It is a well known fact that calories taken in by the body have an impact on the weight of an individual. The “calories in/calories out” theory is accepted by most within the fitness world, by consuming more calories than the body burns an individual’s weight increases. On the other end of the spectrum if an individual consumes fewer calories than the body burns their weight will decrease. Seems simple enough, right? But what about the quality of the calories taken in by the body? Is a 500 calorie cheeseburger equal to 500 calories worth of chicken breast and brown rice? Recent research combats traditional concepts of a calorie simply being a calorie. Specific foods and eating patterns may make it more manageable to keep calories in check while other calories allow for overeating. A recent article written by the Harvard School of Public Health suggests particular diet patterns and foods are more beneficial to the body and a healthy lifestyle.(1) In past controlled laboratory studies the breakdown of percentage of calories from macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbohydrates) is important to loosing weight. However in regards to chronic disease prevention, the quality of the foods within a diet is much more important than the quantity of those foods. Research is beginning to consistently support this idea for more recent studies on the subject of weight loss.
Fat vs. Weight
When shopping at the grocery store how many times have you opted for the “low fat” version of your favorite foods? Recent studies have found that dietary fat is not a determinant of body fat.(2) Within the last 30 years the percentage of calories coming from fat in people’s diets has steadily decreased. Yet as fat was decreased within individual’s diets, obesity rates have continued to quickly elevate. The problem with foods labeled as “low fat” is that often times they are full of simple carbohydrates to improve taste. The foods used to fill the fat gap are known to not only increase weight, but they are also known to make an individual more susceptible to disease such as diabetes. This research suggests that the quality of the fat within a diet is more important than the actual percentage of calories coming from a fat source. For instance in the Nurses’ Health Study, 42,000 women were studied for eight years on this topic. The study found that taking in calories from unhealthy fats (trans fats and saturated fats) lead to weight gain, while calories taken in by healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturates fats) did not lead to weight gain. (3) These studies make an obvious link between the quality of calories from fat opposed to the quantity!
Carbohydrates vs. Weight
Fad diets such as the Atkin’s Diet seemed to have picked up speed in recent years. The idea of harshly restricting carbohydrates to loose weight may have short term advantages, however by understanding “good vs bad” carbs an individual can have a well rounded diet as well as loose body fat. The key to choosing higher quality carbohydrates rests in understanding glycemic index and glycemic load. Carbohydrates that use milled and refined grains (such as white rice, white pasta, and white bread) are rapidly digested. This instant increase in blood sugar and insulin leads to hunger and the possibility of overeating. (4) Therefore the quality of calories coming from carbohydrates is much more important than the quantity residing within your diet.
Protein vs. Weight
Most people have difficulties fulfilling their daily quota of protein, however by bumping up your percentage of calories from protein weight loss can be made a little easier. Why dedicate your calories to protein? Protein allows you to feel fuller for fewer calories, noticeably more so than fat or carbohydrates. (5) Apart from feeling less hungry protein also needs more energy to metabolize. (5) However not all protein is created equal. The quality of the protein that is taken in makes a difference. Red and processed meats have been linked to a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, and colon cancer. (6) Therefore adding clean proteins to your diet allows for a more beneficial use of high quality calories.
So, do calories from a cupcake stack up to that of a fillet of salmon? The simple answer is, no. While the calories in/calories out theory is valid to an extent, the nutritional value of the foods you eat make a large impact not only on disease prevention, but also on body size and shape. The quality of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins within your diet dictate how healthy you truly are. Instead of counting calories throughout your day try keeping track of macro nutrients instead. This will insure that the foods within your diet are of proper quality and quantity. So before you unwrap that cupcake remember, not all calories are created equal.
1) “Food and Diet.” Obesity Prevention Source. Harvard School of Public Health, n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.
2) Willett WC, Leibel RL. Dietary fat is not a major determinant of body fat. Am J Med. 2002;113 Suppl 9B:47S-59S.
3) Field AE, Willett WC, Lissner L, Colditz GA. Dietary fat and weight gain among women in the Nurses’ Health Study. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2007;15:967-76.
4) Abete I, Astrup A, Martinez JA, Thorsdottir I, Zulet MA. Obesity and the metabolic syndrome: role of different dietary macronutrient distribution patterns and specific nutritional components on weight loss and maintenance. Nutr Rev. 2010;68:214-31.
5) Halton TL, Hu FB. The effects of high protein diets on thermogenesis, satiety and weight loss: a critical review. J Am Coll Nutr. 2004;23:373-85.
6) Bernstein AM, Sun Q, Hu FB, Stampfer MJ, Manson JE, Willett WC. Major dietary protein sources and risk of coronary heart disease in women. Circulation. 2010;122:876-83.