Are all calories equal?

Since we were children, we’ve been taught that weight loss comes down to the simple idea of “calories in versus calories out.” This equation is simple and easy to understand. If you want to lose weight, you must take in fewer calories than you consume. This can be achieved by creating a calorie deficit via a reduced-calorie diet, an increase in physical activity, or a combination of both. The weight-loss industry makes billions of dollars each year trying to cash in our desperate attempts to curb this obesity epidemic that has plagued America, but is it possible that it’s more complicated than the old adage, “eat less and exercise more”?

Employing simple, basic strategies to reduce total calories has been a common method used to lose weight. The strategies include watching portion sizes, limiting high-calorie foods, and increasing exercise. While it’s still true that a calorie is a calorie regardless of what food it came from, not all calories are created equal in the sense that foods will have different effects on your body – even if two foods are identical in their calorie contents.

For example, compare 500 calories from gummy candy and 500 calories from broccoli. When you eat the candy, your gut quickly absorbs the fiber-free sugars in the candy. The sugars spike your blood sugar, starting a domino effect of high insulin and a cascade of hormonal responses that kicks bad biochemistry into gear. The high insulin increases storage of belly fat, increases inflammation, raises triglycerides, lowers HDL, and raises blood pressure.

Your appetite is increased because of insulin’s effect on your brain chemistry. The insulin blocks your appetite-control hormone leptin. You become more leptin resistant, so the brain never gets the “I’m full” signal. Instead, it thinks you are starving. Furthermore, your pleasure-based reward center is triggered, driving you to consume more sugar and fueling your addiction.

You can see just how easily 500 calories of candy can create chaos in your body. In addition, the candy contains no fiber, vitamins, minerals, or phytonutrients to help you process the calories you are consuming. These are “empty” calories, devoid of any nutritional value. Your body doesn’t register candy as food, so you eat more all day long.

Now let’s look at the 500 calories of broccoli. As with the candy, these calories are made up primarily (although not entirely) of carbohydrates — but let’s clarify just what that means, because the varying characteristics of carbohydrates will factor significantly into the contrast I’m about to illustrate.

Carbohydrates are plant-based compounds comprised of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They come in many varieties, but they are all technically sugars or starches, which convert to sugar in the body. The important difference is in how they affect your blood sugar. High-fiber, low-sugar carbohydrates such as broccoli are slowly digested and don’t lead to blood sugar and insulin spikes, while table sugar and bread are quickly digested carbohydrates that spike your blood sugar. Therein lies the difference. Slow carbohydrates like broccoli heal rather than harm.

Those 500 calories of broccoli make up 14 cups and contain 44 grams of fiber (the average American consumes less than15 grams of fiber a day). Broccoli is 23 percent protein, 9 percent fat, and 68 percent carbohydrate, or 340 calories from carbs. The “sugar” in 14 cups of broccoli is the equivalent of only one teaspoon; the rest of the carbohydrates are the low-glycemic type found in all non-starchy vegetables, which are very slowly absorbed.

What happens when you eat broccoli? Broccoli contains so much fiber that very few of the calories would actually get absorbed. Those that did would get absorbed very slowly. There would be no blood sugar or insulin spike. Your stomach would distend (which it doesn’t with candy), sending signals to your brain that you were full. There would be no triggering of the addiction reward center in the brain. You’d also get many extra benefits including lower cholesterol and reduced inflammation. The phytonutrients in broccoli are anti-inflammatory and protect against cancer and heart disease.

The key is that all calories are NOT created equal. The same number of calories from different types of food can have very different biological effects.

Some calories are addictive while others are healing. When thinking about calories, think more about the quality of the calories versus the quantity. Consider what other nutrients are you getting besides just calories. Are there vitamins, phytonutrients, or fiber? Your goal with every bite is to get the most nutrition possible.

Author: drjeffgreenberg

Dr Greenberg is a clinical cardiologist who specializes in preventive cardiology, nutrition, exercise, and longevity. He favors using natural methods to improving one's health.

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