A Calorie is a Calorie is a Calorie—or is it?

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22 Jul 2013

wheatMy son-in-law recently asked me a very interesting question. He was curious how it was possible that a slice of whole wheat bread and white bread were equal in caloric content. Shouldn’t the whole-wheat slice be a healthier option, and therefore have fewer calories?

Calories! We talk about them all the time and we know that pizza and ice cream and large hamburgers have lots of them.  A calorie, in scientific terms, is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. In practical terms, we know that if we consume more calories than we use, we gain weight and if we use more calories than we eat, we lose weight.  Carbohydrates and proteins contain 4 calories per gram, fats have 9 calories per gram and alcohol is 7 calories per gram. We also have a pretty good idea which foods have a higher calorie count and which foods have less. Obviously eating a carrot (52 calories) or a cucumber (16 calories peeled) isn’t the same as eating 2 slices of double-cheese stuffed pizza (675 calories).  Most of us also know that healthful foods are good for us and help us stay healthy and fight off many diseases, whereas eating junk all the time can prove harmful to our health both nutritionally and in terms of weight gain.  But in theory, a calorie should just be a calorie, so if I choose to eat 3 slices of that pizza a day with some vegetables, I could hypothetically lose weight. Yet, I could over eat healthy food like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish and eat too much and gain weight.  But there is more here than meets the eye.  Sometimes, the type of food we eat does things to the body that interfere with our ability to metabolize normally and it can cause us more of a weight gain than the caloric content of those foods would indicate.  That means that weight loss is a lot more than just about calories.

When we make healthful choices (not in unlimited portions!), we digest differently than eating unrefined whole foods.  The more a food is refined, or processed, the quicker it will digest.  Refined foods such as white bread, pasta and rice and white sugar are easily broken down by the body because the complex carbohydrates have been taken out of them. This means that your body doesn’t have to work very hard in order to digest the nutrition found in these foods, leaving your metabolism at a crawl. Refined carbs don’t offer a lot of nutritional value anyway, so you’re better off consuming whole wheat breads, pasta and brown rice. These choices require your metabolism to work in order to digest the nutrients, so it helps to speed it up.  When we eat foods high in sugar, it creates a spike in blood glucose levels and is very quickly absorbed into your system. Both of these scenarios actually assist in the process to slow your metabolism, whether you realize it or not. Avoiding foods with excess sugar in them is the best idea, but consuming them once in awhile won’t hamper your weight loss journey in the long run. You might want to consider replacing some of your candy, chocolate and ice cream with fresh fruit, which will help to satisfy your sweet tooth without causing a spike in your glucose levels. Calories may be about equal between a slice of whole grain bread and white bread, but because the whole grain bread is slower to digest, it keeps your metabolism higher and uses more energy (calories) than the slice of white bread.

In addition, fatty foods can slow your metabolism.  Fat is not as easily digested as some of the other foods that will slow your metabolism. High fat foods create a scenario where your body simply doesn’t know what to do with it all. In this instance, your metabolism slows down and takes a break while your body starts saving the fat for future use. This results not only in a slower metabolism, but in an increase in body fat as well. Replace fried foods and fast foods, with things like baked chips and low fat desserts to help keep your sweet tooth at bay without slowing down your metabolism.

Dr. Peter Attia has dedicated his medical career to investigating the relationship between nutrition, obesity and diabetes. A surgeon who developed metabolic syndrome himself despite the fact that he ate well and exercised often, Attia realized that our understanding of these important health issues may not actually be correct. He devoted himself to using vigorous scientific inquiry to test both our assumptions and new hypotheses through the Nutrition Science Initiative.  Even though Attia followed the old USDA food pyramid and exercised close to 3 hours a day, he still got metabolic syndrome and had severe insulin resistance.  He ended up changing his dietary habits by elimination processed and refined foods and actually was able to exercise less, but then achieved good health—and by making that change, he dropped about 19 kilograms (40 pounds).  He did not make a drastic caloric change, but the type of foods he consumed, changed dramatically.

Refined and processed foods can bring on diabetes, metabolic syndrome, unwanted weight gain and can also deprive you of needed nutrition to prevent cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and a host of other diseases.  But we must also remember that over eating healthy choices can also cause us problems.  So go for the healthy choices, keep refined foods to a bare minimum, and understand what a portion of food is and how much you should be eating daily.  A good registered dietician can help you to make that calculation.  Vegetables are always a good bet (don’t overcook them), fruits are a must, but keep it to 3 a day (4 if you exercise intensely), and eat mostly whole grains.  Choose lean proteins like fish, chicken breast and low fat dairy products (if you don’t have intolerance to dairy) and beans, tofu and eggs are also good choices.  Eat small meals and snacks 5-6 times during the course of the day instead of only a few very large meals (yes, a calorie isn’t a calorie in this respect either).  And one other point—you may not like the “taste” of whole grain products when you make the switch, but what you will come to realize after a few weeks is that they indeed have a real taste as opposed to the refined products, which usually have the taste of salt and food additives.  Those first few weeks can be trying as far as adjusting to these healthful foods, but almost everyone that makes the switch, never wants to go back to their old eating habits.

It’s true that white bread and white rice and white pasta aren’t different in terms of calorie count from their whole counterparts, but the results are startlingly different.  Eating unrefined, healthy foods will “add hours to your day, days to your year, and years to your life.”  



Alan Freishtat is an A.C.E. CERTIFIED PERSONAL TRAINER and a BEHAVIORAL CHANGE and WELLNESS COACH with over 19 years of professional experience. Alan is the creator and director of the “10 Weeks to Health” program for weight loss. He is available for private coaching sessions, consultations, assessments and personalized workout programs both in his office and by telephone and skype. Alan also lectures and gives seminars and workshops. He can be reached at 02-651-8502 or 050-555-7175, or by email at alan@alanfitness.com Check out the his web site –www.alanfitness.com US Line: 516-568-5027.


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.