When it comes to weight loss, is a calorie really a calorie? If you’re talking about the purely scientific formula of energy balance within a body, then the technical answer is “yes.” But calories are only one attribute of the foods and beverages we consume. Those foods and beverages have many other important roles to fill apart from merely supplying a certain amount of energy. For weight loss and for health in general, I like to think about calories as a kind of currency, akin to dollars and cents.
Our bodies require certain essential macro- and micronutrients in order to function properly, and many of those nutrients must be consumed because our bodies can’t produce them on their own. Some foods provide many of these nutrients while being fairly low in calories. Broccoli, for example, contains protein, fiber, simple and complex carbohydrates, a small amount of fat, vitamins A, C and B6, as well as some calcium,iron and magnesium, and lots of potassium. A one cup serving weighs in at an energy cost of just 30 calories, so broccoli has a very high nutrient value for your calorie currency.
Other foods don’t fare quite as well. Let’s take an Oreo cookie for example. A regular Oreo cookie has 53 calories. For that, you get relatively high amounts of fat and sugar, a very little bit of protein, trace amounts of iron and potassium, and no other vitamins or minerals. So an Oreo cookie is kind of expensive in terms of nutrients for calories. If you were just counting calories, you might say to yourself that there isn’t too big a difference between broccoli and an Oreo, but from a nutritional standpoint you’d be missing the point completely. This is why merely counting calories can be so ineffective when it comes to weight loss.
Don’t misread what I’m saying – I believe that tracking calories, at least in the short-term, is a very useful tool for weight loss. But when dieters fall into the trap of only counting calories, and they ignore the nutrient value tied to those calories, they often sabotage themselves unwittingly. To illustrate the difference between a successful dietary approach and an unsuccessful one, here is an excerpt from my book, Reboot Your Body: Unlocking the Genetic Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss:
“Imagine Person A, who eats a nutrient-dense, high-fiber, higher-protein diet loaded with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and who limits saturated fat and added sugars. She is giving her body a constant supply of high-quality energy and she feels fuller throughout the day even though she may be eating fewer calories than she used to.
In contrast, Person B skips breakfast so she can have a high-fat, sugary coffee drink mid-morning, then has a tiny frozen diet entrée for lunch and a big dinner, high in fat and refined carbohydrates (e.g. pasta Alfredo, bread, and wine). At the end of the day, she’s happy to see that she has a few hundred calories “to spare” so she eats half a chocolate bar or has another glass of wine before bedtime. All throughout the day, Person B feels hungry and her energy peaks and plummets. At the end of the day, she feels that she really deserves her treat because she has “followed her diet” so well when in fact, she is sabotaging her metabolism and compromising all of her body’s systems. It’s only a matter of time before she falls ill or begins to experience negative gastric or other consequences from this way of eating. She is suffering needlessly, all for a few minutes of gratification at the end of a very long day.”
By looking beyond the calorie value of food and considering what you’re getting for those calories, you can start to reframe the way you think about the role food plays in your life. Because each of us is different, in chapter 4 of the book I explain how you can choose and design the diet that will be most effective for you. Then I devote a good part of the rest of the book to helping you learn how to actually implement those new dietary changes so that the weight you lose stays gone for good. If you’ve tried losing weight in the past and nothing has worked, don’t lose heart. Your situation isn’t hopeless – you simply haven’t been working with the right tools. Pick up a copy of Reboot Your Body work your way through my step-by-step program. Discover how you can unlock your body’s own genetic secrets to permanent weight loss and achieve your health and weight loss goals.
This is the third in a series of posts about common weight loss myths and misconceptions. To start at the beginning, click here.