Nutrition
Are All Calories Created Equal? | Nutrition Gone Wild

Are All Calories Created Equal?

Are all calories the same? The answer is no. Here’s why. 

 

We count them.

We read about them on the labels of our food.

We know that there is a daily limit on our consumption of them.

But what the hell are calories, really?

A calorie is defined as: “the amount of heat required at a pressure of one atmosphere to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree Celsius…”

This definition means very little to a human being trying to decide whether or not to buy that bag of chips or pint of ice cream. I think we can all grasp that a calorie is a measure of energy, but there is more to know when we talk about our body’s fuel.

It’s time we learn about what calories really are, how much is really a lot of them, and whether they are all created equal.

 

What is a calorie? A little history…

To give you just a little backstory, the existence of the calorie as a unit of measure in relation to our food has only been around since the late 1800’s. Some scientists were looking to find ways to maximize the amount of energy intake a person could achieve with as little food intake as possible (because not long ago food wasn’t always so readily available all the time and the struggle was getting enough calories, not limiting them like we all focus so hard on today).

Wilbur Olin Atwater came up with this research and was the reason the United States began funding nutritional research (the public and government were against funding, but a special friend and admirer of Atwater made it happen).

And they say getting a job today is all about who you know…clearly it has ALWAYS been that way…

Anyways, all of the research that stemmed from this funding and the work of Atwater has led to what we know about food and calories today!

Before this guy, we didn’t really know much about the macronutrients other than the fact that the body needed these types of nutrients and was generally our fuel.

I personally feel very grateful that thanks to a man like Atwater and the scientists who came after him, that I get to know more about my food than anyone who has come before me. This is something we probably all take for granted every day…

 

Where do these calories come from?

Calories in Food

credit: pixabay.com

 

There are 3 different macronutrients that have caloric value (plus, fun fact, alcohol also has its own caloric value).

Carbohydrates, Fats, and Proteins have different values because it takes a different amount of energy to break down these nutrients to be utilized in the body.

We need to know a little more about the macronutrients before we can really talk about calories.

 

Let’s quickly review these macronutrients:

Carbohydrates (Value: 4 calories per 1g)

Why do you need it?

Carbohydrates are your brain’s fuel source.

 

Good Sources:

Not all carbs are made equal.

At least half of your carbs should come from whole grains and the rest ideally from plant-based sources rather than simple sugars like in cookies, soda, and chips. The goal here is low glycemic, which means slower digestion (we don’t want spikes in your blood sugar).

Good sources: Bread, fruit, vegetables, beans

 

What if I don’t get enough?

Your brain utilizes about 20% of your daily calories to function and without carbohydrates will struggle and begin breaking down fat to function (your brain only begins to do this when very desperate). This leads to a state called ketosis, which has some nasty side effects. Ketosis can cause nausea, headache, fatigue.

Ever have a friend going “low carb” and they are being the biggest grump with nasty mood swings? Yea those two things are related…

 

Protein (Value: 4 calories per 1g)

Why do you need it?

Protein is made of many amino acids, there are 20 total. These are the building blocks for the structures of various cells, tissues, and organs. Nine of these are called essential because your body cannot make them and must get them from your food. Protein also plays a role in the immune system and production of hormones.

 

Good Sources

It is important to note that proteins are either complete or incomplete proteins. Complete proteins contain all of the amino acids, whereas incomplete proteins do not. Meats are complete proteins, but choosing a meat lower in saturated fats makes for a healthier protein source.

Good meat-based sources: Chicken, turkey, and lean cuts of beef are good choices.

Good Non-meat sources: eggs, tofu, beans, quinoa, low-fat yogurts and milk (these are all ‘incomplete’).

 

What if I don’t get enough?

Low Protein intake leads to the breakdown of muscle mass, this leads to unintended weight loss (of healthy muscle tissue), fatigue, low sex drive, depression, anxiety, and anemia.

 

Fat (Value: 9 calories per 1g)

Why do you need it?

Fat has a large role in the absorption and processing of vitamins, insulates your body, protects your organs, and is the next in line after carbohydrates for energy use.

There are “good” and “bad” fats.

  • Unsaturated fats (poly- and mono-) have been shown to lower blood cholesterol and triglycerides, which impacts heart health.
  • Saturated and Trans fats have been found to raise cholesterol, clog arteries, and increase the risk of heart disease and some cancers.

You should limit these fats and stick to the unsaturated kind!

 

Good Sources:

Good Sources: Avocados, eggs, dark chocolate, fish, nuts, olive oil

 

What if I don’t get enough?

Low Fat intakes lead to fat-soluble vitamin deficiency (A,D,E,K), depression, increased cancer risk, decreased “good” HDL cholesterol, and possibly a tendency to over eat (fat plays a role in feeling full).

 

Alcohol

While not a macronutrient, it is important to note that alcohol rings in at 7 calories per 1 gram of alcohol (that is the alcohol content, not grams of liquid in your glass). Alcohol is metabolized in a similar way to how fat is metabolized (hence a similar calorie count).

 

Are calories created equal?

Counting Calories

credit: pixabay.com

 

So we know each macronutrient has a different caloric value per gram, but we don’t eat our food in literal grams so we should discuss this topic in a more tangible way.

I mean that is why I am writing this…to make this information less vague…

ANYWAYS, so imagine you have in front of you:

  • 100 calories of strawberries
  • 100 calories of almonds
  • 100 calories of soda

All 3 of these things look very different when you gather them based on calories. You can have a lot more strawberries for 100 calories than almonds (almonds are high in fat, so higher in calories per gram).

Now we clearly know that soda is not good for us.

But there is a better explanation to why we deem foods unhealthy or healthy.

It is about caloric density vs. nutrient density! This is basically what Atwater was talking about when trying to see how you could get more calories with less food.

This is basically what Atwater was talking about when trying to see how you could get more calories with less food.

So in our example we can say the following:

Strawberries are nutrient dense, but not calorically dense (because you can eat a lot for very few calories). This is how most fruits and vegetables weigh in, which is why we like them a lot in a world where we are all getting wayyyyy too many calories every day.

Back in Atwater’s day, they wanted something a little different…

They wanted an “almonds” situation.

Almonds are nutrient dense and calorically dense. But here, the calorically dense part isn’t necessarily bad because the calories come from healthy fats shown to be good for the heart. Fats also leave you feeling full longer, meaning you won’t need to eat again for a while (something to aim for).

Soda is empty of nutrients and calorically dense. This is something we should avoid. It has no nutritional value, which means it offers your body nothing to help it run more efficiently.

This is how calories are not created equal.

It is like a trade system where you don’t need to mind your calories as much when the nutrient content is really high. But in our world of junk food, you can easily be fooled into thinking something that is small must have few calories. Or be overly worried about excess calories when eating something like avocado, which is high in good fat. 

Knowing how many calories are in something isn’t a knowledge we are born with, so don’t feel bad. But it is a good idea to understand how many calories are in the things you tend to eat every day, AND your favorite treats (so you know how often you should indulge).

 

But what about meals?

Are all calories created equal?

credit: pixabay.com

So clearly it is much easier to figure out how many calories are in a single food, but what about an entire meal? Now that is way more of a challenge.

As a nutrition student, I learned how to analyze meals through a computer program. It was tedious, but very possible to analyze people’s diets…

I can’t imagine what people did before computers…

I’m not going to be able to teach you how to figure out the calories in your meals or suggest that you start counting calories religiously. That would actually just be more work and stress and you would probably binge and lose your mind in a pool full of cookies and ice cream…(for some reason when I think about counting exact calories, I imagine myself in a psych ward at the end of the scenario)…

But here are some numbers to think about when eating:

Breakfast SHOULD be your largest meal of the day. For some reason Americans have this all backward…you have all day to burn the calories of your breakfast, so go bigger at those meals

You have 1800 calories you are allowed in a day, let’s try and break this down…

  • Breakfast: 400-500 calories
  • Snack: 100-150 calories
  • Lunch: 450-550 calories
  • Snack: 100-150 calories
  • Dinner: 400-450 calories

These are just calorie suggestions. But the larger theme here is:

  1. Make breakfast your largest meal, protein-based is great but keep your carbs in the morning.
  2. Snacks are a good way to keep your blood sugar stable (something to aim for) and making them higher in fat or protein is good because it keeps you full, which is the goal of snacks (to hold you over till meals).
  3. Dinner should be lighter, and lower in carbohydrates

 

Do you get it now?

What is a calorie?

credit: pixabay.com

My goal here was not to get you to start counting calories, but to better understand what they are and how they are valued. Mindful eating (that ideology I believe in and is the basis of my philosophy on this website) doesn’t want you to count calories, it is more of knowing what category foods generally fall into and picking foods from the healthier category more than the junk category.

Mindful eating (that ideology I believe in and is the basis of my philosophy on this website) doesn’t want you to count calories, it is more of knowing what category foods generally fall into and picking foods from the healthier category more than the junk category.

Calories are only one factor that determines a food’s value.

We want to avoid EMPTY CALORIES (those foods that offer you no nutritional value and cost you a lot of calories)!

In a future article, I will be talking more about this subject in term of portion control. But for now, don’t worry so much about counting calories for weight loss or health. Rather, spend the time focusing on choosing foods that are nutrient rich and low on the glycemic index scale. 

If you have a question about any of the macronutrients or calorie equality, feel free to tweet me or shoot me a message through my Facebook page. I would be happy to answer any question!

Did you like this article? Please share it 🙂

 

Share this Story
  • Are All Calories Created Equal? | Nutrition Gone Wild

    Are All Calories Created Equal?

    Are all calories the same? The answer is no. Here’s why.    We count them. We read about them on the ...
Load More Related Articles
Load More By Kaitlin Cushman

Facebook Comments

Check Also

Lazy Girl Workout Tips: 8 Ways to Get More Exercise

Feeling lazy? These 8 tips will help you ...

Being healthy doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a good cocktail…

12 Guilt Free Cocktail Recipes with Kaitlin Cushman

Get 12 Guilt-Free Cocktail Recipes

Half the calories, all the fun.

About Kaitlin Cushman


Welcome to Nutrition Gone Wild. I'm Kaitlin, I have 2 degrees in nutrition, and I want to make a promise to you: I'm going to offer advice that is easy, beneficial, and applicable to your everyday life. This advice is meant to empower you to make these small changes that ultimately will benefit your overall health without taking the fun out of your daily schedule. Join me on this journey to living health(ier), wild and free!

Being healthy doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a good cocktail…

12 Guilt Free Cocktail Recipes with Kaitlin Cushman

Get 12 Guilt-Free Cocktail Recipes

Half the calories, all the fun.