Are All Calories Created Equal?

Here’s why calories are a little more complex than you might think – and how your choice of calorie sources can impact your health…

Most people assume that gaining, losing, or maintaining weight is simply a matter of calories in versus calories out. But in fact, there is a little more to it than that. We are always learning more about the complex ways that the human body metabolizes energy, and interestingly enough, calorie count is not as cut and dried as people once believed it to be.

A 2500 calorie per day diet may cause some people to gain weight, while a 2500 calorie per day diet consisting of different foods may cause no weight gain or even weight loss. It all depends on how the calories are counted and on how your body digests them.

How Calorie Count Is Measured

Calories are units of energy that are commonly used by dieters to measure their food intake. One calorie is equal to the amount of energy necessary to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius at normal atmospheric pressure.

Measuring Calories In Food

When we talk about calories in food, we are actually talking about kilocalories. One scientific kilocalorie is equal to a thousand calories. When talking about food, one calorie is actually a kilocalorie.

Food manufacturers use what is called a “bomb calorimeter” to measure calories. The food is placed in a sealed container that is also filled with water at normal atmospheric pressure. Electrical energy is used to burn the food. When it is burned completely, the temperature of the water is measured and a calculation is made as to how many calories are in that food.

How The Body Uses Calories

The problem with the bomb calorimeter is that it measures every available calorie the food contains and, in our diets, we don’t always use up every available calorie.

Take fiber, for example. Fiber can be burned in a bomb calorimeter and its calories are measured as part of the total amount of calories in a specific food. In the gut, however, fiber is not digested (especially insoluble fiber) and it instead passes through the body to make up the bulky portion of stool. This means that the calories you ate from fiber aren’t absorbed and you are actually consuming fewer than you would expect. This is one good reason to eat more high fiber foods.

The Atwater System

Another method of determining calories is called the Atwater system. In this system, the calories are broken down by how many are found in the protein, fat, carbohydrates, and alcohol in each food. There are reference tables based on the energy density of the food. For protein, there are 4 kilocalories in each gram of protein. There are also 4 kilocalories in each gram of carbohydrate. Organic acids contain 3 kilocalories per gram and fats contain 9 kilocalories per gram. If you drink alcohol, it takes up 7 kilocalories per gram of alcohol. The food is broken down into the amount of each of these components and the calorie count is added up.

Neither Method Is Truly Accurate

Neither method is a true measure of the digestibility of food and the degree of absorption of the digested products. The truth is that the food those calories come from greatly determines how they are processed in the body.

Calories are NOT created equal as the exact same amount of calories from two different types of food can pose completely different biological effects in the body.

Soda Versus Mushrooms: A Case Study

Is 182-calories-worth of soda the same as 182-calories-worth of mushrooms? Let us see…

The Soda

A 22-ounce serving of soda has 44 grams of sugar, 182 calories and nothing else. The stomach quickly absorbs the sugar causing a spike in blood glucose levels and a variety of bad chemical reactions in the body, including, but not limited to increases in storage of belly fat, increases in bad cholesterol and blood pressure, and may even contribute to infertility in women.

The flood of insulin also blocks leptin, the hormone that controls appetite. As people become more resistant to leptin, they never register satiation, and this leads to overeating, out of control cravings and adds fuel to the sugar addiction fire. This domino effect leads to bad eating habits, and cravings for sugar that will never truly get satisfied.

Additionally, the fructose in the soda does not send a signal to the brain that the body just received calories, so they are not registered as food, and this means that it will also effect ghrelin, the appetite hormone that is reduced when the body receives real food, leading to more hunger, more cravings, and over eating. It’s a vicious cycle!

The Mushrooms

Mushrooms are also carbohydrates, but instead of being simple sugars like the soda, they are complex carbs that digest slowly in the body. They will not cause blood sugar spikes, but instead be digested slowly and they provide essential nutrients, like potassium, fiber, protein, iron, vitamin D, and magnesium, healing the body instead of causing immense harm.

The quality nutritional profile of the mushrooms supports numerous healthy results in the body, and also helps protect against chronic disease, including various cancers and heart disease.

The nutritional profile, slow digestion, and fiber found in mushrooms allow you to feel full and satisfied, eliminating out of control cravings and over eating. Will mushrooms contribute to weight gain? NO!

The difference between the calories in soda and mushrooms is marked. In fact, while there is nothing good for your health in soda, mushrooms are just the opposite.

One study that looked at the correlation of sugar and calories to risk of diabetes found that simply adding 150 calories a day to a diet barely raised the risk for diabetes, however when those calories were from soda the risk increased by 700%!

Volume Matters Too

By the way, 186-calories-worth of mushrooms is almost 9 cups, which is a lot of mushrooms, especially in comparison to the 22 ounces of soda.

Now, most people will not consume 9 cups of mushrooms in one sitting (mainly because they are so filling), but think about how much more food you can actually eat when choosing quality food? Rather than skimping on meals and never feeling full, if you fill up on whole foods with a low caloric density, you can feel full and satisfied AND be healthier – it’s a win-win!

What Does This Mean For Eating And Counting Calories?

Eat slow digesting foods and skip the simple sugars!

This means…just eat real whole food!

Eat the most of foods that have a high amount of fiber compared to calories. Look at food labels for foods that contain a high amount of fiber. Plant foods naturally contain a great deal of indigestible fiber that will bulk up the stool and won’t be counted as “real” calories because they are not digested or absorbed in the body. Vegetables are always your best choices, as are low sugar fruits like berries.

Eat a moderate amount of meats, proteins, and other low fiber foods that are more fully digested and absorbed, so those foods will count more than vegetables.

Try to avoid high-calorie foods without much nutrient value (sometimes called “empty calories”) – such as cake, donuts, cookies, potato chips, soda and other junky foods. These are the worst choices and they will do nothing good for your body and can cause serious harm in the long-term.

While calories themselves may be a little more complex than previously thought, eating healthy is actually fairly simple. Choose to eat mostly real, fiber-filled,  natural, whole foods, and you’re on the right path to long-term health and longevity!



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