Main content starts here, tab to start navigating

Health Hack #16 - All Calories Are NOT Created Equal

John, one of our two founders, has spent much of the last fifteen years obsessing over health and wellness. Though quite humble, he possesses a trove of knowledge on both subjects and has taught me (our other founder) quite a bit. (To learn more about our path to becoming Real Food Eatery, click here.)  So, when John was unable to provide the most basic computation for calories, I found it especially interesting. It wouldn’t dawn on me until much later, but I would eventually realize a profoundly important truth tucked into what I perceived as his naivete. (Those particularly tuned in, devoted readers of this weekly newsletter may be able to guess what that lesson was.)

John was unable to compute the amount of calories in a simple dish that we were discussing, despite being told the quantities of its macronutrients (i.e. its total carbohydrates, protein, and fat content). Though this may not seem surprising to the layman, for a health food fanatic it borders on sacrilegious. Some quick context for the unfamiliar: one gram of protein equates to four calories. One gram of carbohydrates also equates to four calories. One gram of fat, however, is equivalent to nine calories. And fiber is non-caloric (miss last week’s edition? Learn all about fiber here.). This was all news to John. But enough about the gaping hole in John’s food knowledge base for a bit - we’ll circle back to that later.

What do Calories actually mean?

You can’t touch or feel a calorie, as many of us like to envision. We grow up thinking of food in terms of its caloric worth. “Beef tastes great, but it’s loaded with calories.” Quickly a burger becomes this object that is overcrowded with these calories. And the more we have of them, the more likely we are to pack on extra pounds.

A calorie is actually a measure of energy. In its literal sense, a calorie refers to the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of water by one degree Celsius. Huh? Let’s unpack that a bit more...

We use calories in a nutritional context to provide our bodies with heat, which we then translate to usable energy. While we’re able to use this heat for fuel, if we ingest more than we need to burn for energy, then this heat energy becomes stored. And when we have an excess, then we begin storing more than we need. This is known in health parlance as an energy imbalance. We consume more calories than we burn, therefore we gain unwanted weight.

Do Calories matter as much as we’ve been taught?

Despite rogue members of virtually all dietary camps suggesting that calories don’t really matter, they truly do. Interesting scientific fact: caloric restriction is one of three hacks known to extend lifespan across all modern day species of life. From yeast, to mice, to human beings - reducing caloric intake equates to longer life, all things equal. If something extends your life then it’s important. And for those interested, the other two life extension hacks that prevail amongst all known life forms are time restricted eating (eating within a defined, shortened window of the day, colloquially [though misleadingly] known as “intermittent fasting”) and a compound called rapamycin. The latter may be unfamiliar to many. To learn further, we recommend the publications of Dr. Peter Attia (link here), who devotes the majority of his practice and writings to the subject of longevity.

But are all Calories the same?

Calories matter, there is really no room for debate here. But are they all created equal? Our food and exercise culture would suggest that yes, they are, and that it’s all a matter of burning more than you take in. There are endless diets that focus on calories. “Set your threshold below 2,000 calories per day and you’ll lose weight.”

The same can be said in the fitness realm. Whether it be at Orange Theory or even an old fashioned treadmill at the gym, we’re shown calorie expenditure during our exercise session for a reason. Burning calories makes us slimmer. But how do those machines and monitors detect the types of calories that we’ve consumed? There is no entry for what we’ve eaten. The assumption is similar to that made with food intake, only in reverse. Whereas with food all calories consumed are perceived as equal, during exercise we also expend all calories equally.

As it turns out, this assumption is wrong. Let’s use a very simple example before getting into the granular science. A large avocado contains about 270 calories. A pack of two traditional Twinkies also contains about 270 calories. Do you really suppose that our bodies consider these two things equivalent sources of energy?

Energy aside for a moment, there’s a nutrient density conversation that must come first. “Empty calories”, as they’re often called, possess virtually no benefit in the way of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc. Their lack of micronutrients implies that they’re absorbed but make no discernible positive impact. These empty calories from processed foods are so unnatural that they actually fool our hormones. Ghrelin, which is best known as our “hunger hormone”, is often increased during consumption of processed junk (we touched on this topic in a former post about soaps, which can be found here), causing us to continue eating more than we should. Have you ever eaten an avocado and felt the compulsion to have a few more? What about a cookie with the equivalent amount of calories? In addition to ghrelin remaining elevated, we also see a suppression of leptin, which is our satiety signal. Double whammy. The dual point here should by now be clear: junk calories provide no nutritional benefit AND they compel us to overeat. A calorie is a calorie is a calorie is a falsehood.

As alluded to in last week’s Health Hack, only real foods contain the vital matrix of naturally occurring soluble and insoluble fiber. Not all foods contain fiber - such as animal products - but most real foods that accompany animal products in a typical meal do. There are grains, such as freshly baked bread (not the packaged, store bought kind!), fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. Unless you’re complying with the highly restrictive Carnivore Diet (a growing trend, truly consisting of nothing but animal products and salt), chances are your real food meal will contain fiber to some degree. This is key because it helps blunt the insulin spike of high glycemic foods (naturally occurring dietary fats do as well). Twinkies are high in sugar, but so are bananas. The fiber in the banana, though, helps to regulate your blood sugar levels more effectively than the processed Twinkie, total sugar content equal. The longer our blood sugar remains elevated, the less likely it is that we use the circulating glucose as energy, meaning the more likely it is to be stored and later converted to adipose tissue, also known as fat. (Note: there is a deeper layer also at play here that pins types of sugars against one another: namely fructose and glucose. Rather than delving into this nuance now, we’re instead reserving it for the entire subject of next week’s article.)

Now back to John. Having adopted a real food diet long before the term “real food” became a known phrase in the health community, John learned a pretty interesting lesson that didn’t dawn on him at the time. And as noted earlier, it didn’t dawn on me either. Calories do matter. But when consuming a diverse but exclusively real food diet, it’s not as necessary to pay attention to them. When the diet remains real and clean, all of our hormones and signaling mechanisms remain in place. Rather than having to labor over memorizing or tracking the caloric load of everything we eat, we can simply listen to our bodies. When we’re hungry, we eat. When we’re full, we stop. Pretty simple. So long as when we do eat, we eat real food, and we do so conscientiously.

As always, keep it real!