Nourishing Thoughts

A Calorie is a Calorie…Or Is It?

The media loves sharing stories of the person who lost 100 pounds on the All-Cookie Diet, the celebrity who dropped five pounds in a week by drinking some magic juice, or the svelte marathon runner who ate only McDonald’s during his entire training. These stories attempt to persuade us that it really doesn’t matter what you eat, as long as you balance your calories-in with your calories-out. What they fail to mention, however, is how that person felt during the process, or that for every person who found success eating that way, dozens of others failed.

In a world full of different philosophies of eating, critics frequently tell people to stop worrying so much about what you eat, that a “calorie is a calorie.” Similarly, people struggling to lose weight are often told that losing weight is a “simple” matter of calories-in vs. calories-out. There is a tiny bit of truth to the notion that all calories are created equal. However, like most things having to do with a system as complex as the human body, the whole story is far more complicated.

Imagine two men, equal in terms of current body mass and activity level. One decides that, for a month, he is going to eat only Snickers. Six regular-sized Snickers bars will net him 1500 calories per day. The other man will eat only home-prepared meals made from sustainable meats and organic produce. He doesn’t track calories, but let’s say he eats moderately-sized meals totaling 2000 calories per day.

All things being equal, Mr. Snickers may lose more weight than Mr. Organic. But Mr. Snickers will probably also be cranky, irritable, have difficulty focusing, and gain some underlying and unseen consequences of his diet. His metabolism will likely slow down, making it increasingly difficult to keep the weight off, and he may be on a path to diabetes or another metabolic disorder. Meanwhile, Mr. Organic may not drop any weight, but he is probably going to experience a sense of physical and emotional well-being while improving his blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Granted, that is a very extreme example. Still, the average person looking to drop weight does need to reduce their overall calories intake, but it is important to recognize that the TYPE of calories DOES matter. Consider 100-calorie packs of cookies. The implication is that they are a good choice for a snack, because they’re only 100-calories. However, after eating those hundred calories of refined flour and sugar, you are going to want more, thanks to the huge insulin spike you’ll experience. Thus, eating those 100-calorie packs will in fact make you hungrier, and you’re likely to cave and reach for more snacks. Conversely, if you eat a few celery sticks spread with 100-calories’ worth of peanut butter, your hunger will be satisfied by the fiber and protein, and you won’t be obsessed with getting more.

Yes, you could possibly lose weight by eating junk food in small quantities, but it would require an iron-clad will, and you’d be spending a lot of your time feeling hungry and crabby. Eating the same number of calories of whole, real foods will leave you far more satisfied and able to stick to your plan in order to reach your goals. Avoiding processed foods and shopping the perimeter of the store will automatically get you eating the RIGHT kinds of calories. Calories do count, but eating the right TYPE of calories will make it a lot easier to feel satiated and happy while cutting overall calories.

Nourishing Thoughts is written by Julie Miller, an expert on nutrition and fitness instructor at the C.W. Avery Family YMCA.