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Is a calorie, a calorie, a calorie? (Where did I read/hear the following illustration?)

Answered on September 12, 2014
Created January 08, 2013 at 9:20 PM

I'm trying to convince my friend that a calorie is not a calorie.

I can't recall if it was from a Lustig podcast or a book (like Why we get fat), but there was a compelling illustration that went something like this:

If you need 2,000 calories to function, and you consume 500 cals of sugar, the body sweeps it into the fat cells, leaving 1,500 remaining calories to function. Your body would then crave more food to supply the deficit, or your metabolism slow to the 1500 level.

The problem is I can't remember the source, or where I can find it. I thought the explanation was useful. Maybe it was an underground wellness podcast? I can't remember.

Does this ring a bell with anyone?

Thanks, Mike

Medium avatar

(10611)

on January 09, 2013
at 09:51 PM

Thanks for attacking one of the central paleo nutritional fallacies. Dietary fat can be followed directly to the adipose tissue where it deposits. It's good to test conventional wisdom, but that doesn't mean that people should accept bald-faced lies.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on January 09, 2013
at 09:46 PM

It didn't work that way for me. I lost 2 lbs a week steadily for 6 months on calories alone, without regard to type. I avoided eating a lot of high glycemic carbs, but that was about it.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on January 09, 2013
at 09:42 PM

I had exactly the opposite experience and lost 50 lbs on a highly variable macronutrient mix. In my case calorie counting - both food and exercise - was highly effective for weight loss. There has been no regain in 6 years. Counting does not explain anything but it works.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on January 09, 2013
at 09:38 PM

I have more problems with underestimating than overestimating, especially on delicious salted nuts. The thermo part - your weight change - always trumps the counting part. Counting is only a tool.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on January 09, 2013
at 09:34 PM

+1 for finding something Taubes said that was partly true. I don't like the disclaimer though. He's still the barker herding the crowd into his tent to see the show.

Fd70d71f4f8195c3a098eda4fc817d4f

(8014)

on January 09, 2013
at 08:12 PM

Great answer. Just one clarification: the fats in MCT oil *are* saturated. You're right that they're metabolized differently from the longer chain fats and are more easily oxidized or turned into ketones, but the fatty acids in MCT oil are saturated. (Like lauric, capric, and caprylic acids in coconut oil, for example -- all are saturated.)

Fd70d71f4f8195c3a098eda4fc817d4f

(8014)

on January 09, 2013
at 08:10 PM

Great answer. Only one clarification: the fatty acids in MCT oil *are* saturated. You're right that they're metabolized differently than longer chain length fats, but MCTS are saturated fatty acids (like lauric, caprylic, and capric acids in coconut oil, for example).

2d2a95edcabff28227be0f43682297ca

(10)

on January 09, 2013
at 06:55 PM

Well... I think the satiety factor comes into play after a certain period of adaptation. I think a lot of times when people start a Paleo type of nutrition plan they have to fight off cravings big time. But over time the body gets better acclimated to a normal paleo diet and protein and fats are more filling. This satiety factor may help keep people from giving into cravings for refined sugars and carbohydrates. By not giving into the cravings for these types of foods means that they won't be eating the types of foods that would lead to excess body fat. It's not because they are cutting cals.

7fc82eebafd44badc73c520f44660150

(3275)

on January 09, 2013
at 03:08 AM

The more I'm thinking about it, I think it was an Underground Fitness podcast interview, but thanks!

A08b210e4da7e69cd792bddc1f4aae4b

(1031)

on January 09, 2013
at 02:56 AM

Check out Jimmy's recent podcast with Dr Lustig, he goes into the calorie debate a bit. His new book "Fat Chance" covers it too. The podcast you're probably thinking about is likely to be his Youtube video that's had viewings in the millions.

3846a3b61bc9051e4baebdef62e58c52

(18635)

on January 09, 2013
at 02:28 AM

@ Matt, no argument. Its the best we got right now.

7fc82eebafd44badc73c520f44660150

(3275)

on January 09, 2013
at 12:23 AM

Thanks Chris. My friend's answer is that because of the satiety factor of eating protein and fat, you won't over eat, whereas when you eat all carbs, it is not satisfying so you will eat more total calories.

32f5749fa6cf7adbeb0b0b031ba82b46

(41757)

on January 09, 2013
at 12:00 AM

@JayJay, true, but it all comes down to a common currency - calories. Dollars are arbitrary in value, but buy/sell goods very effectively.

3846a3b61bc9051e4baebdef62e58c52

(18635)

on January 08, 2013
at 10:56 PM

Another point is your body is not a bomb calorimeter and does not extract energy in the same way.

3846a3b61bc9051e4baebdef62e58c52

(18635)

on January 08, 2013
at 10:52 PM

Yeah, thats the lay version I read earlier. Very well put.

B3173217a49b5b0116078775a17eb21d

(11488)

on January 08, 2013
at 09:48 PM

Yes - as CD says - he's wrong, sugar and protein provoke different hormonal responses. If he survives CD's "all sugar" diet, get him to eat an "all protein" diet.

3ce6a0d24be025e2f2af534545bdd1d7

(26217)

on January 08, 2013
at 09:44 PM

tell him to go on a all sugar diet and see if there is a difference

7fc82eebafd44badc73c520f44660150

(3275)

on January 08, 2013
at 09:39 PM

Ironically, I lent him a copy of my Taubes book which he read, and at that time seemed to agree with. Just today, however, he was spouting off about how 2,000 cals of sugar is no different than 2,000 cals of protein from a weight gain perspective.

B3173217a49b5b0116078775a17eb21d

(11488)

on January 08, 2013
at 09:32 PM

Of course Richard Feinman thinks that a "calorie is a calorie" violates the Second Law, but not in the way that you're thinking: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15282028

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7 Answers

best answer

1
7fc82eebafd44badc73c520f44660150

on January 09, 2013
at 03:53 AM

I found it!!!

Fast forward to 34:20 into this:

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/undergroundwellness/2010/05/14/the-bitter-truth-about-sugar-and-fructose

(it's only 5 minutes and really interesting!)

Mike

6
B3173217a49b5b0116078775a17eb21d

(11488)

on January 08, 2013
at 09:30 PM

But here's the thing. A calorie is a calorie is a calorie.

No-one sensible disagrees with this, especially not Gary Taubes. The First Law of Thermodynamics says it MUST be true. You're completely missing the point.

This is what Gary Taubes has to say:

"Yes, I believe that calories are a useful measure of the energy contained in the foods we consume and a useful measure of the energy our bodies expend. (Just as I believe miles are a useful measure of how far I have to travel to get, say, from Oakland to Los Angeles.) Yes, I believe in the laws of thermodynamics and I believe, as I say in both my books, they always hold true. That???s why we call them laws. But, no, I do not believe that we can learn anything useful about why people get fat or why they get the diseases that associate with getting fat, by focusing on the calories they consume and expend. It???s not about the calories"

His point is that the First Law tells you HOW fat accumulates, it doesn't tell you WHY. Taubes thinks that the answer to the "WHY" question is mainly down to hormonal reaction to carbohydrate.

I wish we could just get past the whole "a calorie is not a calorie" thing. I highly recommend either of Taubes books (even if you don't agree with his carbohydrate hypothesis).

Like Kurt Harris says "calories count, but why bother counting them."

B3173217a49b5b0116078775a17eb21d

(11488)

on January 08, 2013
at 09:48 PM

Yes - as CD says - he's wrong, sugar and protein provoke different hormonal responses. If he survives CD's "all sugar" diet, get him to eat an "all protein" diet.

3ce6a0d24be025e2f2af534545bdd1d7

(26217)

on January 08, 2013
at 09:44 PM

tell him to go on a all sugar diet and see if there is a difference

7fc82eebafd44badc73c520f44660150

(3275)

on January 08, 2013
at 09:39 PM

Ironically, I lent him a copy of my Taubes book which he read, and at that time seemed to agree with. Just today, however, he was spouting off about how 2,000 cals of sugar is no different than 2,000 cals of protein from a weight gain perspective.

B3173217a49b5b0116078775a17eb21d

(11488)

on January 08, 2013
at 09:32 PM

Of course Richard Feinman thinks that a "calorie is a calorie" violates the Second Law, but not in the way that you're thinking: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15282028

Medium avatar

(10611)

on January 09, 2013
at 09:34 PM

+1 for finding something Taubes said that was partly true. I don't like the disclaimer though. He's still the barker herding the crowd into his tent to see the show.

3846a3b61bc9051e4baebdef62e58c52

(18635)

on January 08, 2013
at 10:56 PM

Another point is your body is not a bomb calorimeter and does not extract energy in the same way.

3846a3b61bc9051e4baebdef62e58c52

(18635)

on January 09, 2013
at 02:28 AM

@ Matt, no argument. Its the best we got right now.

32f5749fa6cf7adbeb0b0b031ba82b46

(41757)

on January 09, 2013
at 12:00 AM

@JayJay, true, but it all comes down to a common currency - calories. Dollars are arbitrary in value, but buy/sell goods very effectively.

2
543a65b3004bf5a51974fbdd60d666bb

(4493)

on January 08, 2013
at 11:10 PM

Also, food calories (on labels or in databases) are just estimates, as far as i can glean something called the Atwater System is used for the calculation.

by way of an example, here is a study of the energy of Almonds in human diets,

Discrepancy between the Atwater factor predicted and empirically measured energy values of almonds in human diets

DESIGN: Eighteen healthy adults consumed a controlled diet or an almond-containing diet for 18 d. Three treatments were administered to subjects in a crossover design, and diets contained 1 of 3 almond doses: 0, 42, or 84 g/d. During the final 9 d of the treatment period, volunteers collected all urine and feces, and samples of diets, feces, and urine were analyzed for macronutrient and energy contents. The metabolizable energy content of the almonds was determined.

RESULTS: The energy content of almonds in the human diet was found to be 4.6 ?? 0.8 kcal/g, which is equivalent to 129 kcal/28-g serving. This is significantly less than the energy density of 6.0-6.1 kcal/g as determined by the Atwater factors, which is equivalent to an energy content of 168-170 kcal/serving. The Atwater factors, when applied to almonds, resulted in a 32% overestimation of their measured energy content.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on January 09, 2013
at 09:38 PM

I have more problems with underestimating than overestimating, especially on delicious salted nuts. The thermo part - your weight change - always trumps the counting part. Counting is only a tool.

1
96440612cf0fcf366bf5ad8f776fca84

(19413)

on January 09, 2013
at 12:09 PM

Glad you've found it. Now to go all Captain Obvious on you. :)

How we digest "calories" depends on what they are. Conventional Wisdom says that calories are all the same, and that carbs have 4 kcals per gram, protein have 4 kcals per gram, alcohol 7, and fat 9 - wonderful if you're a car engine, not if you're a living critter.

If you were to consume 100 kcals of carbs vs 100 kcals of fat vs 100 kcals of protein, the results in each of the three cases would be totally different.

Even a carb isn't the same as another carb. There are various kinds. Glucose, fructose, sucrose, lactose, fiber, etc. If you consume 100 kcals of fiber, you won't be able to digest it, but depending on the kind, your gut flora would, and cause you gas. If you were lactose intolerant and consumed 100 kcals of lactose the same would happen. If you were to consume 100 kcals of pure fructose, it would be sent to your liver to detox and convert to fat.

Even fats aren't all the same. If you were to consume 100 kcals of saturated fat, it would be completely different from 100 kcals of MCT oil (which unlike the saturated fat doesn't require bile and turns into ketones very easily.) If you were to consume 100 kcals of n6 oxidized PUFAs you'd be damaging your health.

Ditto in terms of protein, it depends on what you eat. If you eat 100 kcals of BCAA, which is very beneficial in muscle growth, it's going to have a completely different effect than 100 kcals of ricin - which, which while a protein, is a very toxic poison and will kill us.

Fd70d71f4f8195c3a098eda4fc817d4f

(8014)

on January 09, 2013
at 08:10 PM

Great answer. Only one clarification: the fatty acids in MCT oil *are* saturated. You're right that they're metabolized differently than longer chain length fats, but MCTS are saturated fatty acids (like lauric, caprylic, and capric acids in coconut oil, for example).

Medium avatar

(10611)

on January 09, 2013
at 09:46 PM

It didn't work that way for me. I lost 2 lbs a week steadily for 6 months on calories alone, without regard to type. I avoided eating a lot of high glycemic carbs, but that was about it.

Fd70d71f4f8195c3a098eda4fc817d4f

(8014)

on January 09, 2013
at 08:12 PM

Great answer. Just one clarification: the fats in MCT oil *are* saturated. You're right that they're metabolized differently from the longer chain fats and are more easily oxidized or turned into ketones, but the fatty acids in MCT oil are saturated. (Like lauric, capric, and caprylic acids in coconut oil, for example -- all are saturated.)

1
Ee6932fe54ad68039a8d5f7a8caa0468

(2668)

on January 08, 2013
at 10:29 PM

except that storing sugar as fat - de novo lipogenesis - does not happen at high rates in humans, unless we're eating ultra low fat diets. the primary fate of ingested carbohydrate is storage as glycogen or oxidation. if you eat too many calories, the oxidative priority can cause you to store other susbtrates - fat! - as fat. but you're just not going to store sugar as fat in the way that it's painted above, in the original post.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on January 09, 2013
at 09:51 PM

Thanks for attacking one of the central paleo nutritional fallacies. Dietary fat can be followed directly to the adipose tissue where it deposits. It's good to test conventional wisdom, but that doesn't mean that people should accept bald-faced lies.

1
2d2a95edcabff28227be0f43682297ca

on January 08, 2013
at 10:23 PM

I just wrote an email for our members about this very topic. I think a great example for explaining this to someone so they'll get it is to tell them this...

If I had to eat 2,000 calories a day and I ate those calories from bread, pasta, bagels, cereal and soda my body would store a lot of excess fat because of the fat storing effect of consistently high blood glucose levels (blood sugar).

Now, if I ate the same 2,000 calories a day but I got the calories from grass-fed beef, free-range chickens, eggs, spinach, kale, nuts, some fruit, water and coffee... I would be more lean and not gain excess weight because my blood sugar would not be sky-high and my body would not have a tendency to store fat.

It's the same amount of calories with a totally different body composition result. I lost 33 pounds after I stopped counting calories and focused on eating the right types of food.

I think the natural progression for someone who wants to lose weight should be: 1. Types of food they're eating 2. Getting enough sleep 3. Exercising properly (weight lifting, low intensity cardio like incline walking and occasional sprints) 4. Making sure their not suffering from abnormal amounts of stress 5. Making sure they're not ill

If... and only if... they check out on all 5 of those and they're still not able to lose excess body fat... Then I might consider telling them to slowly cut their portion sizes or calories. But it would be best to do this at a very low percentage of overall calories. They would also be able to do a little more exercise and get the same deficit effect without cutting calories.

Anyway... Hope this helps.

7fc82eebafd44badc73c520f44660150

(3275)

on January 09, 2013
at 12:23 AM

Thanks Chris. My friend's answer is that because of the satiety factor of eating protein and fat, you won't over eat, whereas when you eat all carbs, it is not satisfying so you will eat more total calories.

2d2a95edcabff28227be0f43682297ca

(10)

on January 09, 2013
at 06:55 PM

Well... I think the satiety factor comes into play after a certain period of adaptation. I think a lot of times when people start a Paleo type of nutrition plan they have to fight off cravings big time. But over time the body gets better acclimated to a normal paleo diet and protein and fats are more filling. This satiety factor may help keep people from giving into cravings for refined sugars and carbohydrates. By not giving into the cravings for these types of foods means that they won't be eating the types of foods that would lead to excess body fat. It's not because they are cutting cals.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on January 09, 2013
at 09:42 PM

I had exactly the opposite experience and lost 50 lbs on a highly variable macronutrient mix. In my case calorie counting - both food and exercise - was highly effective for weight loss. There has been no regain in 6 years. Counting does not explain anything but it works.

1
3ce6a0d24be025e2f2af534545bdd1d7

(26217)

on January 08, 2013
at 09:25 PM

I think this is the best explanation for a lay person, it glosses over a few important facts, but is very good at getting the point across:

http://eatingacademy.com/nutrition/do-calories-matter

3846a3b61bc9051e4baebdef62e58c52

(18635)

on January 08, 2013
at 10:52 PM

Yeah, thats the lay version I read earlier. Very well put.

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