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When Is A Calorie Really A Calorie?

Understanding how to balance your diet to give you the right amount of satiety (fullness) – while not letting your hunger go wild – is the key to feeling in control of your diet.

What foods influence your metabolism and hunger, and how you can make food work for you?

What Is A Calorie?

We often think of calories as something we eat, but, the truth is, a calorie is simply a unit of energy.

The total amount of calories are determined by adding up the calories provided by the individual components of the food. This means determining the amount of energy from the protein, carbohydrates, fat, and alcohol.

This method works because the calories in a gram of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and alcohol remain constant. Each macronutrient has the following caloric values:

  • 1 gram of protein = 4 calories

  • 1 gram of carbohydrates = 4 calories

  • 1 gram of fat = 9 calories

  • 1 gram of alcohol = 7 calories

That’s how you add up the calories in your food. But, that’s not the entire story. As you’re about to find out, macronutrients are metabolized differently, which is why all calories are not equal. Some foods (like protein) burn more calories during digestion, and other foods (like the fibre in your carbs), affect hunger and appetite.

Understanding how to balance your diet to give you the right amount of satiety – while not letting your hunger go wild – is the key to feeling in control of your diet.

Why Calories Are Not Equal (And What It Means For Your Meals)

The confusion about calories is less about how many grams are in a particular food after it’s cooked or when it’s in a package, and more about how your body makes use of those calories once you eat and digest food.

The human body is the greatest machine ever built. You need a certain number of calories to carry out every day functions like breathing, walking, and thinking. And because your very survival depends on calories, your body processes foods differently to help fuel all of your needs.

To understand how you gain and lose weight, you need to think about energy balance, which is the old calories in vs. calories out debate.

Although many things can impact energy balance, the type of calories you consume plays a large role. That’s why all calories aren’t equal.

Your daily metabolic rate is influenced by many things. The three main components are:

  • Basal metabolic rate (BMR): This is the amount of energy your body needs to work.

  • Thermic effect of food (TEF): This is the amount of energy you burn when you eat.

  • Exercise and activity: This is the calories you burn from movement and exercise. You can split this into different categories, such as NEAT (thins like moving around and fidgeting) and your traditional workouts.

What most people don’t realize is that 65 to 80 percent of the calories you burn every day is from your basal metabolic rate. Physical activity and the foods you eat make up the remainder of your metabolism, but that doesn’t mean they’re insignificant.

Protein, carbs, and fat are all metabolized differently. Eating 100 calories of protein is different than eating 100 calories of carbs because protein has a higher thermic effect of food (TEF).

When you eat protein, up to 30 percent of the calories can be burned. In the example above, if you ate 100 calories of protein, roughly 70 calories would hit your body because 30 calories would be burned as a result of the protein’s high TEF.

In other words, the greater the TEF, the more this will influence the “calories out” portion of the calories in minus calories out equation (because not all of those calories will end up in your body and stored). Comparatively, carbs have a TEF of just 5 to 10 percent, and fat is usually around 3 to 5 percent.

This is one reason why higher protein diets tend to be associated with weight loss and maintenance.

Next week we'll explain The Domino Effect of Eating More Protein.


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