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How Do Calories Really Count?

I’m sure you’ve all heard the expression “calories in equals calories out.” This means that if you wanted to lose weight, for example, you would need to burn more calories than you consume. If your goal was weight gain, you would need to consume more calories than you burn. And if you were just looking to maintain your weight, you would need to consume the exact same amount of calories that you burn. According to this equation all calories are created equal. A calorie is a calorie no matter where it comes from right? Some people think so. A few years ago a nutrition Professor named Mark Haub proved this by going on the “Twinkie Diet.” For two months he ate a twinkie every 3 hours, instead of a well-balanced meal. To add variety, in between his “meals” he snacked on doritos, sugary cereals and oreos. He also included a daily multivitamin, protein shake and some vegetables when eating in front of his kids to set a good example. He wasn’t strict on what he ate, but on the amount and kept himself on an 1800 calorie diet. What was his point? To prove that if you ate fewer calories (no matter the nutritional value of those calories) you would lose weight. And he did. Professor Haub lost 27 pounds, decreased his body fat by 8.5% and even improved his cholesterol and triglycerides. So calories in really do equal calories out then right? Not necessarily.

Americans have become extremely calorie conscious over the past couple of years. Calorie counts are everywhere, listed on menus at pretty much any restaurant and there are several apps and other gadgets out there that can help you keep track of your caloric intake. Yes, most Americans should eat fewer calories and work more on balancing the energy they consume with exercise. But does that mean they can just eat twinkies all day as long as they don’t exceed their calorie requirements? Definitely not! For years, the recommendation for weight loss has been to follow a low fat, calorie restricted diet. Studies have shown, however, that this type of diet only attributes to modest weight loss and has poor long-term compliance. Recently, the low-carb/ high protein diet has re-emerged. Several studies have been conducted comparing the effects on weight loss of a low fat/ calorie restricted diet versus a low carb/ high protein diet. These studies have shown that those doing the low-carb/ high protein diets lost significantly more weight than those following the low fat/ calorie restricted diet. It was also found that these individuals were less hungry and felt more satisfied than those put on the low fat/ calorie restricted diet.  Another interesting finding was that even though the individuals put on the low carb/ high protein diet were not put on a calorie restriction (they were told they could consume as much of the foods on their diet as they wanted), they still consumed about the same amount of calories as those on the low fat/ calorie restricted diets. This is due to the fact that protein and fat are more satiating than carbohydrates and large portions of these foods do not need to be consumed in order to feel full and satisfied. One of the main arguments against low carb/ high protein diets is that weight loss is primarily due to diuresis (water weight loss) that accompanies low carb diets. For every molecule of carbohydrate your body stores as glycogen, your body also stores 3 ounces of water. When you deplete your glycogen stores your body releases water causing weight loss that is mostly water weight. Yes, initially when following a low carb/ high protein diet you will lose mostly water weight, however these studies were completed over a 6 month period which is well after the expected period of diuresis. Also, when comparing body composition, those in the low carb/ high protein group had a significantly higher percentage of fat mass loss than those in the low fat/ calorie restricted group.  Therefore, it is very unlikely that differences in weight loss between the two groups over the course of the study are a result of disproportionate changes in body water in the low carb dieters.  Most studies comparing these two diets, however, have not been conducted for more than a 6 month period so further research is needed to determine if a low carb/ high protein diet will produce sustained weight loss over long periods of time. Also, as I’ve said in the past, carbohydrates play a very important role in fueling the body for high-intensity exercise such as Crossfit.  Even if you are trying to lose weight I would not recommend cutting out carbohydrates completely, however a moderate decrease in carbohydrate intake as well as total caloric intake, can effectively promote weight loss. Making the majority of your carbohydrate intake consist of fruits and starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, pumpkin and squash with moderate amounts of grains would be ideal.

There’s another reason why those on a low carb/high protein diet would lose more weight than those on a high carb/low fat diet. There are three ways your body uses/expends energy. The first is through your basal metabolic rate. This is the amount of calories your body needs at complete rest to function properly. It’s the amount of energy your heart needs to beat, lungs need to breath, brain needs to function and all the other organs in your body need to work properly, whether you’re sleeping, exercising or doing anything in between. Another way your body expends energy, as we all know, is through exercise. The third way your body expends energy is through what’s called the “thermic effect of food.” This is the energy your body uses to digest, absorb, transport, store and metabolize the food you consume. The thermic effect of food (TEF) accounts for about 5-10% of your daily expenditure. For example, if you consumed 3000 calories the TEF would account for 150-300 calories. This amount varies from person to person and is also influenced by the type of food being consumed. For example, the TEF value for a protein-rich meal (20-30% of the energy consumed) is higher than that of a carbohydrate rich (5-10%) or fat-rich (0-3%) meal. It takes more energy to metabolize protein than it does to metabolize carbohydrates or fat. This is another reason why those on a low carb/high protein diet lose more weight than those on a high carb/low fat diet. When comparing a high carb/low-fat diet, low carb diet and low-glycemic index diet, one study found that participants burned ~300 more calories on the low carb diet, and ~150 more calories on the low-glycemic index diet than those on the high carb/low fat diet.  It has also been found that not only does the composition of a particular meal affect the TEF but the quality of the food does too. Researchers have found that processed foods are easily digestible and have a lower TEF than whole foods. A recent study compared a sandwich on whole grain bread with real cheese to a sandwich on white bread with processed cheese. It was found that 50% fewer calories were burned when digesting the processed foods compared to the natural foods. Although a cheese sandwich isn’t necessarily the best example of a “whole food” this study does indicate that less processed foods may offer a real metabolic advantage. Whole foods aren’t just better for you because they contain more nutrients, but they also may be essentially, lower-calorie. So you may want to think twice before reaching for the twinkies.

Now does this mean that you can have a free for all and not worry about calories? Absolutely not! But this does mean that as long as you are choosing whole foods, you don’t need to become obsessed with counting every single calorie you eat. Yes, not going overboard on calories is important but the quality of your diet should be your main focus.  By primarily choosing whole foods, as close to their natural state as possible, you will ultimately reach your weight/health goals. And who has the time or energy to calorie count anyway? Unless you have an app on your phone, it is not only time consuming and stressful, but unnecessary to count calories.


What’s Up Next Week: Nutrition to Beat Stress


This Week’s Recipe: Egg Torte


  • ½ tbsp olive oil
  • ¼ cup finely chopped cauliflower
  • ¼ cup chopped red bell pepper
  • ¼ cup chopped onion
  • 1 tsp chopped serrano pepper
  • 2 egg whites
  • Sea salt and pepper to taste
  • ¼ cup fresh chopped cilantro


  • Place small skillet over medium heat with olive oil
  • Sauté cauliflower for 2-3 minutes
  • Add red pepper, onion, and serrano pepper
  • Sauté until vegetables are soft
  • Meanwhile, whisk eggs in a bowl until fluffy
  • When vegetables are done add to eggs along with salt and pepper and mix well
  • Add mixture to skillet, frying one side, then flipping
  • Cook until golden brown
  • Serve topped with cilantro
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