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A Calorie is NOT a Calorie

Posted by Joel Marion

Eat less than you burn and you’ll lose weight – it’s preached as the “be all, end all” of weight loss and it’s completely WRONG.

Truth is, the numeric value of an individual’s caloric intake is not the only factor that affects body composition.  In fact, there are at least 5 other factors that need to be considered, including:

  • The thermic effect of the food ingested.  The thermic effect of food (TEF) measures the amount of energy that is required to support the processes of digesting, absorbing, and assimilating food nutrients as well as the energy expended as a result of the central nervous system’s stimulatory effect on metabolism when food is ingested.  Of the three macronutrients, protein carries the highest thermic effect.
  • The fiber content of the food ingested.  Due to its chemical makeup, fiber is classified as a carbohydrate; however, it is unlike other carbohydrates in that it is a mostly indigestible nutrient.  Even though each gram of fiber contains four calories, these calories will remain undigested and will not be absorbed.  Therefore, if one were to consume 300 calories of red beans (a food in which nearly 1/3 of the caloric content is from fiber), approximately 100 of these calories would pass through the intestinal tract undigested.
  • The glycemic and insulin indices of the food ingested.  The glycemic and insulin indices are scaled numbers that refer to how quickly a particular carbohydrate source enters the bloodstream as sugar and how much insulin is needed to rid that sugar from the bloodstream, respectively.  Generally speaking, there is a positive relationship between the two; that is, the quicker sugar enters the bloodstream, the more insulin is needed to rid that sugar from the bloodstream.  When high levels of insulin are present within the blood, fat burning is brought to a screeching halt, which is anything but desirable for those whose goal is just that.
  • The macronutrients present in the food ingested.  Although insulin’s primary function is to shuttle glucose (sugar) into skeletal muscle, it also carries many other nutrients to their respective storage sites; this includes fat.  Since carbohydrate ingestion stimulates a large insulin response and fat ingestion gives rise to blood lipid levels, the two, when consumed together, promote the greatest fat storage.
  • The size, frequency, and time of ingested meals.  Large, infrequent meals tend to promote storage of the ingested nutrients as the body is unsure as to when the next feeding will take place.  Conversely, consuming smaller, frequent meals will result in increased fat loss and utilization of the ingested nutrients.  Also, ingesting a large amount of carbohydrates before bed spikes insulin, deters overnight fat burning, and increases fat storage during sleep.  On the contrary, consuming a great deal of calories early in the day does not bring about this problem; rather, these calories are likely to be used as energy to support daily activities.

As you can see, someone could be eating a relatively small amount of calories daily, but at the same time promoting a great deal of fat storage by 1) making poor food choices, 2) combining macronutrients in a nonproductive fashion, and 3) consuming food infrequently and at inopportune times.  To illustrate this further, let’s take a look at a recent study conducted by Demling et al which analyzed the diets of 38 police officers.  Demling found that although the officers were consuming a hypocaloric diet (fewer calories than they burn), they all had unhealthy levels of body fat and had been gaining fat mass over the past five years.  If all you had to do to lose fat was consume fewer calories than you burn, then these individuals would be losing fat, not gaining it!  And to confirm the importance of the factors that I previously mentioned, let’s take a look at some of the other things that Demling noted:

  • Only 15% of their diet consisted of protein, the macronutrient with the greatest TEF.
  • Their diet contained very little fiber.
  • Over 50% of their carbohydrate intake was derived from simple sugars, which have very high glycemic and insulin indices.
  • They didn’t note this, but I’m willing to bet that they didn’t avoid the fat-carb combo.
  • They ate infrequently, only 10% of their caloric intake was consumed at breakfast, and over 50% was consumed right before bed.

By now, it should be obvious that fat loss isn’t just a matter of calories in, calories out.

Enjoy today’s post?  Questions?  Comments?  Post your reply below!  At least 100 comments and I’ll be back tomorrow with more killer content for ya!

Keep rockin’,


P.S.  My buddy Jon Benson just posted a 30 second tip that will literally net you an extra 8 lbs of fat loss with practically NO effort…check it out here:

Lose 8 lbs with this 30 second tip <——- Click here


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61 comments - add yours
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Thanks for that Joel. That was something I was asking myself since long time ago. Keep it up with the good stuff. Thanks again

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@ Joel Marion:
Wow, thanks a lot Joel. That’s a great answer. I was looking at the diet in more detail. The man (a professor) lost 27 pounds total. (not quite the 40 I mentioned earlier, but still a significant number). Also, I had been misinformed. He did not consume solely Twinkies, but rather a “steady stream of Hostess and Little Debbie snacks… Doritos chips, sugary cereals and Oreos, too.” as well as a protein shake and a few veggies (a can of green beans or three to four celery stalks) every day (resulting in about 2/3 of his diet coming from junk food.

I crunched a few numbers and discovered that he went from 201 to 174 pounds, with a total body fat percentage of 24.9% down from 33.4%. This means he lost almost 24 of the 27 pounds from fat (67.134-43.326) and just over 3 pounds from muscle (or non-fat). Also, his low cholesterol dropped, his high cholesterol rose (both by 20%) and his body mass index dropped almost 4 points (28.8-24.9).

What does all of this say? Does it make him healthier? How will it affect his longivity and chances of cancer? According to him, it’s still too early to draw conclusions about that diet.

Personally, thanks to a plethora of information from you (Joel) and my own personal experiences, this diet does not cut it. Only 1800 calories a day from Twinkies and other calorie-ruch junk food results in a small number of calories, and an even smaller amount of food. Hunger would be a big issue. And his picture doesn’t look so great either.

Personally, I’d rather have the 5 factors working with me, not against me.

Thanks for the great response,

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Thank you, thank you thank you! Another of life’s mysteries solved!

@ AW:

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God, this is just what I’ve thought for years, even though people say you just need to be in caloric deficit. OK, I know that must be the biggest part of it but I’ve thought for a long time that it can’t be the whole story. I even took part in a nutritional study a few years ago which I desperately hoped would give me the answers I was looking for. Dieting and exercise hadn’t worked and I felt I was falling off the wagon. I felt I wasn’t in control any more and must be eating too much, since my weight was going back up. However, the study (and they measured EVERYTHING you ate and drank, how much exercise you did and what it was, heart rate throughout the day, activity throughout the day in 15 min segments, urine, etc, etc…) showed that I was, on average, eating 300 Cals a day LESS than I was expending!

However, I put on 4 lbs over the course of the study. When I asked them about this, they simply said the part of the study I’d taken part in wasn’t long enough to call that gain significant and that it could be due to many things other than actual weight gain. But I knew this WAS part of a long-term trend. Now, a few years later and about 60lbs heavier, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t do more research at the time. I could maybe have saved myself a lot of heartache, and I’m now facing the prospect of having to do a lot more hard work just to get back to where I was then, let alone get the body I’ve always wanted.

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You said “ingesting a large amount of carbohydrates before bed spikes insulin, deters overnight fat burning, and increases fat storage during sleep”. How many grams of carbs is a “large amount” for an average height 130 lb woman or a 200 lb man?

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@ Chuck:

Thanks for the calorie info, Chuck, now to the opposite question: Since my body burns extra calories warming up a cold drink, do I gain weight with a warm drink? Or, in the spa, where I am surrounded by hot sauna air, does my body produce less heat of my own, thereby burning fewer calories?


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@ Diane:
Diane, actually, anything cold that you eat forces your body to warm it up, and calories are consumed to bring your body temperature back to normal. Anything that you eat hot, or exercise, even a sauna, will actually increase your metabolism (slightly for hot food). I am not the expert here, but all of the above will slightly increase your body temperature and that will increase your basal metabolism rate. The author of a paper that describes this is a rocket scientist, which I find amusing. I will provide the reference only if Joel wants me to, because this is opening up a new topic. The upshot is that your basal metabolism rate is a function of body temp. The higher your normal body temperature, the higher your metabolism, one reason sick people lose weight so fast. Exercise is a great way to increase body heat, also another benefit for drinking hot green tea. I would bet, an interesting survey here, people who eat like a horse, and maintain a normal weight, have a higher body temp.

Joel, if you want this reference I will send it to you and you can comment on it should you wish. Certainly supports, and quantifies, the favorable result of exercise and any increase in thermogenesis.

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Excellent post however I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more on this topic? I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Many thanks!

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So glad you liked the list =)

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