When a Calorie Isn’t a Calorie

Statistics have shown that at any given time 60 percent of us are on a diet, and the rest of us may be watching our calories anyway. So, probably most of us think about calories quite a bit.

Remember the days when it was all about “calories in and calories out”? Those days are gone. But what does new research tell us? And what does it mean for you?

I am going to summarize research findings from several expert sources to give you the skinny on what calories are all about these days. As you will see, its quite different than it used to be, and may influence how you make food choices going forward.

How is calorie count determined?

Have you ever thought about how they figure out how many calories are in your food? Here’s how they do it:

  • Take a chunk of food, blend it, freeze dry all the moisture out of it, and then grind it into a powder.
  • Cook the powder until it bursts into flames and all that’s left is ash.
  • As the cooking process is going on, measure how much energy is being given off.
  • That measurement is the amount of energy in the food, measured in kilocalories, or calories for short.

This was the gold standard for measuring the calories we consume for a long, long time.

Only one problem. That is not how our bodies use the calories in food. Our stomach and intestines do not freeze dry and then combust food when we eat it!

How do our bodies use calories?

Let me cut to the cake (er, I mean chase).

Basically, we absorb LESS ENERGY from minimally processed carbohydrates, fats and some proteins because they are harder to digest.

We absorb MORE ENERGY from highly processed foods because they are easier to digest. Think of it this way…with processed food, some of the digestion work has already been done for you. The same would be true of foods that are cooked, chopped, soaked or blended, to varying degrees. The mechanism at work here is that the plant or animal cells have been broken down for you.

What does all this mean?

Here are some specific examples of how calorie counts can be misleading.

  1. Research has shown that we absorb more fat from peanut butter than from whole peanuts. Turns out that almost 38% of the fat in whole peanuts gets excreted, whereas almost all of the fat in peanut butter gets absorbed, to be used by our bodies one way or another.
  2. You may have heard that if you allow rice to get cold, it reduces the calories you get from it. True. What happens is that the rice forms what they call “resistant starches”, which means that you can’t extract as many calories from it as when it was just cooked.
  3. Then there are the types of bacteria that are hanging around in your gut. Without going into a lot of detail, what is down there can make a huge difference to how your digestive process goes and how many calories you can use. For instance, if you are heavy on a certain type of bacteria, it means that you are better at extracting calories from tough plant cells.
  4. These days the mantra for keeping weight under control is to eat things like nuts, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, yogurt (good for your gut), and low-fat diary products. Indeed, consumption of these types of foods has been shown again and again to curb weight gain. On the other hand, consuming all manner of potatoes (chips, fried, mashed, baked or broiled), red meat, processed foods, butter, and just about any dessert is associated with weight gain over a period of time.
  5. There are a bunch of other factors that have to do with how we use calories (or not). Honorable mention goes to hormones, how many calories we burn at rest and during exercise, stress, genetics, gender, medications, how long you have had more or less body fat, and the differences in how much energy it takes to digest protein, carbohydrates, fats, and alcohol. These are topics for another time, but you get the idea.

So, no longer is a calorie just a calorie. The bottom line? Once again we are back to the healthy lifestyle recommendations that you see all over the place. Eat whole, unprocessed foods in reasonable quantity and with as much variety as possible. Not only does this make sense in light of what we know about calorie utilization, but general nutrition as well.

Comments? Anything you have noticed in your diet that is affecting your weight in a positive or negative way? I would love to hear from you.

© 2016-2020 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.

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