I feel like this has been debated for decades – certainly as long as I have been involved in the fitness industry. The basic premise being that there is no such thing as a good or bad calorie – a calorie is the same energy unit whether it has been derived from kale or a chocolate bar.
Having recently completed my level 1 Precision Nutrition Coaching certificate and having access to some amazing resources I have been bombarded with thoughts and information around this topic.
It is an absolutely fundamental law of physics that if you take in less energy than your body uses each day, or vice versa, that you will lose or gain body tissue and hence your total body weight will change. The complicating factor in this equation is that the amount of energy that your body uses each day is not static. It will move up or down in response to a number of things and this is usually controlled by your brain. If you were to significantly alter either the energy in or the amount of energy that you use each day, the brain and body will compensate. The below images are taken from an article written by Brian St Pierre, the director of Performance Nutrition at Precision Nutrition.
What this means is that if you were to create a calorie deficit of 500kcal per day, or 3500kcal per week, that you should be able to lose half a kilo of fat per week. This is also why if you were able to do the above that a lot of the time you won’t lose that half a kilo. The reason is that once you start lowering your energy intake your body will begin to compensate by reducing the output. And as your body weight drops your output will drop even further leaving you in a situation where your once very successful 500kcal per day deficit is achieving nothing for you today.
But back to the original question – is a calorie a calorie. As a standard unit of energy the answer is yes. But not all calories from foods ingested have the same digestive thermodynamics, hormonal response or the same effect on our bodily tissues. In lay terms this simply means that if two people were to eat 2000kcal per day with one being from whole foods, organic meats, fruits and vegetables and one person consumed their 2000kcal per day from fast food, heavily processed and chemically laden foods their body composition over the term would not be the same.
This would be because the highly processed diet would not contain the same volume of quality proteins, fibre and low glycemic carbohdrates that the whole food diet would, leading to an increase in calories extracted from the food and a general reduction in the quality and volume of protein consumed. The poor quality micronutrient and phytonutrient intake in a processed diet would also lead to hormonal and enzymatic disturbances as well, manifesting in decreased energy and general feelings of lethargy, among other things.
As we move forward and begin to understand more about the epigenetic effects of food and nutrient consumption it is simply no longer an acceptable statement for any fitness professional to make – that all calories are the same. Helping people to eat minimally processed foods with good amounts of protein and quality fats will help you to achieve your long term health goals because they are:
- Less calorie dense
- Higher in water content
- Higher in fiber content
- Not supraphysiologically sweet and hyper-rewarding
- Not hyper-palatable
- Likely to cause faster satiation
- Likely to increase satiety levels
Highly processed foods are simply not going to do any of those things and in the majority of instances actually cause and have the exact opposite effect. The simplest thing that you can do today is to start looking at your diet and slowly beginning the process of removing the heavily processed and chemically laden foods that you know that you shouldn’t be eating. When I ask my clients to outline the things in their diet that they know they should not eat the results are usually 100%, so I believe most of you will know where you are making mistakes with your food choices.
For any advice please feel free to email and I will answer any and all of your questions.
Yours in Health.