All Calories Are Not Equal

in Calorie

Last week I was wandering around the supermarket. I had bought my fruit, veg, fish, chickpeas etc and was looking at the trashy magazines, planning a quiet evening in with a big bunch of grapes and a catch up of what the celebs were doing. But the headline that caught my eye was not what Brad and Ange were doing this week, or even the latest celeb diet which promised me I'd lose a stone in a week...but what caught my attention was New Scientist magazine. The headline read: These Burgers are identical...but one will make you fatter.

Well obviously I was intrigued. Horoscopes and celebs out the window, I started reading the article there and then. When I got a comment about it not being a library I paid for the mag and read the whole thing before I got to the car.

It was one of the most fascinating articles I have read in a long time. The basic premise was that the way calories are calculated might be completely incorrect- up to 25% out.

Now I have long believed that calories are not the key to long-term weight loss and health, as they don't take into account nutrient content. I would rather eat a bowl of natural muesli which is packed full of fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals and loads of other goodies, that a bowl of 'low calorie' cereal, which might be lower in calories but is low in everything else too.

Well apparently I am right!!

Calories have been calculated in the same way for over 100 years. The food is burnt in controlled conditions and the energy released from it measured. However our bodies don't burn food - they digest it. And when digesting food many factors can affect the amount of calories we can actually extract from it. It may also give a fuller explanation of why some diets are effective.

The example used in New Scientist is a great one. We want an afternoon snack, really fancying a nice chocolate brownie, but decide to be healthier and choose a nut based cereal bar. However when we check the label, there are 50 more calories in the nut we choose the brownie.

Now apart from all the other nutrients in the nut bar, the calories are very deceptive.

Fibre is a good example. It is very resistant to digestion so we do not absorb all the calories it contains. It also provides energy for the microbes in our gut so they take their cut before we get our share. This has lead to estimates that the calories in fibre rich food are 25% lower than listed on labels.

The calories in protein may be up to 20% lower as it takes energy for our bodies to digest it. Could this be one of the factors why (despite not being hugely healthy) diets like Atkins do make us lose weight?

Simple carbohydrates (the ones we should avoid anyway) like sugar, white flour and white rice are more easily absorbed and digested than complex carbs such as oats, wholemeal flour and brown rice. Meaning we get more calories from white bread or pasta than we do from wholemeal. Even though the labels may tell us the calories in the food are the same.

These factors may combine to have such an effect than the nut bar is actually lower in calories than the brownie.

Cooking can also have a large effect on the calories we take from food. Cooking breaks down constituents in the food making them much easier to digest and absorb. So the exact same steak or serving of carrots can contain fewer calories just by being served rare or raw. Could this also help explain the success of the raw food diet for weight loss?

Surely that is it? Well no. The texture of food can have an impact. Harder foods use up much more energy in chewing and digestion than softer ones. So again the brownie loses as it will be softer and easier to chew that a hard or crunchy nut bar.

So are these amounts really significant enough to have an impact on our weight? Well yes. An average woman should have around 2000 calories per day (men around 2500). If this amount can be out by 25% we could be over or under eating a huge 500 calories per day. When we consider an over eat of just 20 calories a day can lead to a weight gain of 1kg fat per year that could have a huge impact.

So what can be done? Well at present the food industry have no plans to start changing labels. So we need to look at more than just the calories in food.

This new information basically supports eating the sort of food we know we should be eating anyway! I couldn't sum it up better than New Scientist - the foods that should make up the vast majority of our diet should be the types of food that don't come with a label.

Lots of fruit and vegetables which are high in fibre and tend to be harder, crunchier (keep veg steamed or lightly boiled, no over boiled soggy cabbage please!) and take more chewing than other foods, should make up a large part of our diet.

Proteins should also be consumed regularly. The best types are lean meats (not processed types like ham, burgers and sausages), fish, tofu, nuts and seeds.

Carbohydrates should be complex and wholemeal - oats, brown rice, bulgar wheat and some wholemeal bread or pasta are ideal. Simple carbs like sugar, white bread, white pasta and rice should be avoided.

Pulses and beans like lentils, beans and peas are high in fibre, protein and complex carbs so brilliant to include regularly in your diet.

In short exactly what we know we should be eating!!!

So when looking at food labels, don't read the calorie content, read the ingredients. Look for all natural ingredients, no preservatives or sugar and ideally as few ingredients as possible. If it contains anything you have never heard of or cannot pronounce, put it back on the shelf.

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Katie Brooke has 1 articles online

Katie Brooke is an expert in health, fitness and weight loss. For a free report on how to become slimmer, fitter and healthier in just 5 minutes a day visit

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All Calories Are Not Equal

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This article was published on 2010/03/29