Are All Calories Equal? How to Make Them Count

For years, calorie counting has been the holy grail of weight loss. Do the math, and it makes sense. There are 3,500 calories in a pound of fat, so for every 3,500 calories you cut from your diet, you can expect to drop a pound. But once you’ve set a goal to eat a certain number of calories per day, how much does it matter where those calories come from? Sure, salmon has healthier fats than a burger, and sweet potatoes pack more vitamin A than regular fries—good nutrition is more than the numbers, it’s also about nutrients. But even if you only focus on the counts, lately, some experts are questioning whether a calorie is a calorie.

But wait, what is a calorie, exactly? If you’ve ever wondered, it’s the amount of energy required to raise about 2 pounds of water by 1 degree Celsius. That might work for measuring energy in a lab. But in your body? Not exactly.

Your body doesn’t always use all of the calories in the foods you eat. Take almonds, for example. An ounce technically contains 170 calories, but a recent study found your digestive system only soaks up about 129. Nuts are difficult to digest, so little fragments pass right through you, taking tiny bits of fat—and calories—along with them. Almonds aren’t the only example: research reveals you may not absorb as much as 11 percent of the calories from high-fiber foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

It also takes more work to break down certain nutrients, especially protein. When you eat a piece of meat, chicken, or fish, your body has to dismantle the protein piece by piece, into tiny building blocks, known as amino acids. Because that process requires lots of energy, it can take up to six times as many calories to metabolize protein compared to carbs or fat. So even if a bowl of Greek yogurt with nuts and berries contains roughly the same number of calories as a cupcake, you’re likely to store more of the cupcake’s calories as fat.

Comparison of a cupcake and Greek yogurt

You might notice that all of these good examples are minimally processed. With whole foods, your body has to do the work. With highly processed foods, a machine has essentially broken down the nutrients for you, so your body doesn’t have to do much to extract the calories. In one delicious-sounding study, researchers at Pomona College fed volunteers cheese sandwiches, using traditional cheddar on whole-grain bread versus processed cheese on white. Their findings? Real cheese and whole grains demanded nearly double the energy to burn.

So say no thanks to fake cheese and classic white bread. The point is that whole foods are the better choice on both counts, because you won’t absorb quite so many calories from them, and you’ll burn more calories breaking them down. Enjoy lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins, filled with fiber and nutrients, to really make those calories count. And continue to track them! Knowing what a bagel or burger packs in can help you make better choices. But you don’t have to obsess. Instead, focus on quality foods in smaller portions.

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  • So eating an apple is better for you than blending it, as it is harder to digest and more calories will be used breaking it down?

    • That must be why the weight watcher programme I follow classes blended fruits as having an higher point value than whole fruit… WW seems to think that’s true anyway! This explanation about the calorie burning now makes a bit more sense, to me.

  • Thank you, whilst it seems obvious it’s encouraging to have it confirmed and it should be published for schools and to educate the general public to increase awareness of what we put into our bodies.

  • It would be really helpful if you could include the actual information in the articles in layman terms instead of just links to the study. It would also be helpful if maybe you suggested some recipes and tips. A lot of these articles lack any real depth or effort. Poor!

  • It would be really helpful if you could include the actual information in the articles in layman terms instead of just links to the study. It would also be helpful if maybe you suggested some recipes and tips. A lot of these articles lack any real depth or effort. Poor!

    • Could not agree more. We all know about healthy food types but lack simple detail of specific do not touch and specific do! The major supermarkets seem determined to continue encouraging obesity as a norm now and not sure that no end of research and information will change that. we’re doooomed!

    • You can’t process the information provided in the article? There are loads of recipes and tips on the interwebs. I found this particular article quite informative.

  • Interesting and helpful – it has a kind of intuitive logic too. I love bread and especially white bread but I have noticed that whole grain – and strangely- sour dough doesn’t seem to cause the bloating that most white bread does?

    • Woolies staff said don’t buy sour dough here.i nearly fell over.so went to bakers delight or brumbies and paid 5.00 but well worth the best bread for diabetes & bloating etc still white good luck.Get fresh.no additives

  • I opt for cornflakes with very skimmed milk rather than brown bread and honey. Thinking its lower calorie wise.
    Pls tell me im wrong

    • It’s all about the insulin and insulin resistance. If you don’t mind using a bit of brain power try Richard Feinman’s book The World Turned Upside Down. If you are interested in what your body does with carbs this explains the bio chemistry behind it all. Metabolic Syndrome – high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity all reaching epidemic proportions since the low fat high carb diets were introduced 30-40 years ago. Basic research has really opened my eyes. I’ve lost 41lb giving up carbs, I also exercise and do some resistance training and have never felt better.

    • My recipe for best possible breakfast;
      3 heaped desert spoons porridge
      Half to full mug of milk (semi skimmed)
      mix and microwave for 3mins
      Frozen black forest mixed fruit (purple fruits)
      Top with 3desert spoons(defrosted!)
      Excellent way to start the day

    • When I have compared the nutritional value of cereal, especially corn and rice-based, I have learned that the suggested option is the whole grain bread. This is due to the higher fiber level which breaks down in your digestion more slowly, providing more nutrients and energy than the simple carb units of the corn flakes.

    • Martin
      Cornflakes are a poor quality cereal of simple carbohydrates that is very high GI meaning it will spike your blood sugars quickly and not sustain satiety for long if you really love cereal in the morning try weetabix all bran special K ( without the dried fruit) add cut up fresh strawberries or small banana .. Much healthier

    • If you ate toasted whole grain bread with honey and then drank the skim milk, you’d get more protein than cornflakes (the toast alone has more protein than the cornflakes). Honey has many nutritional benefits!

    • There’s also very little fibre in cornflakes compared to most other cereals out there.. I love cornflakes but just doesn’t pack enough nutritional value for its buck for me…

    • Cornflakes are full of salt and sugar.
      Read the label and the first 3 ingredients generally make up the bulk of the item.
      You are better to have weetbix or a muesli with wholegrain and have full cream milk if you like it but not too much. Add some yoghurt to make it complete.
      You eat cereal and fibre to make you full and then the body will process it from there.

    • Cornflakes are highly processed food; no a wise choice. Bakers Delight Hi-fibre Lo-GI bread sandwich slice (2 slices) SP5 good brand of honey etc Beechworth Bee Cause Honey is a better option the Cornflakes & skim milk.

  • Very interesting! So a calorie does not equal a calorie. I was wondering about that after doing a plant based cleansing week, where I actually ate more calories than usually thanks to a lot of bananas and avocados, but I still ended up losing weight (a lot actually!). That cleansing program was promoting pureed soups, smoothies & juices to give the stomach “a break”. Now I’m wondering if it would be even more effective not pureeing/blending/juicing since then the stomach has to do more work – according to your article. Thoughts?

  • But for picky eater, like me. I hate brown bread , dont’t eat too many veggies and milk product i don’t tolerate them very well.

  • I knew there was something more than just counting calories. But now I need to know if my weight loss problem is due to consuming too few calories or simply the wrong type of calories? Can you help with that?

  • I am not surprised by this in the least. But would like to ask a deeper question. Is a bomb calorimeter a good test to determine how much energy the body extracts from food? Does burning food release the same amount of energy as cellular reactions? I don’t think that fats add as much energy as the calories indicate, and sugar is a lot higher. But I could be wrong.

  • I am not sure you are correct in your definition of a calorie. When we measure them in school we calculate it as the ability to raise 1cc of water 1 degree C?

  • Great article Karen,
    I have been a “gym rat” for many years.
    My main snack used to be carrots – free calories and filling.
    Thanks,
    Jim

  • The statement in the article that a calorie “amount of energy required to raise about 2 pounds of water by 1 degree Celsius” is incorrect. A calorie is the energy required to raise only 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius. It would take 907 calories to raise 2 pounds of water 1 degree Celsius.

  • Interesting article to me because I’ve spent a few years really thinking about the diet for humanity (i.e. myself and family). Been over a year since I adopted a starch based with vegetables, fruits, seeds and nuts diet that omits all oils and animal foods. What I found interesting about this read was that the author said fibre passes through the gastrointestinal tract and that she suggested we eat “lean proteins”. I googled “fibre content in animal meat” for a chart and the first link (http://apjcn.nhri.org.tw/server/info/books-phds/books/foodfacts/html/data/data2c.html) shows what I suspected and heard that animal foods have very very low if not insignificant amounts of fibre.

    (“Nuts are difficult to digest, so little fragments pass right through you, taking tiny bits of fat—and calories—along with them. Almonds aren’t the only example: research reveals you may not absorb as much as 11 percent of the calories from high-fiber foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.”)

    and

    (“Enjoy lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins, filled with fiber and nutrients, to really make those calories count.”)

  • I love food. All food. So knowing which yummy morsel will burn more calories is a great help in the fat attack. Thank you. Its inspired me to do some research on healthier calorie burning.

  • Hi gdam…by eating fresh food early in the morning like Banana, papay milk with the whole granules othmeal, that realy staff your stomach, need no additional – IN-BITWEENS MEAL-.make at least 4 to 5 x in a week…
    At unch time A nature brown bread eating with small grill fish or meat, salad,
    I used the dietary measures coz my chlosterine…as well as sugar. I dont take
    Any in the in the evening or sometimes just jougort and toss of bread.
    Since two yrs ..I did wear my fitbit…mearuring my daily walking with my
    Dog…1 1/2 hrs daily in the rough road….now im satisfied with my life …I lost
    my wight 12 kgs…. now im.57 kgs…happy to join the club of Senior dancing.

  • It’s the building blocks of Weight Watchers current Smart Points Program – fresh fruits, veggies, complex carbohydrates and lean proteins encouraged!

  • Great article. I am working on losing weight and FitBit along with a calorie tracker has given me success. This article filled a big gap in my knowledge. I realized.

  • There are 4200 Kcal in a pound of fat- 0ne gram of fat contains 9.2 kcal and a pound is 453grams. Thus 9.2 kcal/g x 453g/lb = 4167 kcal/lb of fat. When a person loses a pound from dieting 75% is fat and 25% is protein and that is why 3500kcal are used in many textbooks as the loss of a pound but it is not a pound of fat.

  • I am 74 years I feel I 40 years old.my daughter got my fit bit and I love it. I was doing 500 steps a day, now I am doing 4,300 steps a day.There a lot of older people where I live walk every day.I have R.A. and the other people around too.

  • I am perplex on calorie burning. So when I do a 25 mile bike ride I am burning the calories I consumed prior to cycling Ut then I am told when you exercise you increase your metabolism? So after my post work out I am still burning calories?

  • What is the point of consulting a doctor? They are NOT trained in nutrition or endocrinology? I have so many fights with so called health professionals!

  • I’m new at this, so bare with me. I’m 63, 5foot 1inches tall, and I weight 215. That is the most I have ever weight. My son is getting married in a beach next year. I have to look my best.
    What would be my calorie count for the day?

  • Your report is well put and makes some very good points. However, I wish you hadn’t reached for the “processed foods” label. That’s the go-to for the ignorant who wish to shock. Most people who use the term have no idea what “processing” actually is. You went on to mention “fake cheese” in this line of thought. I don’t know where you get your cheese from, but I have never seen “fake” cheese, or even “synthetic cheese” (which is what I believe you were referring to). Processed cheese is still cheese and varies little in composition from “real cheese”. This comment soured your otherwise excellent article and made me doubt your education. Sorry if that’s a bit blunt.

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