One of the hottest debates in the nutrition world is whether or not calorie counting is the best way to lose weight. We’ve all heard the expression “a calorie is a calorie.” And to a certain extent, there’s no arguing with this, as a dietary calorie that comes from a Twinkie versus one that comes from a sprig of broccoli both contain 4,184 Joules of energy. What it comes down to is how each of these calories functions in the body.
Our bodies are incredibly complex biochemical webs of processes that are affected and controlled by hormones, and this is where the very real differences in calories come into play. The type of calories you eat has a major impact on the processes that control appetite, cravings, and much more. Here, we looked at some specific ways that a calorie is not just a calorie.
Calories and metabolism
Every food has a thermic effect, meaning that each food affects energy expenditure differently. According to a study conducted by the Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders comparing the thermic effects of all three macronutrients, protein, fat, and carbohydrates, protein requires more energy (calories) to metabolize than carbs or fat, so it greatly boosts your metabolism and, therefore, your weight loss.
The “Hunger Hormone”
Understanding why the type of food you eat should be prioritized over the quantity boils down to actual hormonal reactions that occur in your body upon eating certain foods.
Glucose and fructose are two sugars metabolized very differently. For example, the production of ghrelin, the “hunger hormone,” is increased when you ingest fructose much more than with glucose. This means (and studies show) that you are more likely to overeat and succumb to cravings if you have a diet high in fructose. Conversely, glucose has a bigger impact on the satiety center of our brain, meaning we feel fuller longer, again generally causing us to eat (less) more. Also, studies have proven that diets high in fructose have been shown to lead to increased belly fat, insulin resistance, and high triglyceride levels. This means that even if you log time each day tracking your calories, you very well might be fighting an uphill battle against your hormones if eating a high refined sugar and carbohydrate diet.
Foods high in glucose include vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans, legumes and whole grains.
Foods high in fructose that should be largely avoided include sodas, processed baked goods, candy, agave syrup, fruit juice and dried fruits (among others). But note that fructose from whole fresh fruit is less worrisome, as it comes along with fiber and other important nutrients that slow down the absorption of fructose and offer other benefits.
Calories and feeling “full”
Why is it so easy to stuff yourself full of 1,000 calories worth of ice cream and cake, while eating 1,000 calories worth of grass-fed steak and steamed vegetables seems impossible? Because the protein and good fat from steak and vegetables has a much higher satiety index, which measures how much foods increase our feelings of fullness and reduce hunger.
Naturally, a diet high in foods with a low satiety index will usually lead to overeating and weight gain since you have to eat more of them to feel full. Foods with a low satiety index include refined carbs such as baked goods and processed sugars.
Foods with a high satiety index include starchy vegetables, whole grains and legumes, red meat, eggs and fruit.
So, should you count calories?
If the foregoing is largely new information for you, it is best to try changing your diet model before you begin counting calories. Many people find that they lose weight by simply making these dietary changes alone. However, if you have already adopted the type of eating style discussed here and have found that you are not losing weight, then counting calories could definitely help.
As with most nutrition “rules,” there is no exact answer that will work for everyone. Calorie-counting could be exactly the right strategy for some individuals, and exactly the wrong strategy for others. The bottom line is: the quality of your food matters more than the quantity. With that said, if you are already eat a healthy diet and want to take your weight loss efforts up a notch, calorie counting could be quite beneficial.