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Are All Calories Created Equal: Common Nutrition Questions Answered

Are All Calories Created Equal: Common Nutrition Questions Answered

Greg Sterner, Licensed Physical Therapist, Certified Nutrition Specialist


CLICK HERE to find out more about our amazing 1:1 Life Nutrition Coaching that gets results based on scientific info below. Hope you enjoy the REAL SCOOP!

Are All Calories Equal?

We’re often asked, “Is a calorie a calorie?” According to the laws of thermodynamics, yes, all calories are created equal. However, the way the body breaks down carbohydrates, protein and fat, the three main sources of calories in our diet and the effect they have on our bodies differ vastly.

Fats slow digestion, deliver important fat-soluble vitamins to the body, and

provide important building blocks for all our cells. Dietary fats provide about 9 calories per gram but, as you likely already know, some fats are better for our health than others.

Protein also keeps us feeling fuller for longer by slowing digestion, but its primary role in the body is to maintain and build new cells. Protein is beneficial during weight loss, as it contributes to satiety and offsets the amount of lean muscle that is burned for energy, in addition to fat, during a calorie deficit. All proteins provide about 4 calories per gram.

When it comes to differentiating calories, carbohydrates are by far the most complex due to the fact that our bodies use the different types of carbohydrates (such as fiber, starch and sugar) in different ways. Carbohydrates are used by the body as a quick source of energy, particularly for the brain, liver and muscles. All carbohydrates (with the exception of fiber, which our body can’t digest) provide 4 calories per gram. But just as there are healthier fats and higher-quality proteins, there are varying degrees of carbohydrate quality.

Examination of the “Calorie” Complete

It’s clear that a calorie from fat is not the same as a calorie from protein or

carbohydrate. As you can see, a calorie of carbohydrate is not the same as a calorie from fat or protein, nor are all carbohydrate calories created equal. As a general rule of thumb, we recommend consuming the majority of your calories from minimally or unprocessed whole foods since, ultimately, the quality of what we eat determines the quantity of calories we consume, which impacts not only our weight but also our overall health and well-being.


What Happens When You Over-Consume? Using the Analogy we shared using the gas tank.

Each individual can only handle x-# of calories per sitting. Even if the individual ran a marathon and likely has a caloric deficit from that prolonged activity, he can still only manage x-# of calories at the post-marathon meal. Any additional calories will spill over into the system and eventually convert into fat. That’s powerful information.

Conversely, using the same scenario, the individual likely does have a caloric deficit for the day, therefore can/should intake more calories throughout the day without the same effect of spillage.

The Answer:

More frequent properly portioned meals vs. a really big meal because “I deserve it since I just ran a marathon.” Make sense?

Your body assesses your needs in “real-time.” Your blood sugar levels fluctuate instead of holding steady, which can result in a loss of lean body mass. In other words, it’s not fat that’s being lost but potentially muscle. And we don’t want to lose muscle. Lowering your lean body mass means your body burns less calories. Not good.

Eating when your blood sugar is low (because you’ve hardly eaten anything all day) causes you to release more insulin—which means more fat is produced.

You then get into a vicious cycle of your body losing lean body mass, producing more fat, and burning less calories.

The Solution: Within Day Energy Balance

It’s better to keep your energy balanced by staying within a range of calories through the day, making sure not to overeat AND to not create a huge calorie

deficit through a lack of food. Eating more than 300 to 400 calories in a meal will likely cause a surplus of energy. Creating a calorie deficit of 300 to 400 calories will cause the problems mentioned up above (depending on your body size). For example, if your body needs 300 calories in a 3-4 hour period, and you’re not feeding it more calories after that 3-4 hour period is up, your body is going to start looking for energy in your lean body mass.


More Muscle, More Calories Burned?

Lean Body Mass (LBM)

LBM is important for many aspects of health, not to mention holding up your skeleton! LBM is where fat cells travel to be used as fuel and out through the blood stream. Having LBM tissue means you have a better opportunity to burn more fat. Back to the car analogy; A Ferrari has a massive engine that burns lots of high quality fuel. It is a beast! Conversely, a Hyundai has a small engine that burns small amounts of low-grade fuel. It’s a sloth. You want

your body to be a Ferrari!

Muscle Metabolism

Resting metabolic rates are higher in people with more lean body mass, or

muscle. Claims have been made that muscle burns fat at rates upwards of 30

times that of fat. However, this appears to not be the case. Fitness author

Christian Finn writes that for every pound of muscle you have, your body will

burn about 6 calories per day. This is referred to as the daily metabolic rate.

Fat Metabolism

Fat metabolism, or lipolysis, has a daily metabolic rate of about two calories, according to Finn. Therefore muscle has a daily metabolic rate of about three times that of fat. This isn't quite as high as previous claims, however it is still a valid reason to build more muscle and decrease fat.

Improving General Metabolism

Metabolism is a product of resting metabolic rate. Because resting metabolic rate is influenced by lean body mass and physical activity, increasing these factors will improve metabolism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of aerobic activity spaced throughout the week. A well-balanced exercise program also includes strength training because of muscle's higher daily metabolic rate, the American College of Sports Medicine reports. Strength training can also fight some of the natural muscle atrophy that occurs with aging.

By increasing your percentage of lean body mass through exercise, you'll increase you resting metabolic rate.


Can You Convert Fat Tissue to Muscle Tissue?

Here's the Cold, Hard Truth

It's physiologically impossible to turn fat into muscle because they're two

entirely different types of body tissue with different types of cells (fat is made

up of adipose tissue, while muscle is made of proteins).

So fat is fat and muscle is muscle

The Difference

Muscle mass and fat are two different animals: Muscle is active tissue that burns calories around the clock even as you sleep, kind of like an engine running in neutral. When you move around, you burn more calories, just like a car will consume more gas the faster you go. Fat, on the other hand, is just a storage of excess energy. It does nothing but sit there with its sole goal in life to be a spare tire around your waist until you put in the effort to burn it off.

Body fat is not particularly useful except as padding against bumps, as insulation to preserve warmth. You need some body fat to stay healthy of course, but unless you're walking around with razor-sharp abs and sunken, fat- depleted cheeks year-round, you have nothing to fear.

Does A Pound of Fat Weight More Than a Pound of Muscle (LBM)?

A pound is a pound. A pound of feathers and a pound of lead are the same pound, but the density and appearance of the pound are what differ.

A pound of fat is blobby and dimply. A pound of muscle is dense and compact.

The myth that “everyone knows that muscle weighs more than fat” is just that, a myth.


Where Does Lost Fat “Go”?

The Truth

The short answer is that our bodies convert molecules in fat cells to usable forms of energy (fuel), thus shrinking the cells. But getting this to happen isn't just about exercising. Understanding how our bodies perform this process requires a little more detail.

Weight loss hinges on burning calories. Calories measure the potential energy

in food you eat in the form of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. One pound of body fat = 3,500 potential calories of energy. A pound of fat is available energy, once you teach your body how to access it, that is.

Back to the Car Analogy

If our bodies were cars, energy would be the gas to keep everything running. Lounging in front of the television is like cruising Main St., while sprinting around a track is more like drag racing at maximum speeds. In short, more work means more energy.

The body uses some of those calories to digest food. Once the food is broken down into its respective parts of carbohydrates, fats and proteins, it either uses the remaining energy or converts it to fat for storage in fat cells. Fat cells live in adipose tissue, which basically acts like an internal gas station, storing away fuel reserves.

The Opportunity

To lose weight, you must burn more calories, or energy, than you consume to start using up that fuel reserve. Essentially, you're not ingesting enough calories to fuel your additional exercise, so your body must pull from fat stores.

This is also accomplished with meal timing, giving your body a chance to pull form the fat reserves as a fuel source.

How Many Habits Should You Break Per Week?

We Suggest You Shoot for One Per Week

Habits run our daily life. Pretty much everything you do is based on a habit you’ve developed at some point in your life.
Some habits are helpful, while others can also work against you. Even worse – there are a few “bad habits” that can have a negative, long-term impact on

your capacity to live a fulfilling life.

Smoking. Hoarding. Eating junk food. Drinking too much alcohol. Even spending too much time on your computer or phone. We all have those bad habits we’d like to break.

Fortunately, it is possible to eliminate a negative routine – all you need is a plan-of-action.


How to get rid of bad habits in five distinct phases:

                    Plan for the Habit Change

                    Understand Your Habit Loop/ How to Form a Habit

                    Build a Support System

                    Overcome Challenges

                    Develop the Antidote to the Bad Habit 
Bad Habit: Drinking Diet Coke instead of water throughout the day. Antidote: Replacing Diet Coke with water.
New Habit Commitment: “I will only allow myself to have a Diet Coke after I have consumed at least 64 ounces of water during my day.”

CLICK HERE to find out more about our amazing 1:1 Life Nutrition Coaching that gets results based on scientific info above. Hope you enjoy the REAL SCOOP!