Are all calories created equal? YES. But also…no. There’s a great debate surrounding caloric equality in the fitness and nutrition industry, and it seems like every professional has their own opinion. Read on for my (well researched) two cents on caloric equality.
What is a Calorie?
A calorie, on the most basic level, is a unit of energy.
According to Merriam-Webster, a calorie is:
- The amount of heat required at a pressure of one atmosphere to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree Celsius that is equal to about 4.19 joules
- A unit equivalent to the large calorie expressing heat-producing or energy-producing value in food when oxidized in the body
- An amount of food having an energy-producing value
Put another way; a calorie is a unit of measurement.
The Big Questions Surrounding Caloric Equality
While there is alignment in the industry and across professionals on the above, the two big questions gracing my inbox can be boiled down to:
- Are all calories created equally?
- What role do calories play in weight loss?
Let’s dig in. Food pun intended.
Are all Calories Created Equal?
Yes and no! There are two sides to the coin, and both are correct. It’s important to understand
- All calories are a unit of measurement, and therefore are equal
- Different calories from different foods impact the body differently and are consequently inequal
That’s the bare-bones, basic answer.
We’re hopefully in alignment that a calorie is a unit of measure of energy. But it is specifically the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature from 14.5 to 15.5 degrees Celcius. And actually, a food calorie is a “kilocalorie” or “Calorie.” It refers to the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celcius.
In this sense, all calories are created equal.
While all calories are equal in the measurement of energy content, all sources of calories aren’t processed the same through the body and energy expenditure. IMO, that is pretty much irrefutable.
Is that to say 1,000 calories of chicken breast will have the same impact on the body as 1,000 calories of Snickers bar?
The amount of energy expenditure needed to process and digest food for use and storage is called the thermic effect of food (TEF). TEF will cause an increase in your metabolic rate after you consume food and typically accounts for 10% of your total metabolic rate. What you eat and the AMOUNT in which you eat influences TEF.
Evidence suggests that TEF increases by larger, plant-based meals higher in protein, fiber, and carbohydrates. Read more on that here. This same research also suggests that eating more meals throughout the day increases your metabolic rate because the more you’re eating, the more your body burns to process it all. If you subscribe to the OMAD method, do not come at me! I didn’t publish that study. Really smart people did tho…no shade. Just saying.
That’s a lot of science jargon, so this is the lay breakdown of:
- Protein has the highest TEF
- Carbohydrates have a higher thermic effect than fat
- Fat has the least TEF of all the macros
Here’s an example based on this study. If you eat food that has 100 calories, check out how your body processes each macro differently:
- Protein burns 20% of those calories via digestion
- Carbs burn 5-10% of those calories via digestion
- Fats burn 0-3% of those calories via digestion
So there ARE foods that are more “efficient” than others.
For the record, this is why I recommend clients who are serious about their weight loss or body recomposition goals track calories AND protein. Not only does protein grow muscle, but it also has a high TEF, and protein food sources are usually satisfying and satiating.
While the above is scientifically proven, how YOU feel when you eat certain macros, and how YOU feel when you consume different foods has to be taken into consideration to your method and protocol. There’s no right or wrong answer for how to split your macros, and your split will be one that works for YOU.
A Quick Word on Fiber
Two categories, insoluble and soluble classify fibrous foods (check out this list HERE)
Insoluble fiber does not mix with water and acts to form stool and pass it through the gut. Soluble fiber combines with water to create a gel-like substance that slows down how fast digested food releases into the gut. Studies show that eating more soluble fiber can also help you lose belly fat and prevent belly fat gain due to slower digestion, and higher levels of satiety. Check out one such study here.
I’ve used the word “satiety” a few times throughout this piece, to make sure we’re on the same page, this is what I’m saying. Eating food results in satiety – or a satisfying feeling of fullness and, therefore, the elimination of hunger. But did you also know some foods are scientifically proven to be more satiating than others?! Yes, bish.
Food with a high content of the below is found to be more satiating than foods that lack.
- Oranges, apples, grapes, and bananas
- Potatoes, whole wheat pasta, and bread, rice
- Fish, steak, beans, eggs
Are going to fill you up, mind, body, and soul. See the full satiety index here.
The Roles Calories Play in Weight Loss
If you’ve read this post here, here, and here, you know that how much you’re consuming plays a role in your body composition. While all calories are a unit of measurement, and even though they’re NOT created equal, the amount you consume STILL matters.
If your deficit is 1855 calories, and you’re consuming 3000 “clean” calories, all from chicken breast, egg whites, and broccoli (wow, that’s fahking boring), you will STILL experience weight gain. Your deficit balance is your balance. How you use those calories is up to you – and there are more efficient ways and more PRODUCTIVE ways to use them, but ultimately, calories are king.
I’ll tell you this much – if you’re eating 80% whole, lean, clean foods that’ll feel a helluva lot better than 80% packaged and processed foods. Trust me.
All calories are not created equal, but all calories are a unit of measurement.
As always, feel free to DM with any questions!!