EP 52 – Eat This: Are all calories equal?

Stepped on the scale lately? If it’s showing you a number that isn’t to your liking, what’s your first thought? Most likely – eat less? It is January after all. It’s that time when we are all more focused on making a change to diet and lifestyle and perhaps, like my mom used to say, a time to “button your lip”, meaning that she wasn’t happy with her weight and so it was time to eat less. That looked like depriving herself of calories from her little calorie counting book. Sure, there are a bunch of diets out there that people follow, from Keto to Atkins to Whole30 and even the carnivore diet of only eating meat. But I’m going to say that what’s ingrained in us or even our default pattern, as in one of the first thoughts that most of us have, is to look at calories in and calories out. We’ve been indoctrinated or brainwashed into thinking that counting calories on your plate, bowl or bag of whatever and measuring what you burn from normal body processes and even some exercise (because your Fitbit or Apple Watch said that your walk, run or HITT class just afforded you another few hundred calories). The theory is that when you figure out how to create some sort of deficit in there somewhere, then you’ll end up with the slim beach bod, worthy of that bikini or board shorts (please chaps, spare us the speedo), with flat abs or a six pack with the ultimate goal of what? Being healthy, or how about finally being happy with yourself, when that scale hits a magic number that you were when you were a teenager. Thinking that you’ll be happy when you’re a certain weight is worthy of a whole other episode, but also discussed in episodes 28 and 29, when we delved into intuitive eating and body image. 

So today on EAT THIS with Lianne – the holy grail of calories in and calories out and the biggest question asked: “Are all calories equal?”

Who wins by counting calories?

Your waistline? The hole that you use to tighten your belt comfortably around your waist? The half of your closet that’s waiting for you body to fit into them? Or is the winner your health? A way to avoid diabetes, heart disease, or the feeling that you’re somehow more worthy because you’ve gone down a dress size? Nope. The big winner here is the food industry. They win by having you think that all calories are the same. By the calculation, the number crunching the calories listed on a can of pop that yields 150 calories, that it’s somehow equal or the same as eating a cup and three quarters of blueberries, because that also adds up to 150 calories. What does the pop give you other than fizz on your tongue, and over 10 teaspoons of sugar? When the antioxidant rich blueberries can support immunity, reduce the risk of diabetes – not contribute to it – reduce the risk of heart disease and obesity, strengthen your metabolism and reduce inflammation. How on earth is that any kind of comparison??? If you sit with that thought as you type in your last meal into apps like My Fitness Pal, Lose It!, or Fat Secret, and count your daily calories as your go-to measurement, I hope that you take a moment and think, “WTF?”. I mean come on, you’ve got to realize that just looking at that comparison, counting those calories, is a number that’s associated with ONE aspect of food. Well, it’s a ludicrous measurement of healthy eating and even losing weight. Layer on top of that the pressure of it: if you just ate less calories and exercised more, you’d be slim, trim and healthy. Oh and if you can’t cut back, what’s wrong with you? Where’s your willpower if you can’t eat less than 1500 calories a day. That’s when it becomes a way more loaded way of eating. This whole paradigm is one that’s totally skewed, and in this episode, my hope is to start to turn around the way that we think about calories.

Calories in and calories out comes down to metabolic rate. How fast your body (actually, it’s the mitochondria within your cells) eventually uses those calories from what you eat as energy.

Interestingly, if you eat exactly the same calories but low carb and higher fat, you would burn 450 more calories a day because of the different effects of the macronutrients that come from those foods and how they influence your metabolism. Remember, your metabolism is the rate at which your cells burn calories. If you have more muscle mass from resistance or weight training, your metabolism is faster. If you’re a couch potato, the metabolism tends to match that speed – slooooow. So saying that you need to eat X amount of calories for your body weight, let alone your gender and age, doesn’t take into account all the factors that contribute to your weight, including the muscle mass.

We live in a world where it’s not easy to change this thinking. For instance, sites like the Endocrine Society that you might go to when you are having hormonal issues still say that weight loss is all about calories. With that messaging, it’s reinforcing this inaccurate philosophy.

Really, thinking about food as a number seems rather limiting, right? When you sit back and think about it, measuring energy and food isn’t the whole picture – just as stepping on the scale and knowing your weight does not tell you everything about your health.

What are calories, exactly?

The Calorie as a nutritional unit came to the U.S. by way of a man named Wilbur Atwater in 1887. Not long after that, the science of nutrition began to take hold. A popular early nutrition text published in 1918 by Lulu Hunt Peters outlined the first methods of counting Calories. In her bestseller, Diet and Health, with the Key to the Calories, Peters outlined 100-Calorie portions of many foodstuffs and started the association of counting Calories as a way to regulate weight. And even went so far as to say that if you’re hungry, you’re winning. Ugh.

Counting calories doesn’t take into account the complexity of digestion. Fast forward from that early text to what we now know and understand… it’s the type of food we eat that matters. A study I read a while ago took a group of people and gave them a whole food meal versus a processed meal. It found that the processed group was eating the same amount of calories and had a 50% reduction in calorie burn after eating a processed sandwich of white bread and fake cheese aka cheese slices. The processed food changed the way the body metabolized that food and energy. The whole food option of real cheese and wholegrain bread did not have the same slowing effect. Many studies have since proven that what you eat is more important than how much you eat. I’ll say that again… What you eat is more important than how much you eat.

Food, metabolism and weight loss typically say that you need to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight. But that doesn’t take into account your hormones and digestion. And not only about how you’re digesting your meal but also your good vs bad bugs, called your microbiome. Inflammation has a lot do with how much you are gaining or losing too, so it’s not as simple as calories in and calories out. The microbiome of a slim person versus someone who is obese is different. And in studies, when the microbiome from an obese mouse is put into a slim mouse, guess what? It gained weight.

The complexity of why you are the weight that you are is mind blowing. So what I’m saying is please don’t think that going hungry is going to work. Sure you might initially lose weight, but it’s not sustainable. Especially if you’ve tried diets of deprivation in the past. The body tends to remember and switch into famine mode and hold onto more calories even when you’re eating less. Somehow that’s not fair, but it is how the body protects itself and is a part of its survival mode.

So if you’re having a hard time with what I’ve said and only know how to diet through calorie restriction, my top tip is to NOT reduce your calorie intake by any more than 15%. That’s when your body trips the switch to famine mode and holds tight to what you’ve got and you’ll find losing weight incredibly difficult.

Healthy ways of eating and making better choices

First, what is it that you enjoy most about food? Taste and flavour usually ranks quite high. Of course there’s the nourishment aspect and feeling energetic, having your mind keep up with all that’s going on in your day without the fogginess or drained feeling from hunger. Who doesn’t want to be able to focus on the task at hand? But here’s a question you might not have thought about… What’s your goal with what you choose to eat? Much of the time it’s habit to eat a bowl of cereal or toast for breakfast, have a sandwich for lunch and meat and two veg for dinner. Maybe that’s what you ate growing up, so it’s what you still do. But if you look at your goal – do you want to feel satisfied? Both that your tummy is full and not rumbling all day, and that you’ve eaten something that you like? Do you want the energy that food gives and gravitate towards foods that help you feel happier because of conditioning? For instance, when I feel nauseous from being unwell or because I’ve had too much to drink or even if I’m seasick when sailing, I eat salt and vinegar chips. It helps. But I’m fully aware that they don’t really help settle my stomach – it’s conditioning. When I was a kid, the only time other than a Friday night (“chip night”) I would get to eat chips was when I felt sick with a migraine or something else that made me unwell. Oh yeah, and with a side of flat ginger ale. So we can look at food choices not from a number calculation, but why do you choose what you do? What’s driving that decision? Maybe it was a recommendation by me on this podcast or you’ve been told it’s healthy for you? I’m not looking for a particular answer here, but I want you to ask yourself the question.

I read a quote in a local newspaper recently by a well known dietitian (sidebar: I am not a dietitian and have different training as a registered nutritionist). Leslie Beck said that “According to a 2020 review of weight loss diets published in the journal Nutrients, the best diet to help people successfully lose weight is one that reduces calorie intake, focuses on healthy and enjoyable foods, and, importantly, can be sustained for the long-term.”

Oh boy, here we go again. More validation that counting calories is the way to go. Another headline that I read said that the Mediterranean diet was the diet of 2021 for every aspect of health that you could imagine. Fish, chicken, oils, fruits, vegetables and whole foods. I know what I’d rather. The use of olive oil would blow any calorie count out the window as calories from protein and carbs typically are 4 calories per gram. Fat, however, has 9 calories per gram. So, that avocado that you’re piling on your morning toast before the egg goes on top… Yep, if you’re calorie counting, you’ve likely eaten half your intake right there.

So, what to do?

I know that all you want to do is balance your weight, shed those unwanted pounds and get to a place where you feel good – for whatever reason that is. Maybe it’s that your jeans fit or you have more energy and lower blood pressure. Whatever it is, start with your goal and let’s work back from that. Some basics that you need to focus on include:

  • Good fat versus saturated fat
  • High-fibre versus low-fibre
  • Refined and processed foods versus whole foods
  • Sugar content of anything that isn’t in a natural form versus the natural form (like an apple versus apple juice)
  • Eating enough protein to help your body build muscle and repair itself
  • Watching the amount of salt in foods that you’re not making at home, or how much you’re adding
  • Eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables every day
  • Hydrating and drinking enough water

Sounds simple enough, right? It might be simple, but I’m not saying that it’s easy. I know you get into the busy of life: emotional eating, cravings, hormonal ups and downs and, of course, STRESS! For the moment, let’s put that aside and come up with some of what you can do instead of counting calories to manage your weight if it’s not where you want it to be.

  1. Start with a food diary. Don’t groan, it helps! The amount of clients who see where they can make changes before we even have our first consultation just from keeping a food diary, is… well let’s just say that most do. Take note of when you eat what – when you want the sweet foods, when you want the salty foods, when you ate even though you weren’t hungry and how much you’ve had to drink.
  2. Then take one meal and see what you can add to it to crowd out a processed food and find more fibre. Here’s an easy one: take out the white bread and buy only whole grain bread. Or, if you’re having boxed cereal for breakfast, how about oatmeal or granola that has less processing done to it? If you’re an egg-in-the-morning kind of person, then how about making a poached or soft boiled egg instead of a fried egg with vegetable oil or butter in the pan? That’s a saturated fat, so just one to watch. Or make an omelet with one or two eggs and throw in a handful of spinach to the middle to wilt as it cooks, and fold it up, slide it on your plate and top with salsa. A side of blueberries or raspberries and that’s one rock star breakfast. If yogurt is your jam, don’t go for the lowest fat, because it tastes terrible without the fat and more sugar is added. Plain, 2% yogurt or less of a high fat version will keep you full for longer and you get to jazz it up with some of that granola, berries, high fibre chia and hemp seeds, even cacao nibs – they’ve become a fave of mine for extra crunch. You’ll be dancing all the way to lunch! I do love to focus on breakfast first because once you’ve got a solid start to your day, then the rest of the day plays out there. So, for the next week, put your focus there.
  3. Are you having a glass of water first thing in the morning when you wake up? Adding half a lemon gives your body extra detox oomph. If you head to coffee first, can you put less sugar in it, or move towards having it black? More on that to come in an upcoming episode.
  4. For the rest of your day, focus on the lower carb and higher fat to keep your metabolism revving on high. Add in seeds, nuts, leafy greens like spinach, arugula, watercress, broccoli or even throw a handful of peas or edamame beans on your salad or as a side. Make homemade dressings instead of store bought ranch or my personal fave, blue cheese. Eat all the vegetables you want and if you find yourself gassy with them all, be sure to steam them and wilt that spinach before you eat it. Make soup your best friend with homemade broth. You’ll find recipes for meat broth and veggie broth in my award-winning book Sprout Right Family Food, and here are some more great recipes, like Blender Pancakes for breakfast, and Corn, Coconut and Ginger Soup for lunch. Whip up a quick tuna melt for dinner and you’re done.

Thanks for being here. Thanks for showing up and being willing to do things differently, think differently and take on what I suggest to you. No one ever changed their life by doing the same thing, so showing up is the first step and that’s what you’ve done. Share this far and wide, your friends and family will thank you. Take a link from my social channels and share it with your network. The healthier that we are, the better.

So with that said, remember to eat this, one mouthful at a time.

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