Since the dawn of time, most people are led to believe that all calories are created equal. We have been taught that weight loss and weight gain are strictly a matter of “calories in” versus “calories out.” However that really isn’t the case……..
Science Lesson Time!!
Let’s start with the basics.
What really IS a calorie??
Well, a (singular – 1) calorie (or, kilocalorie – kcal, to be exact), is the energy required to heat one gram of water by one degree Celsius (at sea level). It is also the universal unit of measure for the energy potential of food. (Keyword: Potential)
And how do we measure said calories??
With an instrument called a bomb calorimeter, which is made up of an inner chamber and an outer chamber. The outer chamber holds cold water while the inner chamber holds the food we want to measure and oxygen. In order to measure the amount of calories in the food we ignite the contents of the inner chamber and as the food burns, the temperature of the water is recorded. This gives us the potential energy of the food – i.e. IT’S CALORIE CONTENT.
As a rule of thumb, we are taught that protein and carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram, alcohol contains 7 calories per gram, and fat contains a whopping 9 calories per gram.
It may seem simple enough, but in actuality, there are many other factors that influence the real calorimetric value of food. So what you may see on the side of a box mat not necessarily be the calories you actually get out of that food.
For example, if both carbohydrates and proteins are 4 calories per gram this would mean that eating 100 grams of chicken is the same as eating 100g of rice. One of the problems with this is that carbohydrates will always contain some fiber – which we cannot fully break down, and therefore has no energy value (which is where the idea of “net carbs” comes from).
Another problem with all of this is that all foods also require energy to break them down (know as the thermic effect of food – or TEF for short). The more complex the food, the harder it is to digest, and therefore the more energy that’s needed to break it down. Protein needs a lot more energy than both carbohydrates and fat to be broken down, which again reiterates that protein and carbohydrates are not really equal on the calorie scale.
Furthermore, when you look at processed or refined foods, they require less energy to be broken down than whole foods since they’re already so highly processed. For example, you may have a 200 calories Pop-Tart, but because it is highly processed, it may not actually require 200 calories worth of energy to break it down – as compared to 200 calories worth of nutrient dense Ezekiel bread and natural ground peanut butter which your body may work harder at to digest.
Healthy, nutrient-rich foods will keep hunger at bay for longer periods of time, help you maintain stable blood sugar levels, minimize your cravings, and enable your brain to signal your belly that it’s full. Processed, nutrient-deficient foods will have the opposite effect – they can wreak hormonal havoc, spike insulin, set off cravings, and encouraging overeating. In other words: nutrient dense foods help keep weight in check naturally, no calculator required.
So when eating, focus on a good balance of protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats. And remember, it’s the quality of the calorie not the quantity of the calorie that can have an effect on your overall health.