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Nutritionists are Lying – A Calorie Isn’t a Calorie

I remember going to my first nutrition class at Penn State.

I was eager to jump right in since that was what I was there for, but had to wait until some of those darn pre req classes were out of the way.

I walked in day 1.  Liz Evans was our professor.  And she certainly didn’t look like the people I saw in the pages of the magazines I was getting all my information from up until this point.  Hey, you have to start somewhere.

Anyhow, after going over the syllabus, "one of the most important lessons in nutrition — in the entire course," Liz said, "is that all calories are equal.  Nutrition, health and weight loss are really simple" she continued "Calories in equal calories out, your weight is stable.  Calories out are more than calories in, you lose.  If calories in are more than calories out, you gain weight."

Like all the other students, I was writing as quickly as I could. 

And this message continued.  Through my masters and into my PhD, where my research focus was on teaching people how to lose weight permanently.

But it was then that I started to question things a bit more. 

REALLY?  Are all calories the same?

It didn’t make sense to me.  You see from a law of thermodynamics, it does make sense.  If you walk for 1 mile you burn 100 calories.  If you eat 100 calories worth of food, you’ve essentially created a "wash."  Nothing gained.  Nothing lost if we’re solely looking at this with regards to body weight.

But what if you compare extremes?

1 pound of sugar = 1,540 calories

~26 apples = 1,540 calories

Same calories.  But do you think the quality of 1 lb of sugar and 26 apples is the same?  Of course not…aside from the laundry list of nutrition problems eating a days worth of calories from just sugar would cause (nutrient deficiencies, scurvy, tooth decay, etc), how do you think the person eating the 1 pound of sugar would look, feel and perform after she did so?  Of course 26 apples isn’t the ideal "diet" either, but you get the point. 

It’s kind of like the saying, a pound of bricks is the same weight as a pound of feathers.  Sure, they weigh the same … but there are certainly different qualities between them, even though the scale may read the same. 

So as we started to look into this more on our own, with our own clients, and with our own writing & research … we changed our tune and go against the grain of mainstream nutrition to instead give this message:

QUALITY of the diet is more important than QUANTITY of the diet.

Of COURSE calories still do matter. 

But quality is crucial to permanent success.  And it made us even happier when we read a recent study by researchers at Harvard University confirming our point of how the quality of the diet — above and beyond just quantity — can help with fat loss.

The study certainly wasn’t the final word — and definitely had limitations — it wasn’t a "cause and effect" study, but rather a correlation study that asked over 120,000 healthy, well educated men and women about their dietary habits every 2 years for a total of between 12 and 20 years.

They then teased out some of the food items that were associated with weight loss or weight gain among the subjects. 

First, as a whole, they found that the average participant gained about 0.5 kg (1.1 lb) per year.  Who cares, right?  It’s JUST 1 lb.  The problem … year after year after year … that 1 lb adds up and people never lose it and long term it’s more and more dangerous.

The question, then, is what foods did they find contributed to the weight loss vs. those that contributed to weight gain?

Weight Loss:

  • Veggies
  • Fruits
  • Nuts
  • Whole grain foods

Weight Gain:

  • Sugar sweetened drinks
  • Processed meats
  • Potatoes

Interesting, huh?

Again, we’re certainly not saying there aren’t limitations to this study or this type of correlation study, but there were some interesting findings to consider.  The take home points from the authors were to not focus so heavily on calories and rather look at the quality — limit processed or refined carbohydrates and focus instead on veggies, fruits, and healthier food options … even if they are higher in calories (like nuts).  Basically a lot of this boils down to how these foods affect the hormones in our body – namely, insulin, a powerful storage hormone. 

Again, it’s not just how much you eat, but WHAT you eat. 

Just as an aside, we also don’t think potatoes are a "devil" food — we do think the ways people eat them (such as French fries) are.  Again, take this data with a grain of salt. 

At the end of the day, though, we want you to focus on overall diet QUALITY … our message remains the same.  Lots of veggies and fruits, nuts, healthy fats, lean protein and some whole grains.

Pretty basic.  But very effective.

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7 Responses to Nutritionists are Lying – A Calorie Isn’t a Calorie

  1. Oliver September 26, 2011 at 6:59 am #

    Great post, common sense stuff. Many “gurus” take the stance that calories are the only thing that matters, while others say that calories don´t matter. Calories DO matter, and so does the source of the calories. easy. any chance you can give the reference for the harvard study? cheers

  2. tj September 26, 2011 at 8:16 pm #

    My husband and I have always agreed with this concept and just recently have found it interesting that it’s really difficult portion & calorie wise when on occassion having to buy any prepacked or ready made foods for our daughter who has been diagnosed coeliac. The portions & calories often don’t match to what regular foods do. eg regular may consist of 2 biscuits/portion vs 1/gluten free products. Making from scratch is trial and error due to combinations of products that have to be used and quite expensive when we have 5 children.
    We wondered if you could recommend any sites or resources that could be useful. Most of our diet is healthy fresh food but allowable treats is a bit of an issue when you are not up on the substitute products and how those things fit in to the quantity, quality debate.

    HOpe you can help.

  3. Jared September 26, 2011 at 8:42 pm #

    Great post, I think this is an especially hard thing to preach to women. Any suggestions for how to “market” this concept to women who are set on calories taken in must be less than calories used during exercise? I can throw studies at them all I want but they wont actually read them. Thanks!

  4. Barb October 3, 2011 at 9:43 am #

    It took me a while, but the whole concept of “Eat to Win” is exactly how I live and eat today and I am so excited to tell you that I’m WINNING! The quality of our foods make all the difference and applying that concept to how much we eat equals a healthy diet that supports an active, healthy lifestyle. I encourage my clients to read from MoheResults everyday and EAT TO WIN!

  5. Aaron November 8, 2012 at 1:52 pm #

    It all comes down to details. If referring to just the unit of measure a calorie is a calorie, just like a pound is a pound, or an inch is an inch. Quality is important, but once you reach excess, does it not come back to being all calories equal in regards to body mass?

    • Chris and Kara Mohr November 9, 2012 at 12:10 pm #

      Not necessarily — think how 200 calories of sugar would affect hormones, insulin, etc vs. 200 calories of an apple, for example. Same 200 calories when you just look at the calories.

      • Aaron November 15, 2012 at 11:01 pm #

        Again, that’s the quality of the source- Apples being more nutritious than Sucrose. But will not excess calories lead to fat gain without regards of the source?

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