To explain what the question ‘is a calorie a calorie’ really means, it’s the idea that in regards to how the body reacts in terms of physical transformation and weight loss, is 1 calorie of any food worth the same as 1 calorie of any other food, so for example is 1 calorie worth of fast food and 1 calorie of kale the same?
Unfortunately, in my experience, a lot of the people who ask this question usually are just asking about it in an attempt to justify eating unhealthy food, but I’ll swing back to that point later. The idea of ‘a calorie being a calorie’ regardless of the source has been largely popularised with the growth of social media, where fitness influencers across various platforms will post a picture of themselves standing with toned 6 pack abs and minimal body fat while proclaiming they still eat pizza and ice cream most days, then they will boast of how it is all down to a process called ‘IIFYM’ or ‘If It Fits Your Macros’. So let’s have a little look and see if they have cracked the code and found a way around the system OR like a lot of stuff on social media has it been selectively chosen and posted with the vested interest of creating a distorted view of the reality.
What is a calorie?
To start with let’s roughly define what a calorie is; A calorie is a measure of energy, in the modern use of the word, a calorie refers to the energy content of a particular food or ingredient. To give a little bit of extra information in regards to the calorie content of different foods the following is a list of how many calories 1 gram of each of the macronutrients (and alcohol) contain:
· 1 gram of carbohydrates contains 4 calories
· 1 gram of protein contains 4 calories
· 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories
· 1 gram of alcohol contains 7 calories
What about weight loss:
Desired weight loss is the most common reason that people start to count calories and become aware of what they are eating, so this seems like the most logical place to start. So, in regards to short term weight loss or gain it can be largely said that a calorie is a calorie, but pay extra attention to the fact I said ‘short term’ this is because whilst the calories might be the same, all of the other important stuff which foods provide such as micronutrients can be wildly different. Whole foods, vegetables and fruit provide heaps of nutritional benefits while junk food doesn’t.
For example, an apple and a handful of almonds as a snack or a chocolate bar as a snack both contain similar amounts of calories, however in regards to their nutritional content and how this will affect you over a long period of time if you eat them every day, they couldn’t be more different! The nutritionally dense foods will help your body stay healthy and recover more effectively from training, they will help you reduce your chances of getting sick and they will leave you feeling more energised. This is why I said in the short term calories don’t matter.
I’ve seen this many times first hand, when people try to lose weight eating nutritionally poor food and they think they’ve cracked the system for the first week or two, because their weight is going down and they are still eating nutritionally poor food, but then they just start feeling like they have no energy, they are constantly tired and they seem to keep getting ill. From this point on the diet usually completely falls apart and often the individual will blame, the exercise or claim that they were ‘eating in too much of a deficit’ and this is where it all went wrong, when the truth is much simpler, their body wasn’t getting what it needed.
A question with this that I often get, which is very logical is ‘why did my body not suffer before’ this coming from people who have always eaten nutritionally poor and unhealthy diets and then only start to suffer when they go to try to lose weight. The answer is two-fold, firstly many times when you have an unhealthy habit be it not sleeping enough, eating unhealthy food, not drinking enough water and so on, your body kind of adapts to ‘survive’ with them levels (notice I said survive not thrive) people forget our bodies were designed to survive far worse conditions and strains than the modern world. However, we shouldn’t look at it as how much unhealthy stuff can I get away with doing, because by doing that you are literally holding back your bodies potential, if you are always dehydrated or sleep deprived try to rectify this for 1 month, then I can almost guarantee you would say you had no idea how you ever lived like that before!
Secondly, these unhealthy lifestyle choices are usually highlighted when training either commences or the intensity is increased, or when you reduce your calories, this is because there is now another stress on the body (despite this being a ‘good stress’ that will bring about healthy and positive physical changes the body still identifies it as a stress and something to be deal with). So to go very metaphorical with my point, your body may already have; sleep deprivation, chronic dehydration from not drinking enough water and nutrient deficiency from not eating healthy foods, all on it’s plate, so when you try to introduce something new such as exercise or a calorie deficit, the plate starts to spill over and your body can’t cope with it. The next sentence I’m going to put in bold so that no one can ever use it as an excuse; THIS DOESN’T MEAN THAT EXERCISE OR THE DIET RESTRICTION IS THE PROBLEM, THEY WERE THE STRAW WHICH BROKE THE CAMELS BACK AND DREW YOUR ATTENTION TO THESE PROBLEMS!
The above is why it is incredibly crucial that when you are starting to increase training intensity or you are starting to reduce your calories you ensure that the quality of the food you eat is very high. Just remember your body is a machine and the better the quality of the fuel you put into it, the better the performance that will come out of it.
Is there a place for a calorie is a calorie?
Yes, an enormous yes! As anyone who has ever purchased a diet plan from my website before can tell you I try to keep as many of the foods the person enjoys eating as possible included in the diet, because the most true statement in regards to dieting is “the best diet is the one you can stick to” that is because weight loss or body transformation is a slow and gradual process (especially if you are doing it healthily and sustainably). So it is important that you enjoy the foods that you are eating otherwise the diet is doomed to fail from the word go! With the diet plans I look at calories, macro and micronutrient intake and personal preferences all at the same time to make sure these tick all of the boxes and if someone can’t stand healthy food, then often I will recommend ‘quick fixes’ such as a green smoothies or lemon water (just count to 20 – down the drink and know that those 20 seconds of mildly unpleasantness are what are enabling you to continue to eat the diet you enjoy without damage to your health). I have occasionally also recommended supplement use, but this is mostly when someone’s diet is clearly lacking in an important nutrient such as calcium or iron, but because of their diet preferences it isn’t feasibly possible to hit these levels through food intake.
To conclude, whilst to some extent how many calories can determine how you look on the outside, the source of the calories determines how you feel on the inside and ultimately if you feel rubbish on the inside no diet or exercise plan will ever be able to work because your body just will not be able to handle it! So whilst scientifically speaking a calorie may be a calorie, but in real life practical terms I think it’s safe to say that this logic is fairly limited and will only work when used very sparingly for very short periods of time!
I hope that this blog post has helped to provide some information and clarity around calories and why it is important to eat the right foods. If you have any questions or are interested in a diet plan or nutrition consultation then feel free to drop me a message.
Next week’s topic – Stress Management tools and tactics