A Calorie? 3 things you should know! Especially if you’re trying to lose weight

“A calorie is just a calorie” is a saying often proclaimed in regards to calories and weight loss. Considering the laws of thermodynamics, this is true. If you eat less calories than your body burns, your body starts to burn fat instead. Thereby causing weight loss! However, this simplification of calories may substantially impact our weight loss efforts. The way the body breaks down carbohydrates, fat and protein vary a lot and affects weight-loss regulators such as satiety, the thermic effect and our blood sugar levels.

We have highlighted 3 very important things that differ between calories from different sources. And let’s just spoil the result: A CALORIE IS NOT JUST A CALORIE!

1. Satiation

Satiety in this sense is the state of being satisfactorily full and unable to take on more after eating1, i.e. you feel satisfied. But you might have experienced that you felt like needing a snack after eating, while other meals satisfied your hunger sufficiently. This is because different calories have different effects on your satiety feeling.

So what makes you feel full? Protein is a great source to make you feel full for a longer period. Which is why protein-rich foods such as beef, chicken, fish, nuts, yogurt and skyr are foods with high satiation. Carbohydrates, in the right form, are satiating too. Go for sources that contain fiber-rich carbohydrates such as full grain bread, brown rice, full grain pasta and oats. And stay away from the white versions. Furthermore, fresh vegetables are a good source as well as they contain lots of nutrients and few calories.

2. The thermic effect

The thermic effect of food is the energy required to digest, absorb and dispose the food we eat.2 So in other words: We are burning calories when eating, but the levels are strongly influenced by what we eat.

Protein vs. Carbohydrates vs. Fat

Proteins and complex, fiber-rich carbs are difficult for your body to process. Therefore, it has a high thermic effect (which is what we want). Simple carbohydrates on the other hand are easy to process and have therefore very little thermic effect. And fat? It has an even lower effect.

Whole vs. processed foods

Whole foods has an increased thermic effect on you because it takes your body longer to digest it. On the other hand, processed, manufactured foods have a low thermic effect as it is easily digested by your body. How to differentiate between the two? Whole foods have their natural composition and contain no artificial additives: Fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh lean meat, fresh fish, plain yogurt. Processed foods have their natural composition altered through (manufactural) processing, e.g. juices, sausages, fish sticks, sweetened yogurt.

3. Effects on blood sugar levels

After a meal, your blood sugar level rises and triggers the release of insulin, which helps your body turning sugar (glucose) into energy. But if your food contains more sugar than your body needs for energy, the excess sugar will be stored in muscle, liver and fat cells. Therefore, regulating your blood sugar level is crucial for maintaining and losing weight.

Your carbohydrate intake plays the main role when it comes to blood sugar levels. What we DON’T want is carbohydrates that makes our levels rise fast. Meaning that we get hungry faster after a meal.  Liquid carbohydrates (juices, chocolate milk, energy drinks, etc.) and simple carbohydrates raise your blood level quicker. Therefore, sticking to complex carbohydrates containing fiber, minerals and vitamins will take longer to digest, causing your blood sugar to rise more slowly. And that is what you want!

Protein doesn’t have a huge effect on blood sugar levels, but a study published in 2003 showed that a 30/40/30 (protein/carbs/fat) intake ratio leads to lower blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes compared to a 15/55/30 intake ratio.3 This suggests that replacing some carbohydrates with protein can yield a better glycemic response.

Bottom line

So a calorie is not just a calorie!

To sum it all up – if you want to control your calorie intake more easily, then choose protein-rich foods (non-processed beef/chicken/fish/nuts/yoghurt), complex, fiber-rich carbohydrates (full grain bread/pasta/rice, oats) and fresh vegetables and fruits. We know it’s hard to consistently follow all the good advices regarding food (and let’s be honest, you got to live your life too) but changing just a few things is a step in the right direction.

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1) Bellisle F, Drewnowski A, Anderson GH, Westerterp-Plantenga M, Martin CK. Sweetness, satiation, and satiety. J Nutr. 2012: 142(6),1149-54.

2) Crovetti R, Porrini M, Santangelo A and Testolin G. The infuence of thermic effect of food on satiety. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1997: 52, 482-488

3) Gannon MC, Nuttall FQ, Saeed A, Jordan K, and Hoover H. An increase in dietary protein improves the blood glucose response in persons with type 2 diabetes. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003: 78 (4), 734-741.


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