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April 11, 2012 at 2:29 PMComments: 5 Faves: 0

A Calorie is a Calorie, Right? Not Exactly.

By Jessica Corwin MPH RDN More Blogs by This Author

For years so many of us - dietitians included - have believed this title to be true: that viewing the total number of calories consumed throughout the day was the best tool for weight maintenance or loss. We thought that as long as that total amount of calories we consumed was equal to or less than the amount of calories burned, you would not gain weight.

Science is swiftly proving otherwise!

Whole Food Calories Vs. Processed Food Calories

Most of us understand that eating white bread has a different effect on the body than whole grain bread.

  • White Bread: The white bread, made with enriched wheat flour, begins converting to sugar the moment it meets the saliva in our mouth, allowing it to immediately enter the blood stream.
  • Whole Grain Bread: The whole grain bread, made with whole wheat flour, will also begin to convert to sugar in our mouth, but at a much slower rate because it is far less processed than the white bread.

But WHY exactly does the process slow down? Two reasons:

  1. The white bread only includes the portion of the grain known as the "endosperm" - a component that basically includes starch alone. Because of this, it's very easy for the body to break it down - and unfortunately, faster break down means you'll be feeling hungry again sooner.
  2. The whole grain bread includes not only energy rich carbs,but also the fiber and healthy fats found in the bran and germ of the actual grain itself. This makes wheat bread more difficult for our digestive enzymes to break down the nutrients within.  Because of this, conversion of the carbs to sugar happens more slowly allowing for a delayed release into the bloodstream and keeping you full and satisfied for longer than white bread would.

Another example - juice vs. fruit.

  • Juice: Juice is essentially pure sugar with a few micronutrients sprinkled throughout. If you were to drink a glass of juice, it will immediately begin to be digested and send your blood sugar through the roof.
  • Whole Fruit: However, if you chose the piece of whole fruit instead a lesser amount of fruit juice would enter your blood stream when you first began to chew. Thankfully the fiber from the whole fruit would also need to be digested, thereby slowing the release of fruit sugar (fructose) into your blood stream.

Basically what I am trying to say is that the closer the food is to its natural WHOLE state, the slower the digestive process will be. But what about fat?

Good Fat Calories Vs Bad Fat Calories

Regardless of the amount of calories you consume, research has found that certain foods may be more prone to be stored as fat, increasing the odds that they will cause weight gain.

A few years back, Wake Forest University School of Medicine was able to bring conclusive evidence forward to support this theory. Wake Forest researchers fed two groups of monkeys equal amounts of calories with equal proportions of fat. The only difference: 

  • Trans-Fats: One groups’ fat source was comprised of man-made trans-fats to represent the American diet.
  • Plant Fats: The other group dined on heart-healthy plant-based fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated).

The outcome proved to be quite shocking.

The monkeys on the trans-fat diet gained four-times the amount of weight (7.2% vs. 1.8%) and 30% more belly fat than the monkeys following the more natural diet over a six-year period. With all other variables held constant, the difference in weight gain is certainly worth noting.

Want The Most Bang for Your Calories Bucks? Eat Natural.

The theory is that our bodies are better able to recognize the nutrients found in the more natural foods. This helps us to feel full faster and stay that way longer than if we were to eat packaged, processed foods with ingredients unfamiliar to our body. The same association has been found true for plant-based fats compared with man-made or saturated animal fats (butter, whole milk, meats with 80% or more fat).

Whether or not the science translates the same for humans, we already know that there are plenty of health benefits associated with unsaturated plant-based fats. Not only do they leave you feeling hungry again faster, man-made trans fats and animal-based saturated fats are known to be unhealthy, stimulating inflammation and causing a rise in blood cholesterol.

If we build our diets on a base of whole foods with healthy unsaturated (and non-trans) fat from avocados, nuts, seeds, and EVOO, we may be able to help promote a healthy body AND a healthy weight. By giving whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats the center stage in your diet, you will surely be getting an incredible head start on the path toward health.

As Michael Pollan simply put, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” and you will be okay. Heed this advice and your waistline will thank you!

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  • Thanks for the words Jessica, I've been eating a lot of whole fruit lately and it has all been delicious. Which kind of surprises me (this time of year and all as it just seems like summer time is the best time for fruit - well it also depends on what kind of fruit it is). The oranges I brought home and the grapefruit not to mention the grapes, apples, and bananas have all been delicious!

  • Oranges and grapefruit are in season during the wintry months - and bananas are basically year round in the tropics,so it makes sense why they are tasting so delicious lately :) As for the grapes and apples, guess we're just lucky as even the leftover MI apples are still divine!

    Happy to hear you're enjoying fresh fruit! Aim for 3 servings or 1.5 cups each day and you are well on your way to better health!

  • Gotta give a shout out to grapefruit again. While I can go most of the day without eating and not really notice, once I start eating, a switch is flipped and I can eat and eat. To overcome this, I've found eating half a grapefruit after my meal has been really helpful. It give my brain some time to catch up with my stomach. Actually, I was even reading something yesterday about bitters and maybe that grapefruit is doing more than I thought. I read that bitter foods help support better digestion, improve circulation, stabilize appetite and blood sugar levels, even improve immunity and stress! Not sure how much of that is true, but hey! I'll take it! :)

  • Thank you for this interesting post on explaining things for me in more child words and not such sophistocated words some blogs use :)

  • Erin, while you may not be thrilled at your seemingly voracious appetite it shows that your metabolism is in motion! Plus, it is much better for your overall health (blood sugar included) to be eating throughout the day versus one large meal. Good for you on making the change and enjoying those grapefruits!

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