A New View Of Calories

5569368944_a943bbeb34A calorie is a calorie, right?  Not so fast.

That  age-old adage may no longer be true.  Increasingly scientists are realizing that not all calories are created equal.   For instance, calories from an apple may not be equivalent to calories from a Twinkie (and yes, even the new chocolate Twinkies).

Read more in my column in the April issue of Cooking Light magazine:  How Calories Really Count.

How Calories Really Count


Last summer, Mark Haub, Ph.D, an associate professor of nutrition at Kansas State University, made headlines when he lost 27 pounds after two months of living on Twinkies, Ho-Hos, Little Debbies, and other convenience-store snack cakes.

Haub’s experiment reinforced the calories-in/calories-out equation: If you drastically cut back—as Haub did, from 2,600 to 1,800 calories per day—you will lose weight, no matter how nutrient-deprived your diet may otherwise be. Anyone who knows what calories are—units of energy—knows this to be so.

But lost in the brouhaha surrounding the so-called Twinkie Diet was a more interesting trend: a revision of the idea that all calories are equal. New studies hint that the body may burn calories from whole foods better than it does calories from processed foods like Twinkies. Essentially, it appears the body can “burn” a bit hotter on whole foods and use healthier fuel at the same time. That’s great news for people who want to follow the new Dietary Guidelines, because it addresses two big problems with the American diet: calorie overload and nutrient inadequacy.

While Dr. Haub was carefully counting his Twinkie calories, scientists from Pomona College in California were preparing to publish a small study with interesting implications for anyone who wants to maintain a healthy weight and eat good food.

The researchers fed people two meals with the exact same number of calories; the only difference was how much the food was processed. Group A was treated to sandwiches made with real cheese on whole-grain bread; Group B made do with processed cheese on fiber-stripped white bread. The results, published in Food & Nutrition Research, found that the processed meal decreased the rate of diet-induced thermogenesis—the number of calories you burn when eating and digesting—by nearly 50% compared to the meal made with whole foods.

The calories burned from a single sandwich may be small, but this rise in metabolism caused by whole foods (known as the thermic effect) might account for about 10% of a typical person’s daily calorie expenditure. Although more research is needed, early indicators show that whole foods may offer a real metabolic advantage for calorie counters. Whole foods aren’t just better for you because they’re more nutritious, but they also may be, essentially, lower-calorie.

Weight Watchers, recognizing the differences in how our bodies react to calories—and nudging dieters to eat more whole foods—revamped its points system late last year to make fresh fruits and most vegetables “free.” Eat all you want, the WW plan says. In general, foods higher in fiber and protein were assigned fewer points, and processed foods were given more.

All this comes at a time when calories are back in the nutrition spotlight. The fat-phobia and obsessive carb-counting eras are waning. Governments are talking about “soda taxes” to combat the health costs of consuming too many “empty” calories. Calorie labeling is showing up—voluntarily and by law—on more restaurant menus, and calorie counts are more prominent on some food labels.

This calorie consciousness is a good and a bad thing. Most Americans do need to cut back on calories. Balancing energy in and energy out (which brings in the whole question of exercise) is critical to solving the obesity crisis. But calorie counting per se is tedious and not the real answer, unless you want to go on a Twinkie diet. The better approach is the whole foods approach, because Americans also need to increase intake of a long list of nutrients, including fiber, potassium, calcium, and vitamin D, which are associated with whole foods. Eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains delivers those nutrients in a form that may also hold a calorie-burning advantage.    [photo credit:  gregg_koenig on flickr]

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  • Mark Haub

    By the way, I have tried the choc Twinkies, not as good as the original.

    Look for an additional perspective in PULSE (an ADA/SCAN newsletter) discussing this calorie issue. With the discussion of dietary fat at FNCE last year, it is seems now is the time to consumers and professionals are trying to better evaluate what we “know” about food, diet, and health. More time needs to be spent dealing with understanding research/science at the undergraduate and graduate level. This is paramount so that the eventual professionals are better able to appreciate the strengths and limitations of the various forms of investigation (basic science, case studies, clinical trials, to epi studies).

    Regarding the calorie labeling on the front of packaging, I recently had this discussion with some faculty members at the Am Chem Society meeting in Anaheim. Listing calories on packaging will only be successful if consumer keep track daily of what they eat. That is, if people do not keep a running total every day, then the labeling will not lead to a reduction in total kcals — they may eat more servings or different items. Some “diets” do help with this my limiting variety, but for some the discipline to stay on that diet can be a challenge.

    This energy effort also ‘assumes’ that decreasing energy intake (and less body fat & weight) will lead to long-term improved health outcomes. Evidence (Assali et al. 2001, Brehm et al 2003, Layman et al 2005, etc; and, my “study”) suggests that when weight stability is desired and attained — that is, energy intake increases to decrease or stop the rate of weight loss — the biomarkers of health revert back to where they were before weight loss or there is no relationship between the amount of weight loss and amount of biomarker improvement. For example, LDL-cholesterol increases as caloric intake increases to maintain new weight.

    NIce work Janet, keep it up. You do a great job conveying complex information. — Dr. Haub

    p.s. — I think I am going to let the students decide my dietary fate this fall. That might be less contentious, but hopefully not less interesting 🙂

  • Great post. Very interesting, indeed. It only makes sense that the ‘quality’ of the calorie could impact its behavior.

  • Brandon

    My concern is the biological significance.

    Diet induced thermogenesis is about 10% of Kcals for whole foods, so about 6% for processed foods (nearly 50% as stated). Thats a 100 Calorie difference if the person were to eat 2500 Calories. Is 100 Calories significant?

    My concern is that, let’s say a moderately active male needs 2386 Calories/day, but he eats 2412. Is that extra 26 Calories going to be turned to fat? I’m thinking its more likely the body is going to raise body temp to burn the extra 26 calories, since its ultimate goal is homeostasis.

    What are your thoughts? At what point do Calories count for weight gain/loss?

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  • A really timely and useful post for calorie conscious Americans (and also for world). Or body physiology has tremendous ability to adjust to different calorie intakes on different day and maintain body weight, unless we eat some calories in excess everyday.

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  • What a fantastic article! I read the original on Fooducate and headed straight over here to see what else you are working on. I love the site already, and will be sharing some of this info on my blog too (with proper references and links, of course!). aloha from maui, andrea at BakeryManis

  • The whole twinkie diet sounds terrifying, just on the idea that it’s seems like an unhealthy option. I’d rather take my chances on eating well rounded healthy food fares than this alternative.

  • I like your post very informative. I like it because it has an information about how calories. The twinkie diet sounds awesome and really helps a lot.

  • I’ve been teaching clients for years that calorie counting is stupid especially if you’re counting twinkies, ho-hos and other junk foods! It’s about the quality of the calories that you eat, not the amount. You can’t get fat on eating raw green salads all day long – I dare you to try it and lose weight and get healthier.

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  • May resemble it’s finally around to get warm again . It truly was a wild winter 2010 all over the county. Is seems as though spring time won’t come quickly enough! Looking forward to our summer months ahead ..

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