A Calorie Is A Calorie – Or Is It?

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Since studies show that more than half of us think doing our taxes is easier than figuring out how to eat healthy, I wanted to talk about eating for a bit. It’s definitely the part that I struggled with most and still struggle with from time to time. On a very high level, it boils down to calories in versus calories out. If you eat more than you burn off each day, you will gain weight over time. If you eat less than you burn off, you will lose weight.

Unfortunately on a deeper level, it’s not quite that simple. You can eat a cheeseburger, fries and a coke every day and if your calories are less than what you burn, the scale will eventually go down. Yes, that’s an extreme example since most of us won’t do that but hopefully you get the point. Most of us don’t just want the scale to move. Specifically we want to lose fat or gain muscle.

What you see on the surface isn’t always the complete story. Whether you are trying to lose, gain or just maintain, calories do matter but it also matters what you choose to make up your calories each day. You are an amazing combination of chemical reactions. I bet you didn’t even realize it. 😉 Your body uses different types of calories in different ways depending on your activity level, the amount of energy it has available, and other factors. It also reacts to different calories in different ways.

When you eat a meal full of fat, processed carbs, and sugar, you’ll probably feel sluggish afterwards. Fat is harder for your body to digest so it slows you down to focus on digesting instead of running errands and other things that you’d like to do. Low energy just makes you feel bleh. (Duh!) Not to mention what bad fats can do to your heart and arteries. This happens even if you aren’t eating excess calories.

Processed carbs can lead to cravings and eating derailment. When there is an influx of carbs, your insulin levels spike and your body reacts to try to regulate itself. Once this happens, your energy crashes in that mid-afternoon slump. Your body will tell you in no uncertain terms that it wants food and food now to perk you back up! Cravings get set off and suddenly you must have that muffin or cookies for energy.

Combine these two issues with inadequate protein and your body starts burning muscle for energy to sustain itself. You could find yourself where I was – skinny fat! If you focus on calories only, you could also be setting yourself up for hunger. 500 calories in a cheeseburger or sandwich won’t necessarily have the same volume as balanced plate made up of 1/4 protein, 1/4 starch, and 1/2 veggies. Look at the two food diaries below.


The calories are about the same but the protein, fats and carbs are completely different. The one on the right (which happens to be mine) is also a ton more food volume-wise than the other. Less volume can lead to hunger and overeating later in the day despite the best intentions.

Your body needs a balance of protein, fats, and carbohydrates each day to fuel itself efficiently. If you eat a reasonable amount of protein and healthy fats like avocado, olive oil, and almonds with your meals, you’ll avoid feeling like a slug and your heart will thank you. Add in whole grains and minimally processed carbs, and your energy levels won’t have those huge ups and downs.

Think beyond calories when you make food choices and you’ll get much better results.

Disclaimer: The food diaries are not intended to be a specific recommendation on what you should eat since your situation could be different. Even though I am certified in fitness nutrition, I’m not a registered dietician. Please make sure to check with your doctor on what to eat based on your health situation and calorie needs.

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