Is a Calorie a Calorie?

September 12, 2012 | By | 46 Comments

Contrary to popular belief, the source of your calories matters just as much (if not more) than the amount…

Everyone agrees that in order to lose weight you must burn more calories than you consume (or eat fewer calories than you burn). But that’s where the agreements end.

In fact, when it comes to calories and weight loss, there are two camps: one that believes that “a calorie is a calorie” and one that essentially doesn’t.

The former argues that the source of your calories is irrelevant. In other words, as long as you’re eating fewer than you burn, you’ll lose weight. The latter believes the exact opposite (i.e. if you want to achieve lasting weight loss, the quality of your calories is just as important as the quantity).

And here’s the kicker: they’re both right to some degree (and the reason why most people can’t lose weight or maintain that loss.)

Let me explain…

Like healthy eaters, most people can lose weight on a junk food diet. But that’s where the similarities end. You see, the people who eat the right foods will do so much faster and without starving themselves or fighting hunger and cravings. More importantly, these people will lose the weight for life.

On the contrary, the other camp will constantly struggle to shed even a few pounds. Hunger and cravings will become their closest companions. Furthermore, they’ll need to count calories, follow point systems, exercise portion control, and even keep a food journal throughout this process. And once they stop (after all, nobody can keep this up forever) the weight will come back on.

And in order to understand the reason for these differences, take a look at the picture below. It’s a screenshot of an article showcasing a new peanut butter some company recently concocted.

By removing the fat they’ve reduced the calories per serving from the normal 190 to a mere 45!

Now on the surface, this may seem like a dieter’s dream (as the article’s title suggests). But rest assured, this is the stuff that nightmares are truly made of.

The reason why can be found in the following two screenshots: the first one is the nutrition facts of PB2, the low-calorie, low-fat peanut butter. The second one is the nutrition facts of my favorite all-natural peanut butter, Teddy.

Alright, let’s take a closer look at these labels:

  • PB2 calories per serving: 45; Teddy calories per serving: 190.
  • PB2 carbs and sugar: 5 and 1 (respectively); Teddy carbs and sugar: 7 and 1 (respectively).

So, at first glance, it almost seems obvious that the PB2 would be a better choice if you were dieting. After all, fewer calories consumed = faster fat loss, right? And on paper that’s entirely true. Unfortunately, that’s not how things play out in real life (and the reason why the majority of dieters fail to lose weight and/or keep it off long-term).

Let me explain…

Study after study has shown that people who opt for these low-fat, low-calorie foods always overeat. And there are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. They feel less guilt about doing so because, after all, “it’s low in calories”.
  2. More importantly, they don’t get the same satisfaction or feeling of fullness the way they would if they ate the non-diet, full-fat counterpart.

Now let’s examine the second point in a little more detail because it forms the basis of this article (and the key to permanent weight loss)…

In our peanut butter example, if you were to eat 2 tablespoons of the Teddy, you’d get very full – very fast (I know this to be true because I’d eat it every night to fight my cravings while I was on one of my low-fat, calorie-counting diets). 2 tablespoons were more than enough for a (then) 200+ pound man.

But two tablespoons of the PB2 would not be nearly enough. Why?

Simple: because it has very little fat. And on the surface, this seems like a good thing. However, fat plays a very important role in nature: it makes us feel full. Without it, you can’t achieve that same level of satiety and you crave more.

So, instead of settling for 2 tablespoons (i.e. 1 serving), you’d need 5 or 6 (i.e. 3 servings) to get the same level of fullness. And even then, you still wouldn’t achieve the same effect (explained below).

But what’s the big deal, you might be asking yourself? Even if you did eat 6 tablespoons of the PB2 you’d still have eaten only 135 calories vs. the 190 from the Teddy. And while that’s true, here’s where that “calorie is a calorie” debate comes into the equation.

6 tablespoons of PB2 would net you 135 calories, 15 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of sugar, and 4.5 grams of fat (also 282 mg. of sodium; hello hypertension). On the other hand, 2 tablespoons of Teddy would net you 190 calories, 7 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of sugar, and 16 grams of fat.

Now because the former is stripped of almost all fat it won’t keep you full for very long. Therefore, you’re more likely to seek out something else to eat in a short while to curb your cravings. So in the end, you end up eating more calories – just not in one sitting.

The only way to prevent this from happening is to exercise willpower. When those new cravings arise you have to consciously fight them so you don’t go over your daily calories, points, or any other restrictive system you happen to be on.

On the contrary the Teddy has plenty of fat (naturally) and will keep you satisfied much longer. Sure you may be eating more calories in one sitting, but you’re eating fewer calories overall.

In the first scenario you’re relying on willpower to achieve weight loss while in the second you’re relying on instinct – your natural survival instinct to keep you fed and satisfied. Now, if you had to bet on the above two (i.e. willpower vs. instinct), which do you think would win in the long run?

Take a moment to think about that because it’s the key to rapid and permanent weight loss.

Let’s move on…

When foods are stripped of their natural fat to make them less caloric, they end up tasting really bad. In order to compensate for this, manufacturers add salt and sugar. As you already know, salt is linked to high blood pressure. It’s bad stuff in big quantities. And sugar is no saint either. In fact, having more than a teaspoon in your bloodstream will make you very sick – it can even kill you.

Luckily we make the hormone insulin to prevent this from happening. So, when you ingest sugar, your pancreas secretes insulin in order to clear it from your bloodstream. But in addition to that it does a couple of other things… things that (in the long run) destroy all of your chances of achieving lasting weight loss:

  1. It pushes fat into your fat cells.
  2. More importantly, it prevents fat from being released into your bloodstream to be used for energy.

And the latter point is another reason why dieters are always hungry. They have plenty of energy stored as body fat, but high levels of insulin won’t let them use it. As a result, they need to eat every few hours or they’ll feel tired and cranky. And this just repeats that above process: more sugar results in higher levels of insulin, more fat going into fat cells, and the inability to use that fat for energy.

So again, even though one food provides you with fewer calories, you’re forced to eat it more often because your body craves nutrients. The end result? Inevitable weight gain.

If you can truly grasp this concept you’ll go on to lose all of your extra weight both quickly and easily…

Now, this is simple, simple stuff. There’s nothing groundbreaking about it. But as always, it’s the simple stuff that works (and is most easily discounted by those looking for the “magic bullet”). All that’s required on your part is to choose to implement it.

With that said, here are three actionable suggestions:

  1. Do not eat “diet” foods or processed foods of any kind. You want to be eating foods as close to their natural state as possible. For example, replace low-fat yogurt for full-fat yogurt. Just like the peanut butter in our above example, you’ll eat fewer calories over the long run with the latter than the former.
  2. Keep your insulin levels as low as possible in order to burn off body fat. That means reduce the amount of sugar you eat. Of course, sugar doesn’t just mean soda, candies, sweets, and other processed foods. It also means, pasta, breads, and other forms of starch. While better than the former, these eventually break down into simple sugar when they reach your blood and thus spike your insulin.
  3. Don’t count calories, calculate points, or keep food journals – make better food choices. You can’t sustain these activities for life. And once you stop, you’ll eventually gain back any weight you may have lost (i.e. the dreaded “yo-yo effect”).

On the other hand, if you’re giving your body the foods it really wants, you won’t have to do any of that. You’ll naturally eat as many calories as you need to lose weight and then keep it off for life.

These are the exact principles that I, and many of my readers, follow to get and stay in the best shape of our lives. Again, nothing groundbreaking but if you put them into action, you too will be well on your way to getting the body you’ve always wanted – both quickly and painlessly.


5 Foods to Never Eat (If You Want a Flat Stomach)


Filed in: Weight Loss 101

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