Are All Calories Equal? Or Do Whole Foods Burn More Calories?
Are all calories equal? A question that continues to be debated ad nauseam. And despite the endless mass debate, a definitive answer is lacking.
So who's right and who's wrong when it comes to the right approach to weight loss?
If all calories are equal, then how much you eat is the most important factor for fat loss. But is there a difference in the calories burned between whole and processed foods?
If there is, then what you eat surely jumps to the top of the priority list, right?
In fact, a study in 2010 appears to have shown this to be true. Although, as you'll discover if you read on, things aren't quite what they seem.
So if you want the conclusive answer to the question "Are all calories equal?", you're in the right place. Because in this article, you'll discover what calories are and how the nutrient content of those calories influences weight loss.
And if you'd prefer to listen to the audio version of "Are All Calories Equal? Or Do Whole Foods Burn More Calories?", click the play button below.
Are All Calories Equal? "I Dunno! What The Hell Is A Calorie?"
All calories ARE equal. Allow me to explain.
At the most basic level, a calorie is simply a unit of measurement, much like a mile is a measure of distance. And micrometre is a measure of penis length. Wait. WTF?
Let's use an analogy to make things clear. A mile of race track is the same distance as a mile of dirt road. Agreed?
However, the quality of the two road surfaces is significantly different. But the measurement of distance is always the same.
This is the same for calories. A calorie is a measurement of the energy content of the food and drinks you consume. So when you compare the calories in a banana to those in a bag of sweets, you are comparing the amount of energy those foods provide.
However, the quality of those foods (as defined by their nutrient density), is significantly different. The banana contains more vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients for optimal health. In comparison, the sweets are likely to be devoid of these nutrients.
So when you hear someone claim that all calories are not equal, what they are actually saying is that the nutrient content is not equal. And this is perfectly true.
But what about that study I mentioned? If all calories are equal, how was it able to demonstrate that more calories can be burned through the consumption of whole foods?
Are All Calories Equal? Does The Research Prove They Are Not?
The answer lies in cheese sandwiches. And that's no typo. Researchers have looked at the effects of cheese sandwiches on energy balance.
And the study in question throws up some alarming findings because the group consuming whole foods burned nearly 50% more calories after each meal, which sounds like a LOT of calories.
But a quick look beyond the surface-level conclusion paints a different picture.
The study compared the effects of two different meals. Sandwiches made with multi-grain bread and cheese versus white bread and highly processed cheese. So the first thing to note is that both meals contained ingredients that were processed to some degree. And therefore, not strictly whole foods. But one was MORE processed than the other.
The meals were matched for calories at around 600-800 kcals per meal.
"So if calories were matched, why was there such a significant difference in energy expenditure? Doesn't this mean energy balance is BS?"
A logical assumption, but here's the reality.
The number of additional calories burned after each meal was c.64 kcals (~192 kcals per day, assuming 3 meals a day). Not a huge difference, although enough to negatively affect your weight loss efforts.
But this doesn't negate energy balance. Calories still matter. After all, you can't eat 55 cheese sandwiches a day and still lose weight just because they're less processed.
And the most important issue with the study is that the macronutrient content of the meals was different. The group eating the "unprocessed' sandwiches had more fibre and ~33% more protein. Both of which would increase energy expenditure due to their thermic effect.
Understanding The Thermic Effect Of Food (TEF)
At this stage, it’s good to understand the thermic effect of food (TEF). The thermic effect of food refers to the energy required for digestion, absorption, and disposal of a given nutrient following ingestion. In essence, we need calories to break down the energy in food.
- Carbs - 5 to 15% of carbohydrate calories are used during digestion and absorption.
- Fats - 5 to 15% of fat calories are used during digestion and absorption.
- Protein - 20 to 35% of protein calories are used during digestion and absorption.
And you can find out more about this and other evidence-based facts in this FREE Calorie And Macro Guide.
So, the differences in energy expenditure shown in the study are both understandable and expected. More importantly, it doesn't disprove the importance of focusing on how much you eat as the primary driver of weight loss.
However, this doesn't mean what you eat is unimportant, far from it.
If All Calories Are Equal How Important Is What You Eat?
Don't be mistaken; what you eat is incredibly important. And opting for the majority of your diet to come from unprocessed, whole foods is only ever a good thing.
Approaching your nutrition in this way will provide your body with the nutrients it needs for optimal health. Not only that, whole foods will help increase feelings of fullness and control cravings.
Limiting (not eliminating) added or refined sugars and alcohol is also likely to be a good strategy to adopt.
But don't fear processed foods. Your food choices are not moral decisions. So you should never feel guilt or shame. Becoming too rigid with your diet and creating over-restrictive rules has been shown to lead to a poor relationship with food. And, in the most extreme cases, eating disorders.
So don't live in the all-or-nothing extremes. Find balance.
Are All Calories Equal? The Bottom Line On The Debate
Are all calories equal? Yes. Yes they are. And energy balance is the primary consideration for weight loss. However, this does not mean what you eat is unimportant. Your food choices play a vital role in achieving a calorie deficit and optimal health.
Based on the current evidence, whole foods of matched calorie and macronutrients don't burn more calories than processed versions.
The calories in versus calories out equation still matters most.
So if you want to lose weight, here are a few simple guidelines to follow.
- Control for calories (this doesn't mean you HAVE to calorie count).
- Keep protein relatively high (above 1.2g/kg if weight loss is the only goal and above 1.8g/kg if resistance training).
- Opt for nutrient-dense foods that account for at least 80% of total calories.
- Base your diet on plants with or without meat, fish, and dairy as per your food preferences and ethical beliefs.
Don't be extreme and impose potentially detrimental restrictions on your diet.
What are your thoughts on whether or not all calories are equal? Has this article change your views or confirmed your existing beliefs? Let me know in the comments below.
Here's The Next Step In Achieving Your Fitness Goals
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