Counting calories is the most common form of modern diet management, and for good reason. A calorie is simply a measure of energy (4184 joules to be exact), and considering energy-in versus energy-out is an equally simple way to approach weight goals.
But one of the problems with pure calorie counting is the fact that our bodies aren't quite that simple. We process different forms of energy in different ways, and various foods have wide ranging effects on our appetites, and other systems that are important in determining success.
Every Food Takes Different Amounts of Energy to Break Down
For instance, one of the more demonstrable differences has to do with the thermic effects of metabolizing what has been consumed. Everything that we eat has to be broken down in order to get the calories and nutrients out.
Some foods require very little energy to break down, while others require a great deal. This attribute is called thermal efficiency. While efficiency sounds good, when you're aiming to burn calories, the less efficient pathway is actually what you want.
And the differences can be stark. Fats require 2-3 percent of their caloric value to metabolize, and carbs take 6-8 percent. Meanwhile protein requires 25-30 percent of its caloric content to metabolize. This means that 100 calories of fat will net about 98 calories, while 100 calories of protein will net only 75 calories.
Protein Is Important
Protein calories truly are some of the healthiest that you can consume. In addition to the thermic benefit that comes with metabolizing protein, diets that are heavy in protein actually raise metabolism by about 80-100 calories per day.
The benefits of protein don't end there. Studies indicate that protein is by far the most satiating macronutrient, meaning that when you consume protein, your hunger is satisfied more fully, and you end up eating less and staying full longer. The satisfying effects of protein are so impressive that many people have found diet success, simply by increasing their protein consumption.
Added Sugars Wreck Progress
Another important calorie variable has to do with sugars, particularly the processed, added sugars that seem to be in almost every food nowadays.
Calories from sugar are volatile in terms of their effect on blood sugar. Sweets cause extreme spikes in blood sugar, which are followed by dips. Dips in blood sugar cause new waves of hunger that correspond to a natural drop in willpower. In a world with fast food options at every corner, that's a bad combination.
The constant rising and lowering of blood sugar levels can easily become habitual, and leave people dependent on quick release sugars and carbohydrates. People on this carbohydrate roller-coaster spend much of their days feeling groggy, irritable, and tired.
Natural Sugars Give You Healthy Energy
Perhaps the most frustrating effect of calories from processed sugar is that the act of metabolizing it tends to lead directly to fat storage. The rapid intake and breakdown of sugar leaves the body with an overflow of energy, with no alternative but to turn it into fat.
Calories that your body can break down more slowly can be used as the body needs them without first being turned into fat, keeping you satisfied and steady throughout the day. This reduces stress on the body and prevents fat storage.
In fact, naturally occurring sugars, like the ones found in fruit and dairy, are wonderful sources of energy. They are a better option than processed sugars because they're delivered to the body gradually in a natural vehicle of fiber and healthy fat.
Similarly, unprocessed carbs (think unbleached whole grains and potatoes with skin) are full of fiber and nutrients. Your body takes more time to convert these carbs to energy, leading to feelings of fullness and no sugar spikes.
Nourishment > Deprivation
A final aspect of the difference between calories that deserves some consideration is nutrient density. When we think about food only in terms of energy to be burned, it can be natural to focus on calories. But if we think about food as the key to our wellness, even as the oldest and purest form of medicine, we tend to re-prioritize.
Seeking out the valuable vitamins and nutrients that abound in fruits, vegetables, protein, and high-quality fat and carbohydrate sources leaves us with foods that are both nutritious and satisfying. As an added bonus, many of these nutrient-dense foods are some of the best low-calorie options available.