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Are All Calories The Same?

Like most people, you’ve probably heard the standard weight loss advice to count calories. The idea is often supported by claims such as:

“Calories matter most.”

“A calorie is a calorie.”

“Calories in vs. calories out is what dictates weight loss.”

While seemingly simple, calorie counting alone might not be enough because we still have to pay attention to the source.

Let’s discuss.

Are All Calories The Same?

People love to oversimplify weight loss with claims that achieving your goals is a matter of controlling your calorie intake without worrying about anything else. For example, a common idea is that all carb sources are essentially the same. Your body breaks them down into glucose molecules, so the source doesn’t matter much, and you should eat whatever you enjoy most.

The problem with this way of thinking is that it disregards crucial elements of nutrition:

  • The satiety you experience

  • What other (if any) nutrients you get

  • The overall calorie content

Sure, your body might break down oatmeal and a candy bar into simple glucose. But the oatmeal will provide you with more nutrients, offer a steady stream of energy, and fill you up for hours. In contrast, the candy bar will spike your insulin, provide no vitamins or minerals, and leave you craving more junk food.

Both foods can offer 300 calories, but their effects on your body will differ profoundly.

The Benefits of Nutrient-Rich Foods Over Processed Junk

1. Greater Satiety

Nutrient-rich foods tend to be more satiating for a few reasons. First, such foods are often rich in healthy fats, protein, and complex carbs (including fiber) that digest more slowly. As a result, your stomach remains full for longer, reducing the risk of food cravings shortly after eating.

Second, nutrient-rich foods don’t cause the same spike and drop in blood sugar levels that lead to carb cravings after eating.

Third, nutrient-rich foods don’t have the same impact on the body’s reward system. Meaning, we are more likely to eat until we feel physically full instead of overeating because we feel sheer pleasure from eating.

2. Stable Energy Levels

Another significant benefit of nutrient-rich foods is their rate of digestion, which we mentioned briefly in the previous point.

Processed foods are typically rich in simple sugars that digest quickly, causing a spike in blood sugar levels. But the body has to absorb that blood sugar, so it releases large amounts of insulin, often resulting in a sugar crash that makes you feel tired, sleepy, irritable, and anxious.

In contrast, nutritious foods digest more slowly and cause more gradual rises and drops in blood sugar, leading to stabler energy levels and mood.

3. More Nutrients

The human body is a complex organism that needs a range of nutrients to function effectively. Among these, we have to consume 25+ vitamins and minerals, complex carbs (and fiber), protein, and fats.

Processed foods might allow us to extract enough energy to sustain ourselves, but they rarely provide the variety and quality of nutrients we need to stay healthy, feel well, and progress with our fitness.

Nutritious foods are often rich in all these nutrients, so eating more of them reduces the risk of nutrient deficiencies, fatigue, and health issues down the road.

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