Are all calories created equal? Are some better than others? Is fat loss really just about calories in calories out?
Here’s the simple truth: not all calories are created equal. On a very basic level if you’re assessing your diet and weight, it is calories in versus calories out, assuming you’re eating a healthy diet, more or less.
That said, there is more nuance to this.
The Difference Between Calories
We know calories from sugar are not good.
Most of you know know that those calories from sugar—specifically from fructose—are metabolized differently than the other portion of the sugar molecule or glucose.
But if you didn’t already know, glucose is very easily absorbed into our cells without a problem. However, fructose must go through your liver to be converted. Here it can end up as a triglyceride.
So let’s say you had 2,000 calories in your diet. Let’s say 60 % of those calories were “bad” carbohydrates—breads, sugars, cereals grains and stuff like that…
That carb intake is going to have a very different metabolic effect on your body than 60% carbohydrate intake made up of vegetables, fruits and maybe some non-glutinous grains.
Although the caloric intake is the same, the effects are drastically different.
With this thinking in mind, let’s consider the impact of drinking a glass of apple juice versus eating a whole apple.
In the former circumstance, the amount of fructose you’re consuming is not being mitigated by fiber. However, if you are having a whole apple, fiber will slow down the fructose release that’s going to go into the liver.
If you’re drinking a lot of fruit juice or getting your carbs in the form of breads, etc., you’re continually giving yourself very quick spikes in blood sugar. As a result, you’re going to get very quick spiking insulin.
That’s a big problem because anything that’s going to raise your insulin levels over time, is going to continue to put you at risk for diabetes, for becoming overweight.
This is because insulin is the main storage hormone in your body. Pretty much all of the other hormones—think epinephrine or adrenalin, even glucagon—mobilize stored energy reserves and break them down for immediate use.
So, you don’t want to have too high levels of insulin all the time, because essentially you’re telling your body, store this, store this and store this… especially fat.
That’s why exercise is awesome, because exercise mitigates your insulin response. It actually increases glucagon, because you’re also in a fasted state, which means that glucagon is up, insulin is down.
For this reason, sugar is the probably the most problematic of all the calories; four calories from one gram of sugar, ultimately is not the same as four calories from one gram of protein. So one gram of protein, one gram of carbohydrates both yields four calories, but those calories are pretty different.
[Related: How to Stop Your Addiction to Sugar]
Protein calories are not really creating a huge a spike in insulin. The sugar calories are and as a result of that, that’s going to lead to a whole cascade of events in your body, which is not going to be a good thing.
A study performed by the University of California San Francisco confirmed that not all calories are created equal, and that sugar is in fact tremendously harmful. In the study, 43 obese children with different metabolic disorders were fed a sugar-restricted diet for nine days that maintained their level of caloric intake.
The results after nine days were astonishing: although their average weight didn’t change, insulin levels dropped by one third, and levels of diastolic blood pressure, fasting blood glucose and “bad” LDL-cholesterol similarly decreased. (1)
I can’t think of a clearer example than that.
Getting the Right Calories
I hope that makes sense for you. I don’t want you to be scared off by fruit or smoothies. That said, I don’t recommend juicing fruit because you get rid of the fiber, which then leads it to essentially becoming a sugary fruit juice.
Even if it’s raw, it still ends up becoming like Coca Cola. Sure, there’s a nutrition benefit to the raw fruit juice, but there’s also a lot of sugar that is not buffered by fiber anymore.
[Related: 7 Green Detox Juice Recipes (No Fruit Added)]
Hopefully that makes sense, and helps you distinguish between good calories and bad ones. They’re not all equal.
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Yuri Elkaim is one of the world’s most trusted health and fitness experts. A former pro soccer player turned NYT bestselling author of The All-Day Energy Diet and The All-Day Fat Burning Diet, his clear, science-backed advice has transformed the lives of more than 500,000 men and women and he’s on a mission to help 100 million people by 2040. Read his inspiring story, “From Soccer to Bed to No Hair on My Head” that started it all.