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.
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 of it.
Some foods require very little energy to break down, while others require a great deal. This dynamic is called thermal efficiency, and while efficiency is usually a positive, when you are aiming to burn calories, the less efficient pathway is actually the more favorable one.
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 caloriesof fat will net about 98 calories, while 100 calories of protein will net only 75 calories.
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 don’t end there. Studies have indicated 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 for longer. The satisfying effects of protein are so impressive that many people have found diet success, by only increasing their protein consumption.
Another important caloric variation has to do with sugars. Fructose can only be metabolized in large quantities by the liver, while most other foods can be metabolized by all of the tissues of the body. This isolation is relatively harmful to overall metabolism.
Calories from sugar are also volatile in terms of their effect on blood sugar. Sweets cause extreme spikes in blood sugar, which are followed by correlating dips. Dips in blood sugar cause new waves of hunger that is so often accompanied by loss of willpower, and poor food choices.
This constant rising and lowering of blood sugar levels can easily become a consistent dietary habit that leaves people dependent on quick release sugars and carbohydrates. People on this carbohydrate roller-coaster spend much of their days feeling groggy, irritable, and tired.
Perhaps the most frustrating effect of calories from sugar is that the process 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.
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 form of medicine, we tend to re-prioritize.
Seeking out the valuable vitamins and nutrients that abound in fruits, vegetables, and protein sources leaves us with foods that are both nutritious and satisfying. As an added bonus, these nutrient-dense foods are some of the best caloric options available.