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Are all calories created equal??

low carb meal of fish

If you put the title of this blog into google you’d be blown away by opposing theories and evidence on this very topic that would come up. And you’d have a hard time taking a position… I don’t blame you for being confused. I field these questions daily in my nutrition appointments. It was my own curiosity about the plethora of incongruent nutrition advice in the media & on the internet that led me to persue my master’s degree in Nutrition. I apologize in advance if this blog just adds one more oppositional internet article to the pile. However I do think this topic is important for weight management and I’d like at least my own patients to hear my own opinion. And I do feel qualified to answer this question. So here we go!

Are all calories equal... If you eat a Big mac and medium fries you are eating 930 calories. To give you a frame of reference the average American eats on average about a 2000 calorie diet based on their height, weight, age and gender. That is an average for both men and women. So clearly a 930 calorie meal is almost half a day’s worth of calories (or more) in one meal. And most people are having a soda with that too. But we won’t even go there. Now suppose you also have the option to eat instead a salad with fresh greens, grilled salmon, roasted vegetables, avocados, nuts, seeds, whole grains and a fantastic salad dressing made with olive oil also totaling 930 calories. If the question is whether one meal will benefit your weight management better than the other, I’ll say that I am a firm believer that meal # 2 will benefit your weight management better than the big mac meal despite it’s equal amount of calories. Why? One word… FIBER. The fiber that you get in that meal (specifically from the vegetables, nuts/seeds and whole grains) are going to be more slowly absorbed carbohydrates than the white flour bun and french fries that you got in your big mac. No offense big mac lovers, but there is just not a whole lot of fiber in the big mac meal. Why is fiber more slowly absorbed than white starches? Because fiber by definition is an indigestible carbohydrate. It sounds a little confusing I know. But it is exactly that indigestible quality of fiber that helps our body more slowly absorb the carbohydrates since there is an indigestible carbohydrate portion to our fruits, vegetables, nuts/ seeds, and whole grain foods since these foods go through our digestive track slowly. As they slowly are traveling down our digestive tract they are taking it easy on our blood sugar levels (which should be within a healthy “normal” range) and not spiking our blood sugar level too high. Phew! And that’s just the beginning!! As fiber is taking it’s slow ride through our digestive tract it is taking lots of unhealthy things with it. It has a way of grabbing toxins that may be present in our system and taking them out (excreting them) with the fiber. Fiber also is great at grabbing cholesterol on its way out of our system which effectively can lower your total cholesterol “pool” in your body which over time can decrease your blood cholesterol levels. Now since it is slowly moving through us it tends to leave us feeling full, more full than we would after similar white carbohydrates which is fantastic. If we feel fuller for longer we are less likely to over eat right? What’s not to like about fiber?

Fiber is just the tip of the iceberg. I could go on and on for days but I’ll stick to weight management points today. I’ll also point out that the healthy meal # 2 is going to be lower in carbohydrates than the big mac meal. Why? Because the star of the show in meal # 2 is not the fiber packed complex carbohydrate whole grains. The salad is actually going to be made with proportionally more greens, vegetables, nuts/seeds, and healthy protein (salmon) with just a small portion of complex carbohydrates (whole grains). Why does this mater? Because much research is finding that people are loosing weight more successfully by cutting carbs than by cutting calories. Does this mean an extreme no carb diet is warranted??? ABSOLUTELY NOT. Please don’t get all extreme on me. Those diets have proved to have little if any long term success. I don’t mean to send you down the path of very low- zero carb diets of the 2000s. NO! But fewer carbs and smarter carbs. Complex carbs with fiber like whole grains (brown rice, whole wheat, oatmeal, quinoa, etc). Just like the MyPlate example… here is a link to MyPlate.gov click right here.  The idea of MyPlate is that 1/2 your meals be vegetables/ fruits, about 1/4 of your plate be protein and 1/4 of your plate be a complex carbohydrate. Plenty of plant foods with fiber, and correct proportions of complex carbohydrates and proteins.

So the moral of the story? Total calories is certainly not all that maters. The quality of your calories certainly makes a difference and different foods are absorbed differently. Some better affecting your health and others not so much. Try thinking about making vegetables the star of your meals. And planning meals around vegetables/ fruits rather than starches and proteins. Veggies are naturally lower in calories, and naturally JAM PACKED with vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients. Phyto-WHAT???!! I’ll explain that one in next week’s blog.

Have a healthy day 🙂