Is A Calorie Really A Calorie?

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Is A Calorie Really A Calorie?

Understanding how to balance your diet to maintain your sanity while not allowing your hunger to run wild is the key to feeling in control of your diet.

Find your way into a metabolic chamber if you ever need proof of how the human body works. There are approximately 30 of them in the world, each costing millions of dollars. They use cutting-edge technology to measure every ounce of energy consumed or burned.

These chambers enable scientists to gain a better understanding of diseases that affect the human body, such as obesity and metabolic disorders. They also provide a definitive answer to a long-debated question: calories do matter. And they are the primary determinants of whether you gain or lose weight. The question isn't so much whether a "calorie is a calorie" as it is why all calories aren't created equal.

No plans to visit your local metabolic chamber? Don't be concerned. We'll help you understand how foods affect your metabolism and hunger, as well as how to make food work for you.


What Exactly Is A Calorie?

We often associate calories with food, but the truth is that a calorie is simply a unit of energy. A calorie, in more precise terms, is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius.

What does the temperature of your water have to do with the number of calories in your food? Scientists calculate the number of calories in a food using a technique that we're all guilty of in the kitchen: They set fire to it.

This is known as bomb calorimetry. To begin, place an ingredient in a sealed stainless steel container filled with water. After that, the food is heated until it burns. This chemical reaction generates a tremendous amount of heat and gradually heats the surrounding water. The number of calories in the food is then calculated by measuring how high the temperature of the water rises.

Although accurate, this method is gradually losing favor. Most calories listed by the USDA and FDA today are calculated in a different manner. Instead of burning the food, the total number of calories is calculated by adding the calories provided by each component of the food. This entails calculating the amount of energy from protein, carbohydrates, fat, and other sources.

Because the calories in a gram of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and alcohol remain constant, this method works. The caloric values of each macronutrient are as follows:

  • 1 gram protein equals 4 calories
  • 1 gram carbohydrate equals 4 calories
  • 1 gram of fat equals 9 calories.
  • One gram of alcohol equals seven calories.

This is how you calculate the calories in your food. But that's not the end of the story. As you'll see, macronutrients are metabolized differently, which is why not all calories are created equal. Some foods (such as protein) burn more calories during digestion, while others (such as fiber in carbohydrates) influence hunger and appetite.

Why Aren't Calories All the Same?

The confusion about calories is less about how many grams are in a specific food after it's cooked or packaged, and more about how your body uses those calories once you eat and digest food.

The human body is the most amazing machine ever created. Everyday functions such as breathing, walking, and thinking require a certain number of calories. And, because your very survival is dependent on calories, your body processes foods in a variety of ways to meet all of your needs.

To understand how you gain and lose weight, consider energy balance, also known as the old calories in vs. calories out debate. Although many factors can influence energy balance, the type of calories you consume has a significant impact. That is why not all calories are created equal.

  • Many factors influence your daily metabolic rate. The three main components are as follows:
  • Basal metabolic rate (BMR): This is the amount of energy required by your body to function.
  • Thermic effect of food (TEF): The amount of energy expended when eating.

Exercise and activity: These are the calories you burn while moving and exercising. This can be divided into two categories: NEAT (things like moving around and fidgeting) and traditional.

Most people are unaware that your basal metabolic rate accounts for 65 to 80 percent of the calories you burn each day. The rest of your metabolism is made up of physical activity and the foods you eat, but that doesn't mean they're unimportant.

Protein, carbohydrates, and fat are all metabolized in different ways. Eating 100 calories of protein differs from eating 100 calories of carbohydrates because protein has a greater thermic effect on the body (TEF).

When you eat protein, you can burn up to 30% of your calories. In the preceding example, if you consumed 100 calories of protein, your body would receive approximately 70 calories because 30 calories would be burned as a result of the protein's high TEF.

In other words, the higher the TEF, the greater the impact on the "calories out" portion of the calories in minus calories out equation (because not all of those calories will end up in your body and stored). Carbohydrates typically have a TEF of 5 to 10%, whereas fat has a TEF of 3 to 5%.

This is one of the reasons why high-protein diets are associated with weight loss and maintenance. However, this is only part of the story.

Eating More Protein Has a Domino Effect

Protein also has a cascading effect on hunger, making it an excellent foundation for muscle gain and weight loss.

When you eat protein, you increase your satiety. This means that eating a protein-rich meal will leave you feeling fuller and wanting less food (i.e. eating fewer calories).

It's why high-calorie (or "empty calorie") foods like fast food or ice cream can leave you feeling hungry just a few hours later. It's not just the calorie count of these foods that makes them unhealthy. It's because they don't meet your body's needs for hunger control, causing you to crave more food even when you're eating a lot. These foods are fine to eat every now and then, but they are harmful to your health.

A high-protein meal can increase the release of a hormone (ghrelin), which helps to quiet your hunger and influences how quickly your hunger returns after eating.

When all of the benefits are considered, it's easy to see why eating more calories from dietary protein aids in the creation of a caloric deficit. Protein burns more calories (higher TEF) and lowers the "calorie in" portion of the equation by influencing how much you eat later in the day.


Furthermore, providing your body with the protein it requires to recover from strength training can help you gain muscle mass.

Protein isn't the only macronutrient that aids in hunger control. Carbohydrate fiber is also extremely effective at increasing fullness without adding too many calories. Because most fibrous foods have a low energy density, you can eat a lot without consuming too many calories.

Learning to eat foods that keep you full is a simple way to increase your flexibility. The goal of any diet is to provide more freedom rather than to restrict it.

You're more likely to stay full and avoid overeating if you make at least half of your plate from proteins and fiber.

That way, you'll still be able to eat less nutritious foods. For example, 100 calories from chicken differs from 100 calories from a candy bar — but we're still talking about 100 calories. If the candy bar does not lead to you eating 10 more candy bars, then worrying about those 100 calories is a waste of time and stress that your mind and body do not require.

This is why, in general, effective diets can include 80 to 90 percent more nutritious foods (think vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, higher fiber carbs, and protein) and 10 to 20% foods with fewer direct health benefits. That's the kind of balance that will produce results while avoiding burnout.


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