Why a calorie isn’t just a calorie

Obesity is such a widespread problem, that you likely are able to claim that you’ve battled with a little or even a lot of excess weight at some time in your life. And it is a battle – somehow, piling on the kilograms is a lot easier than getting rid of them, and that fact has sparked a multimillion pound (pun intended) industry of books, diets, shakes, exercise programmes and the like, and almost as many ‘experts’ on the subject.

When we eat, we fuel our bodies with energy, and our bodies burn that energy to function. But it’s vital not to let your mouth write cheques that your body can’t cash: Balancing your energy intake and expenditure will help your body become an asset, not a liability, so that it supports you physically, mentally and emotionally for the long term.

Still, it’s not as simple as reducing weight loss to a simple mathematical equation, which is what you’ll see on the sites and Instagram posts of many popular diet advocates or other health experts, for example. ”Just take in fewer calories than you expend!” they exclaim. “All you need to do is to eat less and move more!”

Of course, that’s not untrue. If you’re eating more calories than you expend, you will put on weight. But it’s also an over-simplification, and people who follow this advice often find they still struggle to lose weight. The problem is that the reasons we both hang on to fat, and lose it, are much more complex than just an energy imbalance.

All kinds of things lead to being overweight or the clinical term, ‘obesity’. Hormones also have a vital part to play in how we store fat, especially insulin, which some may not take into account. Consider, for example, the effects of cortisol, the hormone that’s released when you’re exposed to stress.

Some cortisol is useful, but too much over a prolonged period can start to cause havoc with your waistline and other body systems. In simplistic terms, increased levels of cortisol contribute to insulin resistance and a cycle that may lead to cravings for fatty, sugary foods and throwing your body into further metabolic disarray. That’s strike one.

Basically, high insulin leads to insulin resistance, and insulin resistance leads to higher insulin, and the result is higher and higher insulin levels, which then drive weight gain and obesity. Because, as Dr Jason Fung explains in this excellent article * (which is well worth a read) when our bodies are exposed to any prolonged stimulus, they quickly develop resistance. As Dr Fung says, you can make anyone gain weight, simply by injecting them with insulin.

The good news is that you can eat food that stops this inflammatory stress riot. What you eat is important – because a calorie from broccoli has a different effect to a calorie from a sugary biscuit. The former won’t stimulate insulin to the same degree. And that’s why a calorie is not just a calorie. You need to eat your calories from the right foods to counteract the effects of insulin.

The bad news for carb lovers is that carbohydrates – particularly the refined ones – raise insulin the most. Protein also raises it significantly, even though it stabilises blood sugar, and animal proteins have a greater effect than plant proteins. But dietary fat doesn’t raise insulin or glucose. All of that means that not all calories are created equal.

I have generally recommended strategic refuelling, which is about not just having the right amount of calories but also timing them to suit your metabolism and daily schedule. For me that means that 80% of the time I generally eat light and at regular intervals, as my travel and work schedule makes it hard for me to eat routinely. I do also do intermittent fasting where I regulate my snacking and restrict my calorie intake for about 20% of the time. There is some compelling evidence that this approach is beneficial not only for weight loss but also for reducing inflammation. I would recommend Michael Moseley as a resource for this.

If intermittent fasting feels too extreme for you, another approach to consider is three moderate meals a day, with limited refined carbohydrates and plenty of fresh vegetables, and no calories between dinner and breakfast, to give your body a break from the insulin cycle. No snacking between meals and no six-to-ten-meals-a-day regime. Just breakfast, lunch and supper, the way our grandparents used to eat.When you do this, your body spends roughly half the day fed, and half the day fasted, which keeps your weight stable over time, and also creates a hormonal environment that doesn’t sabotage your efforts to eat less and move more.

There is no one-size-fits-all, and finding the best way to consume the highest quality of calories is personal journey. Get proper advice, try different things, and listen to your body. You don’t know what you don’t know, but aim for balance and a whole-life approach rather than rigid, extreme programmes that aren’t sustainable.

Most importantly, enjoy your food – it’s meant to be pleasurable, not a source of added stress!

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