Is a calorie just a calorie? Does it matter what types of foods you are getting your calories from? Read on to understand what a calorie actually is and how it is impacted by what and how we eat.
What is a Calorie?
Let’s get a little more technical than usual. We are going to talk about—Are all calories created equal? Is that true or false?
Contrary to what a lot of people say on the internet, this is actually TRUE. There are a lot of caveats that go with that to better explain why it’s true. It starts with explaining what the heck a calorie is, to begin with, so it makes sense to people.
A calorie, this term that’s thrown around haphazardly all over the interwebs, is the description of the amount of energy something has—in this case with our food—that’s being provided to us. The term itself is the amount of energy needed to increase one gram of water up one degree centigrade (1°C) at sea level. But you really don’t need to know. There isn’t going to be a test here about that, but that’s where the universal standard for calories comes from.
So when we look at food, there’s a number of calories available in those foods—for example, protein. One gram of protein would have 4 calories, or in technical terms, kilocalories per gram. Carbohydrates, like sugar, also 4 calories per gram. If you enjoy drinking and you’re curious to know, alcohol has 7 calories per gram. Fat has more than twice as many calories as protein or carbohydrates – 9 calories per gram. So the exact same size of food – it doesn’t matter what you’re having, be it carbohydrates, proteins, or fats – is going to have that same ratio of total amount of energy available.
Why do we care about that?
Ultimately, to lose weight, you have to have more calories going out through an activity, whether that’s your daily activity, work, or doing things with your kids and going to the mailbox, or your exercise at the gym. Your total activities must have more calories being used than the amount you consume in foods. Decrease the calories (that’s how much energy) that go in your mouth, and increase activity energy being used in your day. That’s how you lose weight – more going out than going in.
So, the calorie is just a way of measuring that. It may as well be miles per hour to gauge how fast you’re going, or gallons to determine how much water you have. It’s just a unit of measurement, it’s not a real thing. It’s a unit of measurement, and that’s important to understand.
All Calories are Created Equal, but NOT All Foods are Created Equal
The reason the phrase “All calories are created equal” confuse people is because they think it means that all foods are created equal. That all macronutrients – proteins, carbs, and fats – are created equal… and that’s not true at all. They’re not equal. They’re very different in how they affect your body, and how you enjoy them.
A lot of people really enjoy carbohydrates such as sugars from sweets, especially here in America. Most Americans have 70 percent of their diet coming from sugars and carbohydrates. That’s a huge amount.
Being from Cuba, rice and beans have been a staple in my diet. So one of the first things I did was to decrease the total amount of calories I was getting from them. I decreased the total carbohydrates going in, not because they are bad, but because I was having too much of them. I then increased some fats and protein to make me satisfied and so I’m not hungry all the time.
As stated before, fat has twice as many calories than carbohydrates or proteins, but that doesn’t mean it’s good or bad. I’m not saying you shouldn’t eat fats. Fats are an absolute necessity in your diet, as all hormones come from fats and cholesterol, and even your brain is made of fat. So we need fats in our diets – we just don’t want to have an excess of anything. And to lose weight, we’d want to control the total number of calories we consume. Fats are probably the easiest lever to pull when it comes to reducing calories because there’s twice as many per unit of space. So you’d think it’s easy to manipulate that; however, carbs is the one most people abuse the most. Processed sugars in the form of sodas and juices as well as pastries and all kinds of other fun, exciting, processed foods – we tend to eat too many of these.
Now, with you being informed of how much energy is available in a given unit of size for any foodstuff, it lets you make better choices, and that’s why this information is important.
So the most important thing I like to look at and why I recommend it to you is to increase protein in your diet as well as some fats, and decrease your carbohydrates – again, not because it’s a bad guy.
The Thermic Effect of Food
Fats not only help you feel fuller for longer. When you eat fats and consume them, they go down to your stomach and release this hormone called cholecystokinin (CCK for short). It just makes you feel full. Your body can sense those fats in the stomach and your brain’s like, “Hey man, I don’t need to have a whole bunch of stuff.” It’s a little nutrient-dense with 9 calories per gram, so you feel full. That’s one of the reasons I like to increase the fats in people’s diets as well as increasing protein in their diet.
The thermic effect of food basically talks about how much energy it requires to break down food. For different foods there’s a different amount of energy your body needs to break it down. That includes the chewing process, swallowing, and digestion – where you use acids and enzymes and your stomach muscle actually squeezes and moves it around. Then it is absorbed inside your intestines where additional enzymes are working in there. All that requires energy. Your body has to work to do that.
Now, that work or thermic effect of the food is different based on what the food’s made up of. In the case of carbohydrates and fat, it takes between five and fifteen percent (5-15%) of the calories that that food had available just to break it down. So that means if you ate a hundred calories of toast or a hundred calories of fats like an avocado, your body’s gonna take, on average, about 10 percent of that to break it down. So you’re only having 90 calories available to be absorbed and distributed in your tissues and be used.
Now that’s a cool thing to know. So you’re not gonna get the whole 100 calories. And if you’re tracking this in an app, that’s some useful information.
The more important thing I like to push with people getting protein in their diet is that same food protein 20 to 35% of the calories that’s available in a protein source are used to break it down. It’s a very complex food the proteins of the cells are lot more work, not just from chewing a piece of steak, especially if it’s a terrible piece of steak that’s not getting a lot of crystal, but your stomach also has to do more work. You have to use the acid in your stomach, which is mostly there to break down proteins, just so you know. Other enzymes also have to be released to break them down. So there’s way more work done to break down proteins. On average about 30 percent of the calories in protein are used just to break it down. That means that in 100 calories of protein only 70 calories are even available to be used by your body.
Now, most apps base their calorie tracking on the actual calories, which is what’s on the back of the food labeling, and not the difference here, which then would actually end up being incorrect. In essence, when you look at the label on a can of soup, and check on a food app how much calories are in it, it’s gonna give you the total calories available in that food, and it doesn’t take into consideration the thermic effect of food. Nor does it take into account how your body breaks it down, or whether or not it’s been cooked. Oftentimes cooking is a breaking down of food, that’s part of the processing of foods. Taking an apple by plucking it off the tree, actually starts the breaking down of that apple. It starts to ripen at that point. Chewing it is processing the food, swallowing is processing, breaking it down in the body is processing – all these processes change the bioavailability of the food. The same thing is true with what you’re seeing on that label – it just gives the raw data it starts with, without taking any considerations.
So what does that mean for you? If you are looking to lose weight, you can purposely choose foods that have more proteins in them as opposed to fats and carbs. This increases the demand of the body to break it down while decreasing the available calories from that food due to the thermic effect of food.
Swapping out fats or proteins for carbs—again I want to make sure everybody knows I’m not bad-mouthing carbohydrates, they’re absolutely a necessary part of your diet and are the number one source of energy for your brain up here—So with that being said, if you’re typically consuming too much carbohydrate and it’s a major part of your diet, instead of getting rid of the whole amount of carbohydrates, you can change where their sources are coming from. So what I’d like to do is talk about something called resistant starches.
Beans, rice, legumes like green beans, tubers like sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, and then bananas and plantains (the green variety), in their raw unprocessed state, have a higher percentage of their carbohydrates that are called resistant starches. Resistant starches basically are a kind of starch that your body can’t digest or absorb in the stomach and small intestine, so it gets passed all the way down to the large intestine where the gut bacteria will begin to use it as an energy source. That’s their fuel, that’s the food that makes them go.
When we look at the raw versions of foods, most people agree that all green bananas are pretty bitter – now that’s starch. But when a banana starts to ripen, it’s chemically changing and it’s turning those starches into sugars, and that’s why it gets sweet – that’s when it changes from green to yellow. When you cook sweet potatoes, beans, or rice from their natural state, that chemical process changes some of those starches into sugars.
But here’s a fun trick you can use with sweet potatoes, red potatoes, rice, or beans: cook them to your desired liking, then let them cool back down to room temperature. They’ll convert back into some of those resistant starches again. So eating them hot will change them into the starches and sugars that your body can absorb, and you’re gonna get most of those calories absorbed too. However, if you let your cooked potatoes/sweet potatoes/rice/beans cool back down after you cook them, it actually converts back into resistant starches, and interesting enough due to the thermic effect of food, only half the calories will even be bioavailable. Half the calories! That’s a great way to still eat the quantity of food that you like and get less of it being absorbed, and therefore less calories going into your body.
For me, I like slicing up some green plantains and then frying them, as well as making some sweet potato fries. The question is, does frying stuff add more calories to this equation?
Now frying is a cooking technique just like steaming, cooking in a microwave, roasting, or grilling. In any of the number of temperature increasing methods, the temperature changes the chemical composition of foods. That’s why an egg white turns opaque and solid white instead of clear when you cook it, that’s why steaks go from red to brown… you’re chemically altering it. That’s what the heat does, it’s a chemical reaction.
When you fry things, you’d want to find oil and a temperature that’s high enough that the foods aren’t absorbing it. You could get some peanut oil or something that has a high smoke point so it doesn’t burn, then also cook at a high enough temperature that your foods, in this case plantain chips or sweet potato fries, are not just sort of gurgling in the oil and absorbing it up. It should be hot enough that the oil is actually making a steam barrier around the food, and the oil doesn’t get absorbed. So if you cook it right, and if the restaurant you go to prepares things properly, your foods won’t get any extra calories from oil. But in the event there’s a little you can take a paper towel and dab it off so you won’t get the extra calories. So that’s one thing, right?
Second thing, as mentioned before, you can go ahead and cook your plantains or potato fries, and then let them cool down before you eat them. It might not be as palatable, but it’s gonna cut in half the total number of calories you absorb. You get to enjoy your yummy food or a staple in your diet and still reduce the total calories just because you let it cool off. Now that’s a pretty cool trick right there.
Now I’ve talked about the processing of foods such as the processing of an apple –picking, chewing, swallowing, and digesting. It’s the same thing with a plantain – slicing it up is processing, frying it is processing, even cooling it off is actually processing it too. Heating is a chemical reaction, cooling is a chemical reaction.
How Processing of Food Affect Its Thermic Effect
So there are all these steps that we do to these whole foods, and then we have a simple sugar. Table sugar like sucrose, or even some other sweeteners such as fructose and glucose that we find in different sweet foods and bakery goods, that’s a simple processed sugar that’s gone from a sugar beet or a piece of sugarcane and has been broken down to its simple forms – already processed.
There’s no work involved by you to swallow this and absorb it – there’s no chewing needed, no digestion in the stomach – it’s only a simple sugar. The same thing is true of any whole foods if they get converted into sugars.
An avocado requires effort to chew it up. Avocado oil does not. A piece of toast came from wheat at one point, and if you were to get wheat, chew it up and break it down, it would require a lot more effort from chewing and digesting, and therefore has the thermic effect of food. Having the bread that’s already processed, not as much.
There’s not as much thermic effect of food the more you process food. The further from raw the food goes towards the cooked or processed end of the spectrum, the less thermic effect of food, and the more calories you actually absorb.
Now this is a good thing for humans since we have fire and started cooking things over fire, because cooking is a process which makes you get more energy out of food. And in old cavemen times we needed as much energy as we could because food was rare, and the next woolly mammoth might be two weeks away before you caught that sucker! So we had to get as much energy out as possible.
Nowadays we have a grocery store every 12 feet and there’s food falling out of my pocket as we speak. We have an overabundance of food, and so we have too many calories. So oddly enough, we want to go the opposite direction that we used to hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago, where we wanted to have more processed food to get as much energy as possible.
If you’re overweight, you don’t want to get as much energy as possible, you’d want to go the other direction — so move back towards less processed foods. Foods with resistant starches should be your source of carbohydrates instead of the simple sugars inside of a soda, a juice drink, or some ice cream. There’s no effort needed for a soda to be broken. It’s already in its simplest form, so there’s no thermic effect of food and you’ll get all these calories.
- All calories are created equal, but NOT all foods are created equal. Take 1 gram each of all the three macronutrients, protein has 4 kcal/g; carbohydrate has 4 kcal/g; while fat has 9 kcal/g.
- Processing food change its bioavailability. The more processed the food is, the more calories your body can absorb.
- The thermic effect of food, basically, is how much energy it requires to break down food. The more complex the food is, the more thermic effect it has to your body. Food in its simplest form has less to no thermic effect.