Is Calorie Really just a Calorie?

Health & Wellness By Karla

Calories (noun, plural)

= tiny little creatures living in your closet and sewing your clothes a little tighter every night.

If this isn’t the best definition of calories, I don’t know what is! Sewing our clothes those little monsters….but, all jokes aside, what are actually calories, and is the ‘Calories in vs Calories out’ theory really true? Let’s find out!

The definition of a calorie is the amount of energy necessary to increase the temp of 1 kilogram of water through 1 °C. There is another definition of calorie, where the word kilogram is replaced by gram, but in terms of nutrition & food measuring, the first one is the one used (also known as a ‘large calorie’, or 1000 small calories). So, when a certain food has, let’s say 200 calories, that means we are intaking 200 calories worth of energy into our bodies which we can then burn, use, or store. So, in addition to being tiny little sewing masters, they are simply a unit of measurement. And that’s why we’re presented with the question at hand, ‘Is calorie really just a calorie’? Meaning, are all calories equal?

Well, when we talk about calories as units of measurement, the answer is YES, every calorie is absolutely the same. Just like a pound of fish weighs the same as a pound of feathers (your school teachers knew that one day, this math problem will be useful!), 100 calories of pizza and 100 calories of kale are the same. Period. But…there is something else much more important than the number of calories – nutritional information of those foods, and the effect they have on our bodies & minds.

Different macronutrient food groups provide different levels of energy – proteins and carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram, and fats provide 9. So, when it comes to only counting calories, foods higher in fat equal more than a double amount of protein or carbs (now you can see why all the ‘low fat’ diets got popular back in the day). Playing the numbers game gave birth to some popular theories, such as:

‘Calories IN vs Calories OUT’ , which states that a simple math equation of how many calories we consume vs how many we burn, determines whether we’ll lose, gain, or maintain our weight

IIFYM (If it fits your macros) which states that as long as we stay in within of our daily macronutrient count for the day, we can eat whichever foods we want.

On paper, that definitely is the case. If our TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) is 2200 calories (calories OUT) , we just need to make sure to eat 2200 calories (calories IN) to even it out and start the next day from scratch. Therefore, we can get 2200 calories from any food source we want, and we won’t lose or gain any weight. Now, we WISH it was that easy. Wouldn’t we all want to be able to eat pizza and chocolate every single day, knowing that the only thing we need to do is hit our macros and we’ll be fine. So why doesn’t it actually work?

#1 Not all MACROnutrients are the same.

Proteins build & maintain muscle, protect the immune system, and help in hormone production; carbohydrates provide energy, build macromolecules, and are essential for brain health; fats keep the hormones regulated, provide energy, and maintain the body temperature levels. Of course, there are many, many more functions all of these macronutrients perform, but I just wanted to list the most important ones.

#2 In those MACROnutrient groups, not all foods get the same reaction in our bodies.

We have a huge variety of proteins (from chicken and beef to fish and plant proteins), carbs (complex carbs, fiber and quick carbs such as sugars), and fats (saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, trans fats). All of them act completely different in our bodies. That’s why you always hear how sugars, tran fats and processed foods are bad for you – they inflame the body up to a point where it has to fight the bad bacteria overgrowth (which is feeding on those foods) and put the immune system into overdrive. Then again, you have foods which nourish and replenish our gut flora with good bacteria, making the whole system running smoothly.

#3 We have MICROnutrients.

Minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, adaptogens…different foods have different levels of each, and we can tailor our diets to fit our needs just by combining the right ones. For example, if we’re in need of an immune boost, our diet needs to get some more vitamin C, therefore we include more citrus fruits; If we’re in need of a detox, we just got to throw in a bunch of leafy greens in the mix; and if we need something to calm us down, we include superfoods like ashwagandha and rhodiola to lower our cortisol levels.

See how complicated this gets? I didn’t even start talking about the combination of foods and how certain pairings can cause problems in your digestion, while others can help to solve them. Our bodies are incredible mechanisms, and the most amazing part of all, is the fact that every single person is different. You read that right, every single one. That means that a certain food may be perfect for me, while at the same time, it may be harmful to someone else. I won’t even begin to dive into the allergies and autoimmune disease topics, as I would be keeping you here for way too long.

So to sum it all up, although all calories are employed by the same company (you know, the clothes sewing one), they have different tasks and play different roles in our bodies. Therefore, a calorie is NOT a calorie, and choosing foods full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and overall healing properties trumps over any fast food joint, no matter if it actually does fit your macros.