The Great Calories vs. Food Quality Debate

Invariably, every time I say that weight is a product of energy balance (ie, calories in vs. calories out) I get at least one person arguing ‘calories don’t matter! different kinds of calories affect the body differently!’.

I can’t really blame people for the confusion. There are a shit ton of diet gurus out there muddying up the waters with claims that combining foods ‘properly’ or cutting out certain foods or macronutrient groups is really the key to weight loss and that all you have to do is eat the ‘right’ foods and you’ll be able to eat all you want and still lose weight. Oh, and conveniently they just happen to be selling a list of those approved foods. Calories DON’T matter they claim, it’s the KIND of calories you eat that matters. “Those people who tell you to just eat less have got it all wrong” they say. “‘They’ have been misleading you, I’m telling you the TRUTH.”

All that black and white thinking has got people believing a false dilemma: It’s EITHER ‘calories in vs. calories out‘ OR ‘the kind of calories you eat‘ that matters! It’s a big ole’ moneymaker. They tell you they have the secret diet that will allow you to eat all you want and still lose weight, and you open up your wallet and buy it.

Here’s the truth, and I’m not going to charge you for it: weight is a product of energy balance, AND the kinds of calories you eat.

Lets start with the basic equation X +/- Y = Z, where X is calories in, Y is calories out and Z is total weight. The KINDS of calories you choose can affect the values of X and Y (Y moreso than X), but here’s where the diet gurus are misleading you: changing the values of X and Y doesn’t change the basic equation.

Some foods cause your body to burn more calories than others. Protein and fiber rich foods require your body to do more work to digest. It’s called the ‘Thermic Effect of Food‘. Eating foods with a high thermic effect makes your body burn more calories (Y), sometimes a LOT more calories. That’s why the list of approved foods your guru sells you will be comprised primarily of protein-rich foods and fiber-rich vegetables. Both are highly thermic. There’s also some evidence that whole, minimally processed foods are more highly thermic than equivalent processed foods (Y). Eating good quality nutritious foods can increase your energy level, which can lead to more spontaneous activity, which leads to a higher calorie expenditure (Y). Eating highly satiating foods can also cause a spontaneous reduction in total calorie intake (X). Protein and fiber, again, are highly satiating. As our understanding of the ways food affects our bodies grows, I suspect we will discover other ways that the kind of calories we choose can change the values of X and Y.

Eating a rich and varied diet full of whole, protein- and fiber-rich foods can absolutely change the way your body functions! In the end, however, it is still subject to the laws of thermodynamics. In an energy surplus it will store that surplus as mass (either muscle or fat depending on your activity level), and in an energy deficit it will burn stored energy reserves to fuel activity. Your task is to eat (and move) in a way that increases your energy expenditure to a level that exceeds your energy intake, if weight loss is your goal. Eating less isn’t the whole story, and sometimes eating MORE will produce a higher Y variable and weight loss will ensue, but optimizing your individual X and Y variables IS the way to get the Z you desire.

**A note to the nutrition nerds: yes, I’ve simplified things. That’s what I do here on my blog. This post isn’t for you, it’s for non-nutrition-nerds who don’t want to spend all their free time reading diet blogs and scientific abstracts.**

13 thoughts on “The Great Calories vs. Food Quality Debate

  1. “Your task is to eat (and move) in a way that increases your energy expenditure to a level that exceeds your energy intake, if weight loss is your goal.”

    Can you give a concrete example of this? I feel kind of slow in catching on to what this looks like in real life!

    Thanks,
    Kathrin

  2. Hi Amber,

    Awesome article as usual, but one minor quibble. I’ve read that the thermic effect of food is not that substantial in terms of overall calorie expenditure. Can you point me to a source that demonstrates otherwise?

    • It’s not super substantial, but it can differ pretty dramatically from food to food. The studies I linked to in the post suggest a thermic affect of anywhere from 2-4% of the food’s total calories for fat to 30% for protein. The whole vs. processed meal study showed that the whole food meal’s thermic effect was almost20% compared to 10% of the processed meal’s. These numbers suggest that there can be a several hundred calorie difference over the course of the day depending on the foods a person chooses to eat.

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  4. You are spot on. Oh man. Finally, someone who sees sense.

    I have worked with AND debated with “experts” on both sides of this silly debate. What is striking about both arguments is that they also come pre-loaded with excuses as to why the calorie counting doesn’t work for some people, or the just-counting-carbs sometimes backfires.

    Basically, if you say, “but hey low carb proponent, here’s an example of someone who did everything right according to the principles of your diet — but also definitely overate — and he actually gained more fat on your low carb diet”… the response you get is something like, “well yeah, you can’t overeat.”

    OR the classic, the one the CICO proponents like to use: “he must have cheated.”

    MKAY. So apparently for these experts, it’s not a problem that:

    * The magic low carb diet only works for people who have properly functioning hormonal control of hunger and satiety and no emotional eating problems.

    * Firm belief in CICO necessarily implies believing that a disproportionate number of dieters are OBVIOUSLY sneaky lying bastards.

    *sigh*

    I mean, to me, the fact that it’s going to be a combination of hormonal manipulation, calorie *monitoring* (not necessarily restricting), and fitting diet to exercise types would be a no-brainer. And that people would probably be compliant to their diets if they actually believed they worked!

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  6. Howdy! I found your FB page/blog this weekend. Thanks for putting it all out there! Like you, I started a lifestyle change October 1, 2011.

    Am in the middle of it.. giving myself time to figure it out…reading LOTS. Started with Primal diet… some friends of ours were paleo a couple years and we didn’t understand or comprehend it. After a couple years, we tried it for 30 days out of complete spite to show that it wouldn’t possibly work for US.

    HA! Jokes’ on my husband and me… immediately we began sleeping vs. being wide awake at 2am and having to take tylenol pm to sleep thru the night. My belly bloating stopped… our energy levels were even vs. highs and lows… it was enough for us to keep with it. I think if I went into it for weight loss alone I would not have stuck with it. The added benes of my mood improvement, sleeping…omg…glorious sleep, and the overall improvement in feeling better kept us sticking with it.

    After 30 days and feeling like we had the hang of our “diet” (hate calling it that as it’s not a fad thing but a way of eating for us now) I began adding in some more moving. Because I just couldn’t do everything at once… it had to be gradual or it would have been overwhelming.

    We always walked the dogs for 2 miles in the AM and I began to add in some of the intensity things… from a free .pdf on exercise on Marks Daily Apple and it was small. I couldn’t do 10 knee pushups in a row…. but I just kept at it. Doing what I could do. Bit by bit being able to do a little more.

    I read Dan John… I bought Convict Conditioning… picked up a couple old tractor tires for free… duffel bags from the thrift store to fill with sand to carry around….my husband built me an adjustable bar I could do some things with… tried to incorporate whole body movement as much as possible…push, pull, squats…

    My husband and I have both lost around 25lbs. I was a size 16 going on 18 when I was my heaviest and fought a lot with depression (was told it ran in the family).

    Now I’m a size 8, have never felt better in my entire life! All the depression brain bugs have left the building — it’s wonderful. I feel so emotionally healthy I can’t stand it. For the first time in my life really. Of course I still get sad about things or have bad days, however, it’s very different than being plauged by depression.

    We recently joined crossfit to learn the olympic lifts and to be pushed harder… I’m interested to see how much better things can get tho’ I am not looking to sacrifice health or strength to do so. It’s just I’ve never been THIS good… so how do I know how much BETTER I can be?

    It’s so exciting and wonderful. I never knew how bad I felt until I discovered how incredible I CAN and DO feel now.

    Tho the interesting thing I find now is being almost chastized by society for figuring out a way to be healthy. I was getting a lot of anorexic comments even tho I eat a TON – it’s just healthy fuel vs. crap. And people saying how it’s easy for ME to do it but I’ve never been as heavy as THEY are…

    shrug. It’s quite interesting watching people react to my new lifestyle. You’d be suprised – or maybe not – how people almost want you to feel guilty or bad for finding a way to be free and fly…. Have you done any posts about that?

    Thanks for your posts! I’ll be reading them!

  7. Amen for both/and on this oversimplified “debate.”

    I think the even greater impact may be from what the latest research is calling “gut bacteria population”. The number, type, and proportions of the bacteria in *your* individual digestive system determines how much of the theoretical calories in your food get extracted and used in the body (vs that of someone else who may have a very different population of gut bacteria that process *their* food in a way that is different enough to be significant”. The calorie value listed on the food package represents sort of an average value…some bodies will squeeze more or less calories out of that same amount of food. The variability is quite wide ranging, as it is with most biological traits, and helps to explain why some people seem to gain on very little calories while others can’t seem to gain no matter how much they eat, and most of us are in between.

  8. Hi!
    Love your blog. Found it when I began to ditch LC paleo which was, I recognized, my near lifelong battle with an eating disorder in disguise. (Yes I am currently receiving medical help, and this is progress I have never had in the 17 years I’ve battled this).

    Question: Do you have a link or reference to your stance on gluten/corn? I now include legumes and sweet potatoes, and the few times I’ve tossed them into a day, I haven’t really noticed any effects of a piece of bread or a corn tortilla on my digestive system…

    • haha and p.s. i realize ‘lifelong’ sounds dramatic, but it wasn’t ‘threatening’ in the early years…I was a child/teen binge eater, but it spiraled the other way in college-beyond….
      thanks again for all the balance you offer!

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