We’ve all the heard the notion of “calories in versus calories out” when it comes to shedding the pounds. What this basically means is weight loss occurs when more calories are burned compared to what is consumed. But do calories matter, or is it what you eat that really matters? The truth is, both are important.
Calorie Deficit = Weight Lost
Your current body weight is a result of a number of calories you consume on a daily basis compared to how much you burn in that same time period. That means, if you consume more calories than you expend, you’ll gain weight, while if you consume less than what you burn, you lose weight. Maintaining your weight means you’re eating the same amount of calories that you are burning.
Your metabolic rate – which is the rate at which your body can burn while at rest – plays a key role in how fast those calories can be burned, and is affected by your age, fitness level, and muscle composition. It needs to be enough to help support the activity that you perform each day.
One pound of fat equals 3,500 calories, which means you need to burn 3,500 calories in order to lose one pound of fat. If you consume 500 fewer calories than what you burn each day, you’ll lose one pound of fat in 7 days (7 x 500 = 3,500), in general.
This is where the false notion that all calories are equal comes from, regardless of the type of food they come from. If it takes 3,500 calories to lose a pound of fat, what does it matter where the calories come from?
While it’s true that people who are overweight have eaten more calories than they’ve expended, the above idea is way too simplified to stand on its own.
The fact of the matter is, different types of calories have very different influences on our bodies. They go through various metabolic pathways before turning into energy, and have a major impact on our hormones, which regulate when we eat, and the amount we eat.
Only looking at the amount of calories to consume to lose weight tells only part of the weight loss story.
The Effect That Hormones Play in Our Eating Habits
In its most simplistic form, burning more calories compared to what you eat will put you in a calorie deficit, and vice versa. But it’s the hormones that are affecting how we think and behave, which is specifically what drives our hunger pangs and cravings. These different types of calories play different roles in our bodies.
Sugar, for instance, can lead to insulin resistance, which increases levels of insulin in the body and stimulates fat gain. It also doesn’t lower ghrelin, the hunger hormone, which means you’re likely to be more hungry shortly after you’ve eaten a sugary food product.
Protein, on the other hand, has the opposite effect on hunger. Since the metabolic pathway requires energy, approximately 30% of the calories from protein is spent on digesting it, which means it’ll make you feel fuller and more satisfied for longer compared to sugar. Protein will also help to speed up your metabolism, which means you’ll be burning more fat and calories compared to a diet high in sugar.
Eating an adequate amount of protein is also necessary to build and maintain lean muscle tissue, which is important for a boosted metabolism.
Based on this, it’s clear that a calorie really is not a calorie.
A 200-calorie muffin is not the same as a 200-calorie chicken breast. The different types of calories from these dishes will have two different effects on the body.
Studies have shown these differences, including one conducted by New York Times health writer Jane E. Brody. In a study published in June 2011 in The New England Journal of Medicine, nutritionists at Harvard University looked at the dietary and lifestyle habits of over 120,00 participants between 1986 to 2006.
They were able to conclude that specific foods had a stronger effect on weight gain compared to others. Among the biggest culprits to weight gain were potatoes, sugar-loaded beverages, and chips. On the contrary, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and yogurt were inversely related to gaining weight.
The Bottom Line
Do calories matter? Yes, but more importantly, the type of calories matter. If you want to lose weight, you obviously have to stay within a calorie deficit in order to see any results. But that doesn’t mean that any old calorie will do. Not only do you need to eat fewer calories than you burn, you also have to make sure that the calories come from healthy foods that are low in sugar and are not processed. Always consider the different types of calories you can choose from and skip the empty calories for those that are going to do something good for your body.