Diabetes and Weight Loss: Why Calories Are Not Alike
Many of us believe, and many dietitians are taught, that a calorie is a calorie no matter what food the calorie originates from.
If this is true, why is calorie counting plus exercise an ineffective long term weight loss strategy for so many people?
The answer lies in the observation that calories behave differently in the body, depending on their source—meaning calories from fast food French fries are not processed in the body the same way as calories from broccoli. These processing differences influence hormonal responses that regulate things such as glucose levels, and how much fat our body will store.
Research shows, for instance, an identical calorie intake of fructose and glucose, fructose and protein, or fructose and fat trigger very different chemical reactions in the body, provoking unique hormonal responses.
So, eating 3,000 calories a day of primarily breads, refined, or processed products, and sugary food has a vastly different effect on the body than 3,000 calories from fresh vegetables, whole fruits, healthy fats, and proteins. The carbohydrate-heavy diet increases appetite, insulin resistance, and fat storage, while the fresh-food diet normalizes these measurements.
The body also uses different amounts of energy to breakdown the various nutrients we eat. For example, the energy expended to make protein available to our body is about 25 to 30 percent, but for carbohydrates the energy used is six to eight percent. This means even if our carb and protein calorie intake are equal, the body burns more protein calories than carb calories.
To lose weight then, we may need to think less about calorie quantity, and focus primarily on the quality of our food, the ratio of carbs, fats, and protein we consume, and to stay physically active. We need to:
- Cook as many meals as possible from scratch using whole, fresh foods. This automatically cuts our added sugar, artificial sweetener, and harmful processed fat intake. Choosing organic produce, and organic grass-fed meats also reduces our intake of pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotics.
- Get most of our carbohydrates from high fiber options (e.g., veggies, legumes, whole grains), eat a moderate amount of protein, and obtain our fat from high-quality sources (e.g. butter, avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, pecans, macadamia nuts).
- Maximize the effects of a healthy diet by increasing our physical activity, or maintaining our already active lifestyle. Stand up frequently during the workday; just 90 seconds of standing activates cellular systems that process blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglycerides, and moves fuel into our cells. Also, walk whenever possible - taking 7,000 to 10,000 steps per day is ideal.
All calories are a specific unit of heat (the energy it takes to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius) and they provide energy for our body. In this sense, a calorie is a calorie.
However, in the process of turning food into fuel the body responds uniquely to calories from different food sources, and this is why the quality of our food is vital for weight loss, weight maintenance, and overall well-being.