Not all calories count equally. Here’s why

This story is part of Health in numbersCNET’s deep dive into how health is measured.

A calorie is the unit of energy your body uses to survive. Your body doesn’t really care where those calories come from – it uses the energy stored in them to keep you going regardless. However, some foods or beverages that give you the same caloric value as others give you Nutrients That support your immune system, balance your hormones, and keep you feeling full and satisfied for longer.

There’s a difference in the way our bodies digest certain types of calories, which are then used for energy or stored for later, says Abby Langer, a registered dietitian in Toronto.

“If you’re talking about calories directly, everyone is different, but as a general rule, I would say the body tends to absorb calories from something like a donut much more easily than calories from something like an avocado,” Langer said. In general, the harder your body digests food, the fewer calories it actually takes from it.

The way our bodies metabolize calories differently is just one reason Langer isn’t a fan of counting calories, or tracking the amount of calories in the food you eat. There’s also the fact that the recommended daily caloric intake is a moving target, depending on a person’s age, gender, and (partially genetic) metabolism, which includes basal metabolic ratebody composition (fat-to-muscle ratio) and how active they are on a given day.

With that in mind, here are a few things to know about how our bodies break down foods differently, and which foods might keep you fuller for longer.

How does the body digest calories differently?

Yagi Studio/Getty Images. Yagi Studio / Getty Images

Different foods offer different Species of energy, or calories, to your body. Each food contains its own unique profile of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, fats) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.) that your body needs in the right proportions to survive. (Check out at the end The bible of macronutrients is here.) That’s why not all foods go down the same way or result in the same type of energy.

The digestive system and the body see energy in terms of this macronutrient, explains Dr. Nikit Sonpal, a gastroenterologist in New York City.

“It has its own ramifications,” Sonpal said. For example, calories from carbohydrates are processed quickly (think of the sugar rush you feel after drinking a can of soda); proteins are digested more slowly; Also, fats take longer to digest.

Think about how long you stay satisfied or full after a breakfast of eggs and cheese instead of a bowl of cereal. If a bowl of cereal only contains, say, 200 calories, and an egg with cheese contains much more than that, you might assume the cereal is “healthy.” But your body will burn the carbs in grains more quickly than the proteins and fats in eggs, leaving you feeling hungry again sooner and needing to eat more food for energy. Carbohydrates that are higher in fiber — such as whole-wheat bread or brown or wild rice, rather than white bread and rice — further slow digestion and increase feelings of fullness and satisfaction.

Even within these macronutrients, there are differences in how they affect your body long after the food has been digested. For example, olive oil, which is a polyunsaturated fat, does not accumulate in the lining of blood vessels, according to Sonpal. Some Research is also emerging About how other types of fats that we have deemed “bad” contain essential fatty acids and other nutrients essential to our health.

“The biochemical process of breaking down fat is similar for all intents and purposes,” Sonpal said. “But what the body does with the fat and the inflammatory processes it causes later in other parts of the body are different.”

Almond study

Raw almond spread on a white background Images

Not only does your body use foods and calories differently, but the calorie count on the package may also be a misrepresentation.

For starters, calorie labels can be as low as 20%, Langer explained, which means if you think you’re eating 200 calories of granola, it may actually be 240 calories. For some people, these inconsistencies can add up.

Research conducted in 2012 and 2016, conducted by the USDA and funded by the Almond Council of California, found that the actual calorie count for raw, whole almonds was 25% lower than the number marketed, and 19% less for roasted almonds from the official package. count.

According to the study, the mechanical processes of roasting or slicing the almonds play a role because they disrupt the cell wall, which changes the particle size. Larger particles are more difficult to digest by digestive enzymes, which means more is excreted and fewer calories absorbed.

But the opposite is true when it comes to almond butter—the calories you see are what you get. “If you change those almonds into almond butter, those calories, those fats are more readily available, so we absorb more of those calories,” Langer said. By grinding almonds into almond butter, you break down the fiber of the whole nut, allowing your body to digest and absorb those calories more easily.

Almond research shows that obsessing over calories on a food label is less important than choosing foods that provide you with nutrients and satisfaction.

Measure satisfaction instead of calories

Food value differences aside, counting calories can distract us from the satisfaction we get from eating, which is an integral part of a healthy diet that people often overlook, according to Langer. If you’re hungry for a snack while counting your calories, you may be more inclined to get something you know will fit within your calorie allowance for the day (like exactly six crackers, for example, or a “nutritious” granola bar).

But going for those few slices of cheddar cheese you really wanted would actually fill you up and keep you fuller for longer, even if they had more calories. This is a fallacy of calorie counting — if you focus only on the number, rather than the source of those calories and the nutritional value they can provide, you run the risk of eating a bunch of foods that leave you feeling hungry at the end of the day, even when you’ve hit your calorie limit.

Constant feelings of hunger or dissatisfaction may increase your risk Binge eating Later, when you eat much more food than you need at once. It’s also not a sustainable way to live.

“Taking a step back and understanding this is very important,” Langer said, “and it’s really a big part of a healthy diet and expectations about nutrition that people miss out on.”

The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.

Not all calories count equally. Here’s why

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