them down into amino acids and fatty acids which can be absorbed. While he is digesting his body expends around 300 calories breaking it down for several hours leading to a net gain of only 400 calories.
Adam ate a can of Pringles for lunch at 700 calories… The body begins to break down simple carbs literally the second you put them in your mouth with an enzyme called salivary amylase. That is why you have the immediate sweet taste when you eat bread or crackers. Once these hit the stomach they are disintegrated easily and the body uses about 100 calories to break it down. That is a net gain of 600 calories.
Josh ate 700 cal – 300 cal= 400 calories
Adam ate 700 cal- 100 cal= 600 calories
Although both guys ate the same amount of calories Adam ends up with more at the end of the day! The foods are not equal because of how the body uses and digests them. This does not even take into account the hormonal responses our bodies have to these different meals. The hormonal aspect is another reason why not all calories are created equally.
Are 20g of carbs from M&M’s and 20 g of carbs from Broccoli the same?
The immediate response is always, “YES! A carb is a carb!” However, Let’s look at the hormonal response our body has to these carbs from different foods:
If you eat a handful of M&M’s it contains about 20g of carbs. These carbs are broken down completely in about 15 mins and released as a quick spike of blood sugar. Your body responds by shooting out a large amount of insulin to get that sugar out of the bloodstream and into the cells where it can be used for energy. The insulin spike and high glucose are not good for your health and if they are elevated continuously it can lead to conditions such as obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.
Now let’s contrast that and say you ate 20g of carbs from broccoli. First of all that would be a whole lot of broccoli compared to a handful of M&M’s. Broccoli is going to be broken down much slower taking around 45 mins. In this time the body gets a slow release of sugar from the carbs which leads to a blunted insulin release and much healthier stable blood sugar level. (No Spikes!) There are also many beneficial phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, and fiber in broccoli which are great for your health.
This graph shows you how M&M's (blue) cause a high spike in blood sugar followed by a crash. The Broccoli (orange) line shows you how there is a controlled release of blood sugar leading to a stable glucose level.
You can see that even though these foods are equal in carbs they are EXTREMELY different in how the body utilizes them!
I hope this illustrates to you that all calories are NOT equal. Your body unfortunately does not work like your MyFitness Pal app calorie ledger. There are many complex enzymatic and hormonal interactions that occur due to the foods you eat which can have completely different effects on your health.
Next time someone tells you “It doesn’t matter what you eat, A calorie is just a calorie!” You can smile and know that it is much more complicated than that and it does in fact matter!
Let Food be Thy Medicine
Dr. Samantha Zimmer
Chiropractor and Master of Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine