Are All Calories Created Equal?

Experts agree that since the body uses calories from different nutrients in different ways, the key to successful weight loss is paying attention to more than just the numbers on a box.
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The No. 1 rule for weight loss is that the body needs to burn more calories than it consumes. So, if the formula for losing weight is so simple, why do so many diets fail? As it turns out, current research shows that while the quantity of calories plays a large role in the science of metabolism, the quality of the calories also matters for whether or not a dieter loses weight. While critics and consumers debate the causes of the obesity epidemic, one thing is for certain: Experts agree that since the body uses calories from different nutrients in different ways, the key to successful weight loss is paying attention to more than just the numbers on a box.

The Science of Calories & Everyday Eating

In the most basic terms, all calories are created equal. A calorie is simply a unit for measuring energy. But the way in which the body uses those calories is what accounts for different weight loss results. The origin of a calorie determines how the body digests and stores that energy. For example, the body uses calories from protein to help maintain and repair muscles, organs and tissues. Carbohydrates are a major energy source for the body, while fats both help protect organs and help with the absorption of important vitamins. All three nutrients are essential, but the body metabolizes them very differently.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!

Retrofit weight loss advisory board member Dr. James Hill, Ph.D. compares the efficiency of calories to engine fuel, noting that there is no "magic formula" for weight loss.

"The human body is a complex system, and carbohydrates and fat do not always have the same effect on different people," said Hill. "A calorie is a calorie, but different people are more or less efficient at burning those calories."

"If you put high-quality gas into a terrible engine, it is a complete waste. The same is true for nutrition. If you put high-quality food into a sedentary person, the body won't be more efficient at burning those calories, which explains why diet and exercise have to go hand-in-hand. Just as high-performance fuel only works with a high-performance engine, high levels of physical activity will work for weight loss by burning more calories."

In a paper recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. David Ludwig asserts that overeating is secondary to quality eating. His research shows that the right balance of foods helps maintain a healthy metabolism, which leads to calories being used by the body more quickly instead of being stored as fat. Ludwig also notes that if calorie intake is reduced too drastically, that can actually cause metabolism to slow down, which leads the body to think that it should store more of the calories consumed for future energy instead of using them right away.

When the body uses calories, it also burns calories as a natural part of metabolism. For example, there are 4 calories per gram of protein. Studies have shown that the body might actually burn more than 4 calories for each gram of protein it metabolizes. That's one of the reasons that high-protein, low-carb diets can produce such quick results. However, the results aren't always long lasting.

So, What's for Dinner?

For starters, finding the right meal plan requires paying attention to both how many calories you consume and the food source.

A well-balanced lunch or dinner plate would include: 4-5 ounces of grilled chicken, ⅔ cup whole wheat couscous and 1 ½ - 2 cups steamed broccoli, prepared with 2 teaspoons of olive oil. This plate would provide all of the vitamins and nutrients your body needs at dinner, as well as provide longer lasting energy from the combination of whole grains, healthy fats, lean protein and natural fiber.

"Frequently, weight loss clients remark that they are actually eating more food on a lower-calorie meal plan," says Retrofit lead registered dietitian Amy Margulies, adding that she instructs clients to consume most calories from quality sources instead of from fat or refined sugars.

Think about this calorie comparison: One gram of fat has nine calories, whereas one gram of protein and one gram of carbohydrates have four calories each. A calorie-conscious diet filled with healthy protein and carbohydrates will actually add up to more grams of food than a diet filled with more fat or refined sugars.

That's one of the reasons Margulies advises the balanced plate approach of 25 percent protein, 25 percent whole grains (which provide longer lasting energy than refined grains) and 50 percent produce. This helps calories get metabolized more quickly because they are providing the nutrients, or fuel, the body needs without excess calories that the body will store as fat.

The Finish Line:

Calories themselves are created equal, but the body treats them very differently. A well-balanced and calorie-conscious diet plan is the best way to achieve long-lasting weight loss. Crossing the finish line for your personal weight loss journey can only be accomplished using the best calories for "fuel" while exercising to burn those unwanted pounds.