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The Difference Between a Calorie and a Calorie

13 May, 2015

One of the most common myths we see in today’s society is the idea that ‘a calorie is a calorie,’ regardless of where it comes from. And therefore, if you’re looking to shed excess weight, all you need to do is cut down on the raw calorie count. 

So, if you drop 2,000 calories out of your diet, but cut it out by reducing fresh food intake, you can keep the chocolate or chips, right? Well, no. In reality, not all calories are created equal, and a healthy diet needs a balanced range of nutrients.

The body processes energy from different foods at a different rate. For example, fats only need 2-3% of their inherent energy to digest them, while carbohydrates need 5-10%, and proteins need as much as 25%. 

What does this mean in practice? If you eat 100 calories of fat, your body will have access to 98 calories for the fat, but as little as 90 calories of carbohydrates or 75 calories of the proteins. This stacks up quite quickly. So, for example, if you compare a sandwich that is made of whole grains and cheddar cheese, and another that is refined grains and processed cheese, you will actually burn around twice as many calories digesting the whole grain sandwich than you would the refined products. 

calorie_1On top of this, a protein calorie actually acts as a hunger suppressant, whereas a fat calorie does not. This is because protein is a macronutrient, meaning that those who increase their intake of protein will automatically start consuming fewer overall calories per day. This is without leaving them in a state of hunger, and will help them naturally (rather than through starving the body) start to achieve weight loss. 

To extend that idea further and account for other foods that also help the body naturally reduce weight, there’s a satiety index, which rates foods based on how much you need to consume to increase feelings of fullness. Beef, eggs, beans, fruits and potatoes all sit high on the satiety index, while doughnuts and cake need to be consumed in greater quantities to leave you feeling full, and it won’t be as long before you feel the need to eat again. 

Another area where calories have significant different levels of impact is in terms of their GI ratings. High GI foods, which include foods with refined carbohydrates such as white bread or foods with added sugars like sucrose, spike blood sugar levels quickly but then crash a few hours later, leading the body to crave more high GI foods. 

By way of example, a study found that people can consume as many as 81% more calories during a high GI meal when compared to a low GI meal because, as above, the levels of satiation are just not the same. 

So, what does all this mean? 

calorie_2As we noted at the start, the basic reality is that not all calories are equal. You might be able to carefully weigh out the same raw calorie count of ice cream compared to fresh vegetables and a good piece of lean beef, but when it comes to eating healthy, eating the ice cream is a terrible idea. The ice cream will actually turn out to be more calories by the time the body has finished processing it, regardless of what the package states, and while it might make you feel good for the very short term it won’t be long after eating that your body feels hunger pangs again. 

Meanwhile, the person that eats the fresh meal will find their body working harder to digest it, and will feel satiated for longer. In the longer term, this is a far more effective way to approach a healthy diet. 

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