With nutrition, it seems like nothing’s ever simple. Take the relationship among calories consumed, calories burned and impact on your weight.
This seems simple. If calories-in > calories-burned, then you gain weight. If “in” < “burned,” then you lose weight.
But wait! This simple view is misleading. There are good calories and bad calories, and from the standpoint of managing your weight these are NOT equal.
Let’s walk through the facts here and consider what it means for your quest to get (or stay) reasonably lean.
KEEPING “WEIGHT MANAGEMENT” IN LARGER “HEALTH” CONTEXT
We’ll mainly talk about weight here. But just briefly, let’s stipulate that “impact on your weight” is not at all the only relevant perspective on calories.
For heart health, brain health, avoiding the ever-more-common diabetes – even avoiding certain cancers – where a calorie comes from matters so much. A calorie from lean proteins, healthy fats, or good-for-you carbs is way better than one from refined sugars, white flour, high-saturated fat stuff (or alcohol, man).
So resist the temptation to reduce “nutrition” to only a numerical focus on “weight management,” man. I doubt anyone sets out to do that, but the calorie-counting feature of many fitness apps can subtly put you into that mindset. As in “I’ll eat more fiber tomorrow…today, I’m just focused on making sure I don’t take in too many calories.”
FOR WEIGHT MANAGEMENT: 5 WAYS CALORIES ARE NOT ALL EQUAL
With this overall-health reminder out of the way, let’s talk about calories and our weight. Here are five reasons why not all calories should “count” the same for you.
1. Calorie absorption rates differ among foods
Certain good-for-you foods pass through your body without 100% of their label-listed calories getting absorbed. Calories from peanuts, almonds and pistachios – and some high-fiber vegetables – have been shown to not be 100% absorbed.
Vegetables are low-cal anyway, though, so the real story here is nuts. Studies show consumption of nuts, even though they’re high-calorie, is not associated with being overweight. And nuts also bring many of the other good-calorie benefits listed below.
2. Some calories make you feel fuller for longer
Foods that keep you “sated” make it a lot easier to actually stay within your target daily calories. Proteins, high-fiber carbs and healthy fats all do this.
Two guys might both eat a 750-calorie breakfast, for example. But one guy is starving by mid-morning while the other guy cruises through until lunch time without those pangs. The starving guy might snack (office candy or doughnut, anyone?). And/or he might hit lunchtime in ravenous mode, which often leads to eating too much.
3. Many “bad” calories also create a craving impulse and habitual behavior
Sugars and refined flour don’t keep you feeling full for as long. On top of that, they create a “craving” dynamic in your brain’s pleasure centers. This double-whammy of bad calories is especially true for sugar.
You might think saying “addicted” is an exaggeration. But behavioral scientists say a sugar habit has some similarities to alcohol or drug dependencies. The more-primitive parts of the brain begin to associate a “reward” (the sugar pleasure sensation) with a “cue” (e.g. you walk into the coffee shop and smell pastries)…and a “habit” is formed. This makes it even more likely you’ll struggle to stay within whatever calorie-limit you try to enforce. Today, and tomorrow…etc.
4. “Good” calories” give you more sustained energy
This is a corollary to the “full for longer” benefit. When you eat these good things, it’s more likely you’ll work out that day since you’ll have more energy. It’s also more likely you’ll work out with a decent level of intensity, rather than just go through the motions.
So now, not only is your calories-in likely to be lower, but your calorie burn may be higher by eating good calories vs. bad ones.
5. Lean proteins also help grow, keep or lessen the decline of muscle
Having more muscle mass means that for any given age, weight and activity-level, your “base” metabolic rate will be higher. You’ll burn more calories just by being alive that day, if you’ve got more muscle!
If you’re interested in what aging does to our metabolic rate, and how exercise can overcome that rate’s natural decline, read this. Since they help sustain muscle…a calorie from chicken, fish or a lean cut of beef is contributing to your longer-term metabolic rate — unlike that muffin.
So let’s put this all together.
Eating good calories:
- Sometimes, we absorb fewer of them vs. the label-listed amount
- We snack and overeat less, since good calories keep us full longer and don’t drive cravings
- We have more energy to work out and thus burn more calories
- We’re more likely to have muscle mass that helps keep metabolic rate up
If counting calories is part of a discipline formula that works for you, I’m not here to say you shouldn’t do it! But for all the reasons discussed here, make them healthy calories, dude. And maybe, over time, you won’t have to think numerically so much. And of course, you’ll be healthier in a number of ways.
“You don’t look different, but you have changed. I’m looking through you, you’re not the same.” (The Beatles, I’m Looking Through You – click to listen)