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Six Reasons All Calories Are Not Created Equal in a Healthy Diet

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When it comes to losing weight, the list of options seems to be endless—Atkins, Whole30, Paleo, and Ketogenic are just a few of the more popular diets today. Back in the 90s, low fat was all the rage, and now people seem to worry more about carbs and sugars than fats. But ask many diet skeptics, and they will tell you that “a calorie is a calorie, and you just need to worry about calories in versus calories out.”

But is that true? It certainly seems to make sense on the surface. And we all remember the professor who lost 27 pounds on the “Twinkie diet” in 2010. However, while a calorie’s energy value may be the same no matter what you eat, the fact is that your body responds quite differently to different types of calories. Here are just a few facts that explain why all calories are not created equal.

#1: Calories from whole foods provide more value than processed foods.

Yes, by definition, a calorie is the same no matter what you eat. As defined, a calorie is the amount of energy it takes to raise 1 kilogram of water by 1℃, so technically, 100 calories of cake offers the same amount of energy as 100 calories of kale. But, as we know, the value of a food goes beyond calories, including macronutrients like fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, and vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Whole foods give you a bigger “bang for your buck,” providing a better overall value for what you are eating, with more nutrients and fewer total calories.

#2: Not all sugars are the same.

While sugars tend to have the same chemical structure, they aren’t metabolized in the same way by the body. Glucose and fructose are two simple sugars that are very common in our diets. Glucose can be metabolized by any tissue in your body; however, fructose must be converted in the liver before producing energy. Excess fructose is converted into cholesterol and triglycerides, increasing body fat and blood lipids.

Calories from fructose are much more harmful than glucose, and should be avoided as part of an organic diet.

#3: Different foods are absorbed differently by the body.

You may know that carbohydrates, fat, and protein have different caloric values per gram (4 calories per gram for carbohydrates and protein, and 9 calories per gram for fat), but they are also absorbed differently by the body. Protein is by far the most efficient, because it requires more energy to metabolize, which means that the body burns more calories when you eat protein compared to fat and carbs.

Because protein is more efficient, 100 calories of lean chicken is more beneficial than 100 calories of bread. Keep the carbs low and protein high if you’re wanting to keep a healthy diet

#4: Some calories are more filling.

In the same way that protein is metabolically more efficient, it is more filling compared to fats and carbohydrates. Studies also show that people on high protein diets lose more weight without counting calories due to decreased appetites.

If you are wanting to lose weight, protein calories are much valuable than others. Eat more protein and stay full longer.

#5: Sugary, processed foods can increase cravings.

While protein is more filling, some foods not only fail to leave you feeling full, but can actually cause more cravings. Sugary, processed foods flood the pleasure center of your brain with dopamine, which causes you to want more of that “boost.” Over time, a tolerance can build up, and your brain will require more sugar for your brain to win the same reward.

Some natural foods like fruits and vegetables have a high content of sugar. However, they also contain fiber and protein. Eating an apple is very different then drinking a glass of apple juice.  You typically only eat one apple. When you do so you also get all of the fiber, micro, and macronutrients as well. When you drink apple juice, you drink the sugar of several apples and none of the fiber. Drinking a glass of apple juice may have as much sugar as a glass of pop/soda; however, it is a step in the right direction as you get the benefits of some of the natural vitamins and minerals. The best option is to eat the whole fruit.

Not only do the calories from sugary, processed foods leave you with very little nutritional value, but they can also lead to eating more calories overall due to the rush of dopamine that is sent to the brain.

#6: It’s much harder to overeat some calories.

Think about a time you may have eaten a dessert or decadent meal and realized later that it contained hundreds of calories? A recent article in Time found that the average takeout meal contains 1,205 calories, and 92% of meals contained at least 570 calories. Have you tried to eat 570 calories of kale? If so, you’d be eating almost 18 cups, which would be nearly impossible!

Raw fruits and vegetables are not as dense with calories, giving you a higher volume of food to eat for fewer calories.

So while an individual calorie measures the same in a cookie or a salad, the value of a calorie goes beyond this very narrow definition. A diet of organic, whole foods with limited sugar and carbohydrates will lead to decreased appetites, lower calorie consumption, and better overall health.