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Why All Calories Are Not Created Equal


I get asked a lot of nutrition questions, and one of the most common topics that comes up is the subject of calories. There is so much information out there and so many misconceptions. Consequently, I wanted to bring up this very important topic and offer up the truth that all calories are NOT created equal.

I know this flies in the face of some "conventional wisdom" that many nutritionists, doctors, and personal trainers have been spreading for decades. I'm sure you've heard it before... "Eat less calories to lose weight." It sounds logical, right?

We've all heard this, and it makes sense that substituting lower calorie foods for higher calorie options is the key to losing weight. In the 1980s, the processed food industry went into a massive and unfortunate PR campaign against fat in foods, all while secretly substituting it with more and more sugar. Because fat has twice as many calories as sugar, the assumption was cutting calories should start with cutting fat. But if this works, then why are so many people still overweight?

The truth is that only counting-calories has many flaws, but the main one is that it does NOT account for the hormonal effects that certain kinds of foods have on your body. You know this instinctively from eating a hearty salad compared with eating a cupcake. You feel different, and your body reacts differently to these foods. Even if the calorie counts are the same, the math does not account for the hormonal, mental and emotional effects those calories have on you.

Calories that Store Fat
The major problem I usually see, is that most people who try low calorie diets end up eating foods that trigger a cascade of fat-storing hormones. And unfortunately, many of the commonly recommended "low calorie" health foods are exactly the ones that set off this cascade of fat-storing hormones.

For example, imagine having to choose between a 250-calorie energy bar or a 250-calorie avocado. Yes, they both have 250 calories, but the difference is what happens to you hormonally.

When you eat the high-sugar/high-carb energy bar, your blood sugar rises and your pancreas secretes insulin in response to the elevated blood sugar. Insulin is a "building" hormone, which means that it helps to move sugar from the food you've eaten into your cells to be used for energy and it also stores extra sugar (energy) as fat. The problem is most people eat these carbs in excess and at a time of the day when your muscles do not need them, so they are stored as fat.

The monounsaturated fat from the avocado, on the other hand, inhibits insulin, leading to a more sustained energy release and feeling full. But that's not all, the avocado actually sends signals to your body to burn body fat.

So even though both foods have the same amount of calories, they do not have the same affect on your body.

Do Calories Even Matter?
Yes, in the big picture they do. You cannot over-consume calories without gaining weight, but I would dare say that the hormonal effect of the foods you choose to eat is just as important.

To optimize your hormonal response to food, eat lots of vegetables and plenty of protein from organic sources, whenever possible. Include healthy fats like olive oil and avocado. Reserve "starchy" carb intake to the hour immediately after your hardest workouts, and maybe have one weekly cheat meal.

Calories that Increase Cravings
Your body craves whatever it eats most regularly. It's a survival mechanism, because our bodies learn to use whatever food has "worked" in the past to fuel us.

A 2011 study of low-carb and low-fat dieters found that participants' cravings mimicked what they restricted. In the study, participants who were on a low-carb diet had less cravings for high-sugar and high carbohydrate foods. Now I know what you're thinking. You've tried carb-restriction diets and actually craved carbs, right? You craved them so bad you could smell a breadcrumb from a half mile away. I know the feeling, but that's only the withdrawal phase; I promise it gets easier afterward.

Eating healthier calories will re-teach your body what's best for it. Flipping the switch may be hard initially, as you will have withdrawals, but stay focused and remember that after a week or so of craving carbs like mad, your body will adjust and start to crave them less.

As you control your mind to do what you know is best, your body will stop feeling compelled to eat calories that are not positively "feeding" into its own health and well-being.

So, What Calories Should I Be Eating?
Seek calories from protein and fiber, which help slow down digestion and help you stay full longer. Fats are also satisfying and help trigger the "I feel full" response. Put together, incorporating lean protein, fiber, and healthy fats should keep you feeling full throughout the day.

There are refined carbs, sometimes called fast or quick-release carbs, and there are slow carbs, or slow-release carbs. These carbs take a lot longer to break down into sugar, and thus don't cause the rapid rise and fall in blood sugar that quick-release carbs do. You've heard of the sugar crash I'm sure, but the carbs that increase energy are slow carbs, which come from green leafy vegetables, as well as starchy veggies like sweet potatoes. Other good slow carbs are whole grains, wild rice, quinoa, and steel-cut oatmeal. Beans and legumes are another great slow carb.

All of these foods help create longer-lasting energy. Because they are slowly released in the body, they allow you to enjoy a balance of energy infusion over a longer period of time, so there's no crash at the end. And if you're worried about certain fruits, don't get too caught up on avoiding tropical fruits and citrus fruits that some may say have a higher glycemic index. If you're eating fruit whole, it has the fiber to help you digest it a lot slower than if it were juice.

Action Steps

1. Stay full with protein-rich meals that add fiber and healthy fats.

2. Avoid cravings by making sure that healthy whole foods make up 80% of what you consume each day.

3. Incorporate hormonal activating foods like coconut oil, olive oil, and avocado along with a healthy dose of vegetables to optimize your hormonal response.

4. Reserve "starchy" slow-carb intake and "sugary" fast-carb intake to the hour before and the hour immediately after your hardest workouts.

Readers - What are your thoughts on calories? Do you know how many calories you consume each day? Do you track your calories on LIVESTRONG's MyPlate free calorie tracker app? Why or why not? What are foods that you've given up because of the effect that they have on your body? Have you tried coconut oil, avocado, olive oil or other "hormonal activating foods" in your diet? Do you find that they have a positive effect on your body?

Celebrity Fitness & Motivation expert Brett Hoebel was a trainer on NBC's The Biggest Loser, health expert on Food Network’s Fat Chef, and judge on Fit or Flop: America’s Next Fitness Star. Brett is the creator of the 20 Minute Body™, RevAbs® from Beachbody, and frequently blogs for LIVESTRONG.COM, US News, Eleven By Venus and other prominent media outlets. He regularly appears on TV shows like Dr. Oz and The Talk to discuss topics such as weight loss, bullying and emotional obstacles, and contributes to national publications like SELF and Fitness Magazine.

Want more expert advice on nutrition, motivation and short bodyweight workouts from Brett? Find him on FacebookTwitterInstagram and Google+ 

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