Do Calories Really Count?

A new study supports my belief that your body is a chemistry lab and not a bank account. Calories do matter, but they hardly constitute the whole fat-burning picture.
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Study Shows Food Quality, Not Calories, Determines Your Fat-Burning Abilities

Remember that professor who lost 27 pounds on the "Twinkie Diet" and argued it didn't matter how you lost weight if you just reduced your calories? A new study from Harvard University knocks that bogus theory on its poorly-supported head.

The study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, followed 120,877 men and women between 12 and 20 years to explore how multiple factors influenced weight loss or gain over a four-year period.

Let's get the bad news out of the way first. Participants gained an average of three and a half pounds every four years, resulting in almost 17 additional pounds over 20 years time.

Some conclusions weren't surprising. Non-exercisers, for instance, became fatter than exercisers. Likewise, TV-watchers and poor sleepers (fewer than six hours or more than eight) saw their scale numbers increase.

And wine-drinkers, listen up: one daily glass didn't trigger weight gain -- though other forms of alcohol did.

Most interestingly, however, this study destroys common food dogmas that junk-food manufacturers and so-called health experts have nonsensically argued for eons. You hear this prescription often: everything in moderation, reduce your calories, ditch the higher-fat foods, and oh yeah -- a calorie is a calorie, period.

Research blows these myths to bits. "What you eat makes quite a difference," said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, the study's lead author. "Just counting calories won't matter much unless you look at the kinds of calories you're eating."

He also dispelled the oft-repeated claim that there are no bad foods. "There are good foods and bad foods, and the advice should be to eat the good foods more and the bad foods less," he said. "The notion that it's ok to eat everything in moderation is just an excuse to eat whatever you want."

Tell that to your fast food addicted friend the next time she devours a McDonald's cheeseburger and milkshake while smugly repeating the mantra "everything in moderation."

So which foods made the "bad" list? No mystery here. French fries topped it, followed by processed meats, sugary drinks, refined grains and other junk foods. Similarly, the study showed refined grains -- which manufacturers sometimes market as healthy foods -- can actually slow your metabolism and stall fat burning.

The study also concluded that dairy as a whole does not affect weight loss or gain -- people who ate yogurt lost almost a pound every four years. Study co-author Dr. Frank Hu attributes this to yogurt's beneficial bacteria, which keeps you full and raises your metabolic rate so that you burn fat more efficiently.

The good guys included -- no surprise here -- fruits, vegetables and high-fiber grains.

The take-home message from this study: It's not the calories, but rather where those calories come from, that determine whether you burn or store fat.

Let me give you two meals to drive that point home. One consists of wild salmon and steamed garlic spinach; the other includes pizza and ice cream. Both contain exactly 500 calories. Which would you bet helps you burn fat?

No contest. The high-quality protein, omega-3 fats and fiber in the nutrient-dense salmon/ spinach combo keeps you satiated, supports the maintenance and/or development of muscle and triggers your fat-burning hormones.

The carb-heavy pizza and ice cream, on the other hand, will spike your insulin and crash your blood sugar levels, leaving you hungrier, tired, nutrient-deprived and prone to weight gain.

This study supports my belief that your body is a chemistry lab and not a bank account. Calories do matter, but they hardly constitute the whole fat-burning picture.

If you want to be healthy, ditch the sound-bite nutrition clichés for lean protein, high-fiber starches, good fats and plenty of non-starchy vegetables.


©2011 JJ Virgin & Associates, Inc. Nutrition and Fitness Expert JJ Virgin is the author of Six Weeks to Sleeveless and Sexy and the co-star of TLC's Freaky Eaters reality series. Visit her at to grab her free audio: Top Ten Hottest Tips to Get Slim and Sexy Fast

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