Why a calorie is not always a calorie

A calorie rich food is not always fattening, and a lower calorie food is not always less fattening. 

To demonstrate, consider these scientific findings:

  • Adding some calorie rich foods to your diet, such as nuts or olive oil, decreases waist circumference over several years.
  • Some other calorie rich foods, such as cheese, do not appear to be linked to weight gain over time. Yet some lower calorie foods, such as refined grains and potato, do.
  • Full-cream milk may actually reduce weight gain, whilst low-fat milk may not.
  • Diets high in calorie-rich foods can be better for body weight management than diets low in calorie-rich foods.

To understand this, consider the many ways a food can affect your energy balance, other than its calorie content. These include:

  • The amount of it you eat.
  • The other foods you might consume with it.
  • The foods from your diet it might displace.
  • How satisfied you feel during, and immediately after, eating it.
  • How full you feel several hours after eating it, and
  • The many ways it affects your bodies’ metabolic response, such as the resulting increase in your metabolic rate, the type and amount of hormones released to digest it, and how much your gut bacteria is fed by it.

In the short-term, weight loss is achieved by reducing calories, irrespective of food or diet.

But in the long-term, the regulation of body weight is far more complex. Some of the most calorie rich foods are among the healthiest foods that we can eat, and their consumption does not increase body weight in any way.

Much better than avoiding calorie rich foods, is to ask how you can consume more of your calories from health-promoting foods.

What is more important than sugar, saturated fat, carbohydrates and calories?

A banana is 13% sugar, and has a greater percentage of sugar than soft drink.

Yet the banana also contains potassium, magnesium, dietary fibre, Vitamin C and (when partially unripe) is one of the richest sources of resistant starch. It’s consumption, as part of a diet that contains a variety of other fruits, helps to protect you from heart disease and strokeweight gain, and helps to prolong your life.

Cheese is typically rich in saturated fat, and has a very similar fatty acid content to butter.

Yet cheese also contains calcium, protein, magnesium, Vitamin B2 and Vitamin B12. It’s consumption lowers cholesterol when eaten in replace of butter, is not actually associated with weight gain, and may (slightly) help to protect you from cardiovascular disease and Type 2 Diabetes.

Extra-virgin olive oil and nuts are both extremely rich sources of calories and fat, and provide a denser source of both than a doughnut.

Yet both extra-virgin olive oil and nuts are very rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, phenols and other antioxidants. The liberal addition of these foods to the diet protects against both cardiovascular disease and Type 2 Diabetes (substantially), whilst also appearing to potentially reduce body weight and waist circumference.

Wholemeal bread is rich in rapidly-digested carbohydrates, and results in a greater spike to blood sugar than table sugar does.

Yet wholemeal bread also contains dietary fibre, Vitamin B1, Vitamin E, folate, various minerals and phytochemicals, particularly phenolic antioxidants. It’s consumption, as part of a diet containing a variety of other whole or fibrous grains, helps to protect you from Type 2 Diabetescardiovascular diseasebowel cancerweight gain, and helps to prolong your life, too.

Why do we believe the presence of a ‘negative’ nutrient – whether it is sugar, saturated fat, carbohydrates or calories – means a food is unhealthy or fattening?

Much more important, is to look for the abundance of positive nutrients found in minimally processed foods, instead.

10 ways to reduce your calorie intake without thinking about calories

  1. Use smaller plates and bowls.
  2. Replace short, wide glasses with tall, narrow ones.
  3. Use smaller spoons.
  4. Throw out the lolly jar (or replace it with a fruit bowl).
  5. Place healthy foods at the front of the refrigerator, and less healthy foods at the back.
  6. Repackage foods sold in large packages into small containers.
  7. Always put food into a plate or bowl, so you can better see how much you are actually eating. Never eat straight from the package.
  8. Snack only at the table, and only on a clean plate.
  9. Put everything on your plate before you start eating, and don’t go back for seconds and thirds.
  10. When serving your meal, try dishing out 20% less than you think you might want before you start eating. You probably won’t miss it.

Perhaps the easiest way to change your behaviour, is to change your environment.

[Hat tip to Wansick.]

The high-fat, high-calorie foods that you should be eating

The idea that we should limit the intake of all high-fat, high-calorie foods is now outdated and actually unhealthy.

Research conclusively tells us that most plant-based fats and oils should be promoted and encouraged, because adding them into our diet results in significantly better heart and metabolic health.

What’s more, this impressive health benefit is one that few other dietary changes can achieve.

From the literature, I think we can confidently conclude that even eating more fruits and vegetables or more whole grains, whilst still important, is unlikely to give us the same heart health benefits that eating more plant-based fats and oils does.

What are plant-based fats and oils?

Not all plant-based fats and oils are equal, but some examples I encourage are:

  • 30 grams (1 handful) of nuts or seeds,
  • 50mL of most vegetable oils (particularly extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil),
  • 50 grams (or 1/4) avocado,
  • 20 grams of nut spread,
  • If using salad dressings, to opt for full-fat salad dressings instead of low-fat salad dressings, and
  • If not using avocado or nut spreads, to opt for margarine instead of animal-fat or lower-fat alternatives, such as butter, honey or jam.

Will eating these foods make you put on weight?

Research now clearly tells us that the fat and calorie content of a food does not, surprisingly, predict its effect on our weight.

For example:

  • some high-fat, higher-calorie foods, such as nuts and cheese, are associated with less or no weight gain.
  • some low-fat, lower-calorie foods, such as soft drinks and refined grains (like white bread and white rice), are associated with significant weight gain.

Whilst there are a lot of factors at play here, fat is well-known to slow down digestion, and thus changes our hormonal response after eating.

This is thought to contribute to a foods impact on our weight in the long-term, and might be partly why skim-milk or low-fat milk does not appear to be any better for our weight than full-cream milk.

The bottom line

The healthiest way to manage your weight, I believe, is to mostly enjoy a wide variety of minimally processed plant foods, including the plant-based fats and oils listed above.

If your daily consumption of calories is something that needs to be addressed, the first step is eating less highly processed or “treat” foods, such as cakes, biscuits, soft drink, refined grains and confectionary.

The total calories that you consume every day is still important.

But the total calories (or total fat) found in a single food, is not.

5 common myths about breakfast

Myth 1. Eating breakfast boosts our metabolism.

The best scientific evidence we have shows our resting metabolic rate is not increased by eating breakfast. Indeed, research shows that even not eating anything prior to midday for 6 weeks straight does not impair our resting metabolism.

Myth 2. Eating breakfast means we eat less calories in total throughout the day.

This is not only unproven, we actually know the exact opposite is true: we eat more. This makes good sense, because when we skip breakfast, we are skipping the intake of a significant amount of calories.

Myth 3. Purposely skipping breakfast is a good strategy for weight loss.

The largest and longest study to compare the effectiveness of skipping vs. eating breakfast on weight found that skipping breakfast:

  • does not result in any significant weight loss, and
  • does not have any significant effect on our weight compared to eating breakfast.

Just because eating breakfast does not increase our metabolism, and can mean we eat more calories in total, does not mean that we should purposely skip it.

Myth 4. When we eat is more important than what we eat.

What and how much we eat is, in my view, what matters most:

  • Whilst breakfast eaters have higher nutrient intakes than breakfast skippers, high nutrient intake is (of course) dependant on eating more nutrient-rich foods.
  • Whilst breakfast eaters have better long-term health than breakfast skippers, good health is (of course) dependant on eating healthier foods.

Myth 5. There is a ‘correct’ time to eat for everybody.

Research shows that one of the most consistent predictors of body weight (outside of genetics!) is the driver of what makes us eat:

  • When we eat in reaction to our external environment and emotions, we are more likely to overeat.
  • When we eat in response to our internal hunger signals, we are less likely to overeat.

Being more conscious about eating according to hunger is one of the most effective strategies we have to prevent overeating.

For me, the biggest problem with advice about eating or skipping breakfast is that it gives the impression we must be eating at a certain time.

In general, we actually don’t.

For most of us, eating is best done by listening to the hunger signals of our body, and not by worrying about what the time is on our clock.

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