A Calorie is "NOT" a Calorie

Following on from a blog I posted a few weeks back, “Calories do NOT make you fat”, I thought I would elaborate a little more on one aspect of why there is very little point in using calories as your first means of controlling your body weight and that aspect is that, a calorie is NOT a calorie.

I grant you that at first glance the phrase, “a calorie is not a calorie,” doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, because of course a calorie is a calorie; if it wasn’t then it wouldn’t be called a calorie, it would be called something else… But alas, there is more to a calorie than you might think. Just as with the misleading terminology, “Calories in Calories out” that we exposed to be a complete untruth in “Calories do Not make you fat,” the term “a calorie is a calorie,” is also equally misleading.

As a statement of fact about the amount of energy stored in a measurement of food, the phrase, “a calorie is a calorie,” makes perfect sense and is absolulty correct. However, what happens when that calorie is eaten and how it affects our body, renders “a calorie is a calorie,” completely meaningless.

If I can make a quick analogy, imagine, if you will, that you own a large apartment building and that you rent out rooms in this building. Some of the people who come to rent rooms in your building will be valuable tenants. They may be construction workers, business men and women or doctors. Other people who might want to rent rooms in your building might not be so valuable. Instead of construction workers you might get people who plan to rip out all your fittings and sell them on. Instead of Business men and women you might get free loaders who don’t like to pay their bills and plan on squatting and perhaps instead of doctors you might get a few drug dealers hoping to turn your nice apartment building into a flea-bitten drug den.

Now, if all of these prospective renters wore badges decaling their professions and interests you would quickly weed out the undesirable ones and only allow the best ones in. But, what happens if the vandals look the same as the construction workers, the free loaders look identical to the business people and the drug dealers arrive in white coats and stethoscopes. Suddenly your choices become much more difficult.

Well it’s the same when it comes to the food you let into your body. Some foods build, maintain and fuel your body, while others damage, destroy and poison it and just like our good and bad tenants it’s not always easy to tell the good from the bad… certainly not from just a simple look anyhow.

In this article, I will give you what I hope will be 4, easy to remember examples, of why “a calorie is not a calorie.” We will compare 2 sugars, 2 saturated fats, 2 unsaturated fats and 2 proteins and clearly show that although in each case they look almost identical they are anything but.


1. Carbohydrates (sugars).

Will-fructose-follow-trans-fats-fateA great example of the difference between two seemingly very similar foods are Glucose and Fructose. Both are monosaccharides (simple sugars), both have the same number of calories per gram, 4, both have exactly the same molecular formula (C6H12O6) and both have almost identical molecular structures [1]. They are both also quickly and easily absorbed by the digestive system… but there the similarities end. Once these two sugars enter our bodies the effects they have are very, very different indeed.

The first place all food you digest goes is to your liver. If there is space in your liver some of the glucose in your blood will be taken up to supply you with sugar between meals and the rest will be sent on to re-supply all your muscles and organs. Glucose will also trigger a slight decrease in Ghrelin, a hunger hormone. [2]

Fructose however cannot be taken up by any other structure in the body except the liver, which only has limited space and so to make more space excess fructose gets stored as fat in the liver [3]. Fatty livers are insulin resistant livers and insulin resistant livers make for insulin resistant bodies and insulin resistant bodies are fat bodies!!!

Another difference between Glucose and Fructose is that Fructose does not trigger a decrease in Ghrelin so it has no effect on lowering hunger at all. Fructose is also a lot sweeter to taste than glucose. In fact, pure glucose has a slightly bitter taste while fructose is the sweetest tasting off all the sugars.

There is another key difference between these two sugary cousins that plays very a big part in human health, namely that fructose has very little impact on your insulin levels while glucose shoots them through the roof. On the surface this may seem like a good thing for fructose given that high insulin levels cause not only fat gain but also lead to type II diabetes [4], but unfortunately by not triggering insulin as strongly as glucose, fructose can cause even more damage.

This comes down to the fact that, as I have already pointed out, the liver is the only place that Fructose can be stored and storage is limited. So, when Fructose cannot get into the liver it is then free to roam the body like a sticky little ball of gum and just like a ball of gum it sticks to just about everything. Stray sugars in the blood will pick up bits of protein and fat and form what are called AGE’s (advanced glycation end products) [5]. It is these little balls of bodily flotsam and jetsam that clog up capillaries cause nerve damage and are the reason diabetics can go blind and lose limbs. They can also clog arteries cause inflammation and have even been linked to dementia and Alzheimer’s [6].

Of course, most people know that fructose is to be found in fruit, but what most people do not realize is that half of your table sugar is also fructose, and it is here in the sugar on our tables and in the often-hidden sugars in the processed foods in our cupboards and fridges that most of our Fructose come from and not the one or two pieces of fruit that most people eat per day. 

Of course, Glucose is no saint either when it comes to our health and body composition but that is article all its own. For now, I’ll just say that despite fructose and glucose belonging to the same family, having the same molecular formula and having the same number of calories per gram, a calorie of glucose is NOT the same as a calorie of fructose.



2. and 3. Fats.

Oils-Fats-WaxesFats have more calories per gram than sugars, coming in at a chunky 9 calories per gram but a calorie of fat is still just a calorie right…? Most defiantly not. Fat does not stimulate insulin release like sugars do when we eat it and unlike sugars it does lower the huger home Ghrelin. But just like sugars fats come in both good and bad variations.

To make this comparison let’s look at 4 different fats, 2 saturated fats and 2 unsaturated fats. The saturated fats we will be comparing are MCT’s and hydrogenated saturated fats, (trans Fats). And the unsaturated fats we will be looking at are, Omega 3 and Omega 6.


The Saturated fats.

MCT’s (medium-chain-triglycerides)

two-coconuts-and-coconut-oil-in-jar-without-lidThe human body does not like to store MCT’s so when they go to the liver after digestion they are used as a quick source of energy or they can be sent to the brain as ketones (a high-performance brain fuel). Ketones are also used to treat children with epilepsy who do not respond to drug treatments and adults with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. You can also make your own ketones by going on a very low carbohydrate diet.  One of the best sources of MCT’s are coconut oil but they can also be found in butter. Coconut fats have also been shown to fight both bacterial and viral infections and have also been shown to lower inflammation.  [7].

ac5Hydrogenated saturated fats (trans fats)
are mostly artificially made fats designed to make biscuits and cakes stay fresher for longer on super market shelves. They look almost identical to other saturated fats and have the same molecular make as other fats. They are digested and stored like most other fats too but when they are later being burned for fuel they make large amounts of LDL and they lower the amount of HDL in the blood. LDL by itself is not a bad thing but Trans fats also increase inflammation in the body and combined with high LDL and low HDL this leads to a highly-i
ncreased risk of heart disease. Add this to the fact that trans fats are normally bundled into high sugar foods which makes all those sticky little AGE sugar balls we mentioned earlier and you are really cooking up a recipe for disaster in your arteries.
In a 1993 Harvard study the researchers estimated that replacing just 2 percent of energy from trans-fat with healthy unsaturated fat would decrease the risk of coronary heart disease by about one-third [8].

The Unsaturated fats.

Omega 3 oils are found in the highest concentrations in oil fish. They come in two basic formats, DHA and EPA.

salmon1EPA is an anti-inflammatory and since just about every modern disease you can think of, obesity, heart disease, cancer, hypertension, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease...etc. is linked to inflammation this is a very good thing. It does this by inhibiting an inflammatory enzyme called AA, by attaching itself to the same cell sites that AA is looking to attach itself to. In fact, the only way to decrease inflammation in the brain is with EPA. [9]

DHA is the fat that makes everything else work better. One of DHA’s main functions is to increase the fluidity of the cell membrane, allowing the easy passage of important proteins and fuel into the cell while allowing the cell to easily dispose of free radicals and other emissions that might otherwise build up and damage the cell. It is worth remembering that the membrane of every cell in your body is made from fat… and good fats make cells work better.


Omega 6.
grains-1_copyNuts and eggs are both a good source of moderate amounts of Omega 6’s but by a long, long way most people get their Omega 6’s through their consumption of grains. In small amounts omega 6 is very important at stimulating inflammation to signal the body to damaged areas of tissue so that healing can begin. In a perfect world our diets would have a ratio of Omega 6’s to Omega 3’s close to 1:1. However, with the current high grain diets that most western people now eat due to the poor science that led to lower fat diets being the prevalence for the last 60 years, the ratio of Omega 6 to |Omega 3 is heavily tilted towards Omega 6, with some estimates putting it as high as 20:1.  This can lead to run away or chronic inflammation. Since inflammation is linked to Heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, diabetes and just about every other modern disease you can think of exactly which of these two Omega fats you are getting more of should be of high interest to everyone. [10] [11] [12]

So, as you can see, just like with sugars different fats, even ones with similar names, formulas and identical calories can and do have very different effects on the body. 


4 Proteins.

vital_ingredients_artwork-copy1Just like Carbohydrates, protein has 4 kcal per gram. However, unlike carbohydrate, Protein, just like fat, has a strong effect at lowering Ghrelin, so it will lower hunger levels. Also, unlike sugars, protein is not broken down and absorbed easily and so uses up about 30% of the energy you get from it just by being digested and where sugars and fats are both fuels protein is not. It is a building material for the body. There are certain circumstances where the body can break down protein for fuel if necessary but this is not proteins prime function.  

Once proteins are broken down into their constituent amino acids and absorbed they are sent to the liver, and from there they are sent out around the body to build just about everything in your body. Amino acids are bit like Lego blocks, in that they can assemble themselves into countless different shapes, all of which affect the body in different ways. Join the right pieces together and you get some muscle for your leg. Join other pieces together and you get a proton pump, which insures you make ATP (energy) in the mitochondria of your cells. Join different ones again and you get an enzyme that stimulates your pancreases to make insulin, (which it makes from even more amino acids).

So, proteins are a big deal; they make things and they make things happen. The problem is that while some proteins we eat have little effect on us as we break them down and absorb them others can cause us all kinds of problems.

While the protein in beef is broken down, absorbed and happily used to make all sorts of things in the body the protein that makes up 75% to 80% of all the protein in wheat, Gluten, is not always absorbed so happily.

For people with celiac disease the proteins that make up gluten are seen as invading bacteria and are attacked by the body’s immune system, along with the lining of the intestine wall, which is trying to absorb these proteins. However, you do not need to be a Celiac to suffer from eating gluten. In non-celiac gluten sensitivity, there is no attack on the body’s own tissues. However, many of the symptoms are like those in celiac disease, including bloating, stomach pain, fatigue, diarrhoea, as well as pain in the bones and joints.

Different studies put the number of people who are gluten intolerant between 9% and 29% [13] [14]and another study shows that over 40% of people have the gene which can cause this intolerance [15]. 

If that was not bad enough, gluten has also been shown to exasperated some phycological, psychiatric and other brain disorders, with people suffering from Schizophrenia, Autism, epilepsy and ADHD. All of which reportedly respond well to gluten free diets. [16]  



So, there you have 4 very good reasons to never believe the phrase “a calorie is a calorie,” ever again. When it comes to our health and our weight we really need to stop thinking in terms of numbers, such as “How much am I eating,” and start to reflect a lot more on the foods themselves, “What am I eating,”.

In this piece, we have only touched the very edge of how different sugars, fats and proteins effect our physical and mental lives and sometimes people forget that if their current diet and life style is making them over weight and unhealth on the outside it is possibly doing far more harm on the inside, especially in that one place that never looks any different from the outside, our brains.   

Coach Aaron