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Not All Calories are Created Equal

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One Calorie Does Not Always Equal One Calorie
Credit: Holly Perez

I’ll admit it. I continuously fall into this mindset trap: calories in equals calories out. Based on my weight goal, I meticulously count my calories and reward myself with extra calories that I get to consume if I run a few miles that day.

Calories Burned by Metabolizing Food

Yes, we actually burn calories by processing the very food that we eat. But, digesting food typically only accounts for about 5% to 10% of the total calories (energy) that we burn. But what we put in our mouths matters. Our bodies need balanced levels of healthy fats, carbohydrates, and proteins to exist. A single gram (g) of each of these macro-nutrients equals the following number of calories 

  • 1g Fat:                           9 calories
  • 1g Carbohydrates:       4 calories
  • 1g Proteins:                  4 calories

You may think that you can either eat 1 gram of fat or a little over 2 grams of a carbohydrate or a protein to reach your caloric intake goal that day; but this is not the case. Each of the above macro-nutrients is metabolized differently by the body.

What We Eat Affects Our Metabolic Rate

The thermic effect of food (TEF) is the increase in metabolic rate after eating a meal. ‘While factors such as such as meal size, meal frequency, meal composition, meal pattern, and body composition influence the thermic effect of food’, we’ll focus on which foods we eat since that lies more easily within our control. What we eat has a direct impact on our metabolic rate. Listed below is the approximation of how many calories we burn to metabolize the following food types:

  • 100 Calories Protein = 25 to 30 Calories burned
  • 100 Calories Complex Carbohydrate = 10 to 30 Calories burned
  • 100 Calories Simple Carbohydrate  = 3 to 5 Calories burned
  • 100 Calories Fat = 3 to 5 Calories burned [1]

1 Tbsp Olive Oil

1 Tbsp Olive Oil
Credit: Holly Perez

Not All Fats are Bad Fats

While healthy fats, such as nuts, avocados, and fish, are very dense in calories and require very little energy to metabolize, you would not need to consume as much since healthy fats typically leave you feeling full quickly. Certain fats are also essential for absorbing fat soluble vitamins, like A, D, E, and K. Ideally, 20% to 35% of your caloric intake should be derived from healthy fats.

1/4 Cup of Peanuts

100 Calories of Peanuts
Credit: Holly Perez

Protein in Moderation is Great Too

Your initial thought may be, “why don’t I just consume only foods high in protein since I would burn the greatest number of calories that way?” While protein is very important (please note that not all protein comes from animal sources) and is needed for hormones, growth, and metabolic functions, consuming more protein than your body needs will also result in the excess protein being stored as fat. Additionally, long-term excess protein consumption can be a bit exhausting for your liver and kidneys to process. Depending on your lifestyle, protein intake requirements range from 10% to 35% (e.g. if you are a bodybuilder, you would likely lean more toward the 35% intake). [2]

100 Calories of Grapes
Credit: Holly Perez

The Skinny on Carbohydrates

I focus on discussing carbohydrates more than the other macro-nutrients because carbohydrates make up the largest percentage (45% to 65%) of our macro-nutrient intake (it’s what we need the most of) and I really feel that this is the macro-nutrient that the majority of us struggle with balancing in our diets.

As you probably already know, a 100-calorie apple does not equal a 100-calorie cookie. Why not? After all, both the apple and the cookie would be categorized as a carbohydrate and a carbohydrate is a sugar. Here’s the scoop:

Carbohydrates are either simple or complex. Simple means that the body breaks down, or burns through, the simple sugar very easily and quickly. Complex means that the body must work harder to break down the complex sugars into simple sugars before it can be used. [3]

100 Calories of Peanut Butter Cookie Goodness

100 Calories of Cookies
Credit: Holly Perez

The Cookie is Simple

You may notice that if you eat the cookie, you feel a little sugar rush. The simple sugars of the cookie are quickly and easily converted into glucose, signaling your pancreas to release a bunch of insulin to lower the sudden glucose surge. After your body uses the glucose it immediately needs, a small amount of the glucose is converted to glycogen and stored in your muscles and liver. Whatever glucose is left over is stored as fat. Since the simple sugars were metabolized so quickly, you’re soon left hungry again and craving the next sugar rush to get you through the sugar crash. This becomes a very addictive cycle. The cookie only took about 3 to 5 calories to be metabolized.

A 100-Calorie Granny Smith Apple

A 100-Calorie Granny Smith Apple
Credit: Holly Perez

The Apple is Complex

The apple is considered a complex carbohydrate. The body has to work harder (burn more calories) to break down the complex sugar molecule chains into simple sugars before it is use. If you eat an apple instead of the cookie, you would feel fuller longer and the simple sugars would slowly enter your bloodstream as the complex chains were broken down over time. This ‘slow burn’ boosts your metabolism and gives your body time to respond to small amounts of glucose it is receiving; as a side note, this also makes your pancreas happier. You would not experience the sugar rushes followed by the sugar crashes. The apple took roughly 20 calories to metabolize. [4]

Burn 60 Calories Instead of 15 Calories Simply By Choosing the Right Food

Though the calories burned in the above examples during digestion are small, they definitely add up. Imagine if you ate three complex carbohydrates per day (like a carrot, an apple, and maybe a whole grain slice of bread) instead of three simple carbohydrates (like a small bag of chips, a big cookie, and a soda) for your snacks. You would burn an extra 60 calories per day instead of 12 to 15 calories. Now, replace simple carbohydrate items in your main meals with complex carbohydrates and image how many additional calories you would burn by simply digesting your food.

100-Calorie English Muffin
Credit: Holly Perez
100 Calories of Carrots
Credit: Holly Perez

Eliminating or even limiting processed simple carbohydrate foods to 5% to 10% of our caloric intake will boost our metabolisms and help us meet our weight and health goals. While the internet is a great source for clarifying which carbs are simple and which carbs are complex, the most sure-fire way to determine this is to avoid eating packaged foods…especially ones that have more than just a few ingredients listed on the package. Hopefully we can plan and choose our simple carb cheat foods more wisely now so we can still meet our goals.

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Aug 24, 2015 2:41pm
"Count calories, not chemicals" Andrea Albright And I couldnt agree more!
Aug 24, 2015 4:47pm
Thanks, my friend! The less crap I eat the worse it tastes when I go back to it later. E.g. oreos and chips ahoy taste like chemicals to me and I can't stand them anymore, lol! I think change is a long, slow process, but I'm so excited to see all of these awesome documentaries (like Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead) come out and all of the support we are all seeing for change!
Sep 16, 2015 10:23am
Very good article - it's nice to see someone advocating for clean eating rather than the "a calorie is a calorie" nonsense you hear so often.
Sep 17, 2015 9:00am
Thanks! "A calorie is just a calorie" is probably the lie we tell ourselves to justify eating the cookie instead of an apple. I think re-learning to love the taste of healthy whole foods can be so challenging when our processed foods have been so sweet, salty, and fatty (mmmmmm - I'm getting hungry right now). As a side note, one of my pet peeves is when I open a purported whole foods recipe, only to find that you have to add like a can of nacho cheese pre-made from the store...what is THAT about?! LOL
Sep 17, 2015 9:07am
Ugh, exactly. Or "30 days of whole foods" eating plans that include store-bought white bread or cereal or something, or worse yet, agave nectar/something similar. I just don't understand.
Sep 17, 2015 9:42am
I know, right?! Since I think we have pretty similar views on breads, you might enjoy an article I wrote called, "If I'm Vegan, why am I Overweight?" Or you can follow me for awhile. :-D

Sep 24, 2015 6:47pm
I was pretty clueless to the whole counting calories and stuff. After taking a Food Nutrition course, as an Elective, I discovered that I was consuming a lot of empty calories. I'm considered an irregular eater but am pretty good at eating food that's considered good for you.

Thanks for sharing this article. Its an amazing read.
Sep 26, 2015 3:04pm
Thanks so much! I hadn't realized that either until I had taken my first nutrition course. I found that I ate even when I wasn't really hungry..especially when commuting home from work. Fast food felt comforting after a stressful work day. I think different diets have different ideas on how frequently we should eat...the paleo people I follow like the philosophy of eating whenever you are hungry while other diets suggest setting a timer to eat every 2 to 3 hours. I'm one of those people that eats about every 2 hours because I feel dizzy if not...but I think everyone is different and should adhere to whatever works best for their bodies. :)
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  1. David Hart "Thermic effect of food." Weight Loss Ladder. 20/08/2015 <Web >
  2. Marcy Brinkly "What Does Consuming Too Much Protein Do to Your Body?." Livestrong.com. 28/01/2015. 20/08/2015 <Web >
  3. Melodie Anne "What Might Happen if You Have Too Many Simple Carbohydrates?." SF Gate - Food - Healthy Eating. 20/08/2015 <Web >
  4. ALYSSA SHAFFER "Your Body's Metabolism - Explained." Woman's Day. 10/11/2011. 20/08/2015 <Web >

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