Are All Calories Created Equal?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Ideally, a healthy body is comprised of about 55-60 percent water, 10-20 percent muscle and lean tissue, 6-8 percent bone minerals and about 18 (men) or 22 (women) percent fat. When fat reserves rise higher than desired and weight loss is indicated, many diet options can be considered. However, the tried and true equation has been:

Cutting calories + Increasing activity + maintaining this lifestyle for life = healthy weight

Dietitians from the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and other nutrition professionals have long held the belief that it's not what you eat, it's how much. Based on this belief, any eating plan can achieve weight loss as long as eating is balanced and sensible and moderate exercise is included. Today, sensible eating has become defined as one that is low in fat, sugar, cholesterol and salt and rich in whole grains and lean proteins much like the DASH diet plan. Now a growing number of researchers are looking at the idea that perhaps the source of calories is just as important as the number. Do their findings show that not all calories are created equal?

In a 2009 Swedish study, investigators tested this theory. Volunteers consumed 20 extra calories per half pound of body weight from either candy or peanuts. This meant that someone weighing 150 pounds would over consume by 1,300 additional calories a day. After two weeks of this daily overconsumption, you would expect weight gain to occur in both groups. They found the peanut snackers did gain a small amount of weight, but it was only a third of the amount gained by the candy snackers. More surprising was the additional increase in waist circumference, rise in cholesterol and overall body fat that was also experienced by the candy snacking group.

So what was the biggest reason for the difference in responses? The insulin response initiated by the simple carbohydrates found in the candy is felt to be the biggest contributor. As blood sugar levels rise, the body responds with more insulin in an attempt to maintain normal blood glucose levels. When extra glucose and extra insulin are both present, they become packaged for storage in body fat for future energy use. Since peanuts do not contain simple carbohydrates, they did not initiate the same insulin response or increase in reserved energy storage. The peanut group experienced another benefit, which was a rise in resting metabolism. This increase in the body's ability to burn calories also limits weight gain because more energy is being burned so it doesn't need to be stored. If studies like this show composition is important, why do many health professionals continue to insist that eating a variety of foods and cutting back on total calories and increasing activity is the key to weight loss success? Based on my professional and personal experience, I believe the answer is easy. They are both right.

For health professionals, a regular or standard diet is one that provides the body with the energy it needs through protein, carbohydrate, and fat, with vitamins, minerals, trace elements, and water from a variety of foods from all food groups to maintain optimal nutritional health. It assumes health and is geared to maintain health. In a state of optimal nutritional health, when five to ten pounds have been acquired from overconsumption, simply changing the number of calories from the variety of foods typically consumed allows for changes in energy usage and body fat storage. Weight loss occurs when less energy is provided to the body from an exogenous (external) source like food causing the body to use endogenous (internal) sources (fat reserves) to supply the energy the body requires.

A therapeutic diet is a regular diet modified or adjusted to accommodate specific physical or metabolic limitations. The modifications may need to be in consistency, specific nutrients, energy or fluid levels, the timing of meals or the elimination of certain foods. A low sodium diet, a diabetic or carbohydrate controlled diet, a low or high protein diet, a low fat diet or a low cholesterol diet are all examples of a modified or therapeutic diet. In an ideal situation, a Registered Dietitian provides a modified diet that has been specifically designed to meet the nutritional needs of the recipient. Sometimes people choose to follow modified diets on their own by limiting carbohydrates, enhancing protein or restricting complete food groups. These self imposed modified diets are not always properly balanced to meet the bodies metabolic needs which can cause alternative and less efficient metabolic pathways to be used by the body. Weight loss in these situations (in my experience) becomes based more on the how the body responses to the composition of the exogenous energy source than in the amount of energy provided.

As a Clinical Dietitian, I dealt with people coping with end-stage-organ disease or who had received a solid organ (kidney, pancreas, or liver) transplant. They were all on a therapeutic diet of one type or another. If they only focused on the number of calories and not the composition of those calories, their bodies did not respond well related to weight loss goals. The key to success was finding the correct balance of nutrients based on their specific body needs. Accomplishing that was more of an art than a science and success came more from individualized adjustments in food composition than from strictly following calculated calorie totals.

The Bottom Line

Nutrition professionals have long held the belief that changing the number of calories you consume and being more active is all that is necessary to lose weight. For people of normal health who are only a few pounds over their typical weight, this is true. However, as we become heavier and heavier and have a variety of medical conditions, that may no longer be true for all. More and more studies are showing it is not only how much you eat but what you eat that influences weight control success.

More and more people every year need to modify their diets for sodium, fat, sugar, or all of the above. This means we are no longer following the long-standing "regular" diet of our parents' or grandparents' generation. Today, how we make those adjustments can have a direct impact on our weight loss success or add to our frustration. If you are having trouble meeting your weight loss goals and only focusing on total calories you eat and are following a modified diet of one type or another, making composition changes may be your key to success. Learning to adjust your macronutrient (carbohydrates, proteins, fats) composition in your diet while maintaining in a healthy range can help you find the right combination for your body that will help you move toward your weight loss goals.

What do you think about the Swedish study? What has your weight loss journey shown to be true for you? Does calorie adjustments alone do the trick or is diet composition the key to your success.

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This article is great. Very helpful! Calories are definitely not created equal. You can have x amount of calories worth of chips and candy...or you can have x amount cals worth of fruits and veggies. The fruit and veggies are definitely going to be way better for your body. Report
I'm vegan and have been for 13 years. I managed to gain extra weight while being vegan, and am taking it off while being vegan. It is entirely possible to eat within a normal calorie range but eat/drink junk and gain weight, and entirely possible to eat the same amount in calories, however with those calories coming from produce sources and still lose weight. I'm not sure how this happens. Maybe I miscalculate my produce calories and I'm actually eating fewer calories, or maybe it's really what I'm eating. I just know that I'm losing weight (and doing the yo-yo thing, but that's entirely my fault) while eating a very healthy diet. Report
All calories are definitely not created equal. In theory, a person could lose weight eating at McDonalds every single day as long as they burned more calories then they took in. However, while a person might lose "weight" this way, how healthy will their internal organs be ? People assume that just losing weight will help keep them healthy. Well, there are plenty of unhealthy ways to lose. So, that's no good.

To me, weight loss is nothing more than a byproduct of a healthy lifestyle. If you're eating right, the weight will come off on its own. I'm one of those folks leaning towards a more vegetarian based diet. Yes, I still eat meat. I do love a good BBQ ! However, I am eating more veggies now than I did when I started my journey towards a healthy lifestyle. I do think that eating more veggies/fruits has done more for my body than just losing weight per se.

So, yes, I do think that eating higher quality foods and fewer highly processed foods do have a huge impact on my health. Report
I agree with some of the other people who said they lose weight on a plant based diet. When I switched to vegan I noticed I can eat more calories and still lose. Even before I went totally vegan the only animal products I was eating were turkey and chicken white meat, and eggs, but I had to struggle to lose weight. I was not having any dairy or fatty cuts of meat. So it's amazing how incorporating more whole grains, legumes, and fresh fruits and veggies can help with the weight loss. I know I'm also healthier in general for it too. Report
Awesome blog!Really makes you think about the glycemic index. Balance is at the fore front of good health and I had to learn that. Anyone else thinking we must be balanced in all we do? Hmmm...the end result of simple carbohydrate metabolism is SUGAR right? I have also learned that you can eat "right" but unless you incorporate exercise your efforts are almost moot. BALANCE is key! Report
I really needed to read this. I've basically known it in my head, but in my heart I love candy and everything sweet. I'm slowing "weaning" myself off of it and hope at some point soon I will have a much healthier diet in every way. Report
This article was very useful. I have never before read such a good explanation of what extra insulin does to the body. Thanks. This will definitely shape how I eat. Report
My personal experience has been that what I eat is almost as important as how much. As a diabetic, I carefully monitor and control my sugar levels. When I eat "clean", natural foods, I lose weight and feel good. When I eat junk foods, I gain. Report
How does one find a dietitian that will analyze your health problems and advise you as to the composition of your diet. I have been shopping for a friend who is diabetic w/ CHF - on his way home from the hospital he elected me to be his shopper - I buy what he likes, but have found the low sodium/lower fat options - have encouraged his fruit and veggie consumption, am trying to reduce processed foods as much as possible. But I have asked him to have his MD - prescribe a nutrition consult - and it was very limited - what he was told - keep doing what you are doing. This man is over 300 pounds and wants to loose weight - can't exercise much because of a balance problem. Report
I think that sodium awareness was a huge contributor to me becoming more healthy - and now at a healthy weight. In the middle of last year, I joined the gym to get a little "me" time. Two weeks into that, my 3 yo was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome and went on a 12 week steroid regime. That meant 1 gram of salt a day for her. I decreased (although not to 1 g) as well. Having to make healthy choices of no processed food, no fast food, and sodium substitutes put us on the path to healthy eating. I lost 25 pounds, and have been at my healthy weight for about six months now. Now, I can really tell when I've had too much sodium because I am starving for no reason (probably just a thirst feeling that I've always misinterpreted as hunger). Watching the amount and quality of what my daughter and I put into our bodies has made us much healthier in the long run. She's great now, and has not had any relapses. Report
I think High Protein and fewer carbs is what will work for me. I lost 20lbs almost effortlessly doing that. Now that I am only a few pounds from my ultimate goal, I'm trying to eat a few more carbs and fat to make my intake more realistic for the long haul. The weight just is not coming off like it used to. Report
Next month marks my 3-year anniversary of having gastric bypass surgery. (I used to weigh 400, but have maintained at about 180 since last January; I am just over 5'5".) Having a small "pouch" for a stomach limits the amount of food I can eat, so I try to put the healthiest (read: most nutritious) food into my body that I can, because there isn't room for many extras! Because I need to maintain my muscle health (read: organs like heart, lungs, liver, kidneys!), protein is my number one priority. I don't count protein in items such as my shredded wheat cereal, but in the chicken, fish, lean hamburg, nuts, dairy, and eggs that I eat. Next, I focus on getting my veggies, then fruit, and THEN, if I have room, some good carbs. "Good" carbs include potatoes, sweet potatoes, brown rice (though I can't eat much more than 1/4 c. at one sitting), and MAYBE whole wheat bread - usually those Sandwich Thins. Forget eating sub rolls, bulkie rolls, or white bread of any kind, or white rice. It's just too filling, and I would rather have more nutrient-rich foods in my body. I do love chocolate, though, so one challenge I have is to try and switch from eating milk chocolate to eating only dark chocolate. I love ALL chocolate, so the switch won't be too tough; it's just breaking the habit that is all! I eat very little processed food, and try to eat as close to the original source as possible. Chocolate is practically my only indulgence outside of that rule! Report
Great blog, great reminder! Now, if only I could convince myself not to eat out of boredom... Report
Low fat protein, complex carbs, low sodium,
seems to be a combination that works for me as far as diet--as well as foods with varied color, texture, and flavor.
Varied work and play that is strenuous and joyful seems to have a better effect than dreaded, boring--and abandoned--exercise. Report
I know that when I eat lots of raw veggies and whole fruits and whole grains and very little meat the weight just falls off. Of course, limiting portion size is also key. As Michael Pollan (Omnivore's Dilemma; In Defense of Food) says: Eat Food, Not too much, mostly Plants. Report
I agree. Also, I think exercise is the key. Staying active, and changing your diet to support your needs is a must. Don't be in a "diet" mode all the time. Report
It's been a given for a long time....empty calories are empty Report
I find that if I eat healthy calories like veggies, protein from a plant source etc, I lose weight. When I eat a lot of simple carbs, like white flour, I gain. With that being said, if I eat too much of either, weight gain is will happen. Also, exercising has helped me in losing the weight as well. Report
In my own mind I have always felt that it can't be just as simple as calories in vs calories out! If I ate 100 calorie candy bar, vs a 100 calories of almonds, I would assume that my body is going to thank me in other ways! That candy bar is not doing much at all for my body, as where the nuts are giving me protein and some fiber. No preservatives or artificial anythings! Nuts; good fats, Candy bar; bad fats...Come on, it has got to metabolize better in your body, even if it was the same calories to start!

In the "SOUTH BEACH DIET" Arthur Agatston, M.D. teaches about Metabolic Syndrome/Insulin Resistance. He developed the diet because his heart patients were dying on the AHA (American Heart Association) Diet. So, for me it isn't about calories, but about eating right to avoid diabetes and heart disease. Report
I don't feel guilty now about eating all the peanuts I have added to my diet to increase my protein consumption Report
My nutritionist has asked me to add protein throughout the day, but I look at the fat content of nuts and just can't do it. Lunch includes beef jerky and a raisin-heavy trail mix that does include a variety of nuts, but she's talking about handfuls of almonds, and all I can see is that 72% of the calories come from fat. At least the jerky is closer to half! Report
I am one of those people who falls into a restricted diet category. I have both celiac disease and allergies to peanuts and tree nuts. Whole grain bread? forget it. Snacking on nuts? not an option. I watch what I eat, seldom snack, eat small portions and still now weight loss. I wish I could find that magic formula that would help me lose weight Report
I'm snacking on whole natural and dry roasted almonds right now. I mix them up. I have quit snacking on candy. Besides the reasons given in the article candy also makes you crave more after you eat a piece. It it very difficult to stop at one. I used to prowl the candy aisles at all holidays and loved the clearance sales after a holiday. Now, I avoid them or walk through with out stopping because I know candy is not for me. I do eat 1/3 oz. to 1 oz. of dark chocolate when I need a fix. I don't crave more, it satisfies me, and there are benefits to eating dark chocolate. The higher percentage of cacao the better. Report
Very interesting blog. I really appreciate the SP Nutrition tracker - I've been able to personalize the nutrients followed and the daily feedback positively affects my food selections. Cholesterol, sodium and iron were things I need to monitor. Report
I'd be curious to know what amount, if any, high fructose corn syrup was in that candy? Report
I needed to lose 60+ pounds when I started Sparkpeople. I found that I needed to eliminate simple carbs from my program, and even restrict some other carbs for a while to lose the weight. I am now 2.6 pounds away from reaching my goal. Report
For myself--I have to take the scientific approach. If I get just enough fat then my protein is to low and carbs are to high. If I get enough protein then the fat is to high and so on. Since I typically don't eat sweets, breads and other garbage but lose slowly and gain quickly. It is frustrating and a person can only work out so much. Report
... and this doesn't even take into consideration the effect the quality of foods have on our appetite or other health benefits to our bodies. I know if I eat sugars or simple carbs, it makes it hard to resist eating more. You don't have to convince me that all calories are not created equal! Report
I know this before I read it
It's a good reminder
I always try new things out
and I know having a healthier food choices well appear on my body on the long run Report
I think a little bit of both have helped me to realize the weight loss I've seen so far. Since I am (was!) an emotional eater, there were a lot of extra calories. Now that I'm learning to pay attention to my hunger/satiety cues, I eat fewer calories. And since I've been using the SP Nutrition Tracker, I am able to see what kinds of calories I'm consuming. When I eat at the lower end of my carb range (especially avoiding simple carbs, like sugar), I see a bit more weight come off. I have yet to find the "ideal" formula for me, but the tools I'm getting from SP definitely have me on the right track! Report
The study goes a long way to support the long-held belief that less-processed foods (like nuts) are better than more processed foods (like candy, sugar, etc.) Although dietitians and nutritionists talk about a 'standard' diet, it's standard as much from tradition as from its quality. We live in a culture of unprecedented wealth--and our most easily available and least expensive consumables have less value nutritionally than the 'standard' diet available throughout history to many peasants.
For me, the key is portion control AND staying away from processed food. I aim for whole grain bread because I'm a bread-and-cheese nut, but I try to make that as high up the processed-food chain as I'm willing to go on a regular basis. Report
I find I lose weight when I consume at the lower end of my "ideal caloric range", continue to exercise regularly, and eat foods that have a lower glycemic index, example: cantalope instead of watermelon. As soon as I eat too much starches and red meats, I tend to gain weight. For me, as I age, I find that I must be a bit more "scientific" when I approach my daily nutrition needs. The regular exercise is a constant. Report
I am just like oburrel: I really only loose weight on a raw vegan diet. Meats, and really processed foods (and I don't even mean THAT processed, just things that are not in their whole form) tend to really slow me down and cause me a lot of stomach problems. Whole, raw fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds make my body VERY happy. But it can also be expensive, so I am looking into ways to tweak that programmand see what kind of results I have. Report
I totally agree. For some, it's as easy as just cutting back but it doesn't work that way for everyone. It's not just "calories in, calories out". I lose weight when I increase my activity significantly and cut back on any type of meat and carbs. I have had to go to a mainly fruit and veggie diet in order to lose weight because my stomach doesn't digest food well and keeps me from losing weight. Articles such as these help people like me remember that we are doing well and we aren't failures just because the "normal" way of losing weight doesn't work for us. Report
I think the composition thing explains alot - for example everyone knows simple carbs cause BS/insulin spikes, and everyone knows you can't lose weight if your insulin is high. This would also explain why the Atkins system of finding what your carb tolerance level metabolicly is (I forget exactly what they call it; I'm not an Atkins fan) and this would explain why Atkins and South Beach and Mediterranean work so well for so many, but only some and not all. Some people believe in food combining, and this would explain that too - food combining might be beneficial to some if certain combos result in undesirable body chemistry.

To me the bottom line is North Americans eat too much. Plain and simple. I use The No S Diet, which curbs overeating, binging, high insulin from sweets, etc. If you eat moderate amounts of good food, you can change back to healthy. See my page for team icon if interested in the No S Diet. Report
I do agree. I can stay in the middle of my calorie range, exercise, but still not lose any weight. Changing the total calories in can affect my loss in small ways.. but the best way for me is to adjust what I eat. I just haven't found the best combination for my body... Losing is very, very slow.. and frustrating... and I gain ever so easily!!! Report
Great blog.
I've known this, from my personal experience, from a long time.
I know my own body and that I need consume high protein/lower carb in order to lose. And this is what I do.

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