You Are What You Eat: Is A Calorie A Calorie?

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The weight-loss equation sounds simple: Burn more calories than you take in. But in spite of the long-standing “eat less, move more” prescription, obesity rates continue to climb. This has caused researchers to look at not just how many calories people eat and burn, but also what kind of food the calories are coming from and how the body processes them.

Used to be, we thought of a calorie as a calorie. In other words, it didn’t matter if it was coming from cheesecake or carrots. If you ate too many calories you would accumulate body fat. Turns out, this idea is too simplistic.

A propensity for obesity and the diseases that accompany it is largely due to the quality of carbohydrates and the hormones that regulate their metabolism. For example, if you are eating the majority of your carbs as flour-based products, pastries, sodas, fruit juices, and sugary breakfast cereals, you are stressing your blood sugar control mechanisms. Refined carbs are devoid of fiber. Thus, they tend to spike the blood sugar level, causing the pancreas to secrete excessive amounts of the hormone insulin. Insulin facilitates the entry of blood sugar (glucose) into muscle cells to be burned for energy, but also to be stored as fat. Furthermore, the constant bombardment of glucose and insulin creates an imbalance in the pleasure centers of the brain that can lead to food addiction, which is not unlike that of tobacco, alcohol, or cocaine addiction.

Conversely, if you eat carbs in their natural state such as from whole grains – brown rice, oats, vegetables, whole fruits – their fiber content allows them to enter the bloodstream at a slower rate. This gradual rise in blood glucose prevents the surge of insulin and excessive fat storage.

Another way that the quality of carbs affects fat metabolism is whether they are cooked or raw. Raw foods take more energy to digest than cooked foods. So, do eat a large salad every day along with nutrient-packed veggies that are lightly cooked. A benefit of eating a plant-based diet is that plant fibers foster growth of beneficial gut microbes. Recent research suggests that substances secreted by probiotic bacteria may cause less fat to accumulate, boost calorie burning, and increase satiety. Calorie counts do not consider any of these factors.