Calories Are Not All Made Equal

I always knew about calories. I grew up knowing that if you did not want to gain any weight, count the calories that you were eating. Well now the world knows better but I am still in the old way of thinking. I have an open mind and realize that new discoveries are made every day. Things we once thought were the gospel are being dispelled every day.

The issue, or maybe not the issue, is that I have never had a weight problem and never had to count calories very much. Now that I am older, OK, now that I am a lot older, I find it difficult to stay my ideal weight. I still look at the calories. My sister informed me that I am going about this all wrong. All calories are not the same. We intake calories from carbohydrates, from fat, from proteins, and from sugar. Sure but still a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. Nope, not anymore.

jelly beansCalories

What is a calorie? the technical answer is:

calorie is a unit of energy. We tend to associate calories with food, but they apply to anything containing energy. For example, a gallon (about 4 liters) of gasoline contains about 31,000,000 calories. You could drive a car 22 miles (35 km) on the calories in 217 Big Macs.

Specifically, a calorie is the amount of energy, or heat, it takes to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). One calorie is equal to 4.184 joules, a common unit of energy used in the physical sciences.

When you eat more calories than you need, your body stores the extra calories as fat, thus causing weight gain.

Some calories come from carbohydrates, some from fats, some from proteins, and some from sugars. You need to be careful how or where your calories come from to be healthy. One gram of fat has 9 calories, and one gram of protein, sugar, and carbohydrates each have 4 calories.


Carbohydrates are found in fruits, vegetables, pasta, grains, peas, and beans. Proteins are found in meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, and meat. Sugars are easy. They come from sugar. These calories are not all the same. Carbohydrates supply energy the quickest while fats take a longer time to be broken down in your body to supply your energy needs.

Foods that have a higher fiber content provide volume for your gut. They take longer than other types of food to be digested and thus you feel fuller with fewer calories.

It seems counter-intuitive but if you eat fatty foods, you will feel full for longer than if you get your calories from, say sugar. The sugar will give you a quick energy boost but soon you will feel hungry even if you just had mega calories. There are “good” calories and “empty” calories. “Empty” calories, calories that have no nutritional value which in turn contributes to weight gain and then into poor health.

Just my luck that the “empty” calories taste so good. Those calories come from foods that have little to no nutritional value. Of course, it includes sugar and fats. You know, in my house the candy isle is considered to be isle with the most important food group. To find out now that it is full of empty calories does not give me a warm and fuzzy feeling. After all, those are the best tasting calories on planet earth.

syrupFructose Is A Carbohydrate

There are two main simple sugars in a diet: glucose and fructose. Sure both have calories but they are metabolized differently in your body. A calorie from glucose is better for you than a calorie from fructose. The glucose calorie can be metabolized by all of the cells in your body. On the other hand, fructose can only be metabolized in your liver. After eating a plateful of glucose calories, you will become satisfied and not hungry.

Fructose does not stimulate the hunger hormones in your body so you keep craving more and more as you still feel hungry. Pretty soon you have eaten that whole box of cookies and are still hungry for more. You could cause insulin resistance, abdominal fat increase, increased blood sugar and all sorts of other stuff.

And still, you will want that delicious dinner. Perhaps it is a better idea to eat the glucose calories first and then you may not want as much of the fructose. As you can see, the same number of calories but different effects on your body and that box of cookies. Makes sense to me.

beansCarbs and Fiber

I am told that it is better to eat foods with high fiber. Those foods will take longer to digest thus making you feel fuller and not hungry for those empty calories. This you do not crave so many of those “bad” calories. As a bonus, it helps your insides work better. That is a problem we have all had at one time or another. Not pleasant.

Simple carbohydrates are not as good for you as complex carbohydrates, even though they both have calories. The simple carbs are faster to digest and then comes the energy rush again. The complex carbs take longer to digest so your body gets nourished over time rather than all at once. Your blood sugar is helped by not being elevated so quickly and then to come down with a hard fall.

Carbohydrates may be refined or unrefined.  Feels like the enriched should be better but no, it is the opposite. Refined often means that the products are enriched with vitamins and minerals. However, they tend to increase our chances of becoming obese and having diabetes. OK, now I will eat brown rice rather than white rice. Not a biggie to give up.

If you eat too many carbs they will be stored in your body for future energy needs. First, they stored in your liver and muscles and then in your body. Until those extra carbs are called up and needed, it is called fat. Now that hurts.

potatoesMore About Carbs

Complex carbs are still carbohydrates but they have more nutrients than simple carbs. They’re higher in fiber and digest more slowly. This also makes them more filling, which means they’re a good option for weight control. They’re also better for you as they help manage blood sugar spikes after meals.

Complex carbohydrates are made up of peas, beans, whole grains, and vegetables. Sounds like those calories stay with you just as long as the other calories, you just don’t feel the urge to continue eating.

I have read the backs of jars and cans. They never say this or that is a complex or simple carbohydrate. However, if the ingredient ends with an “ose”  (sucrose, fructose, dextrose, or maltose), it is simple and stay away. it is just one more thing to remember. Forgive me if on many occasions I reach for the simple carbs as it feels like the “right” and simple thing to do.

To summarize, try to get your calories from complex carbohydrates and not simple ones. You should get most of your calories from grains, vegetables, and fruits, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, fish, and poultry. I sure don’t see the word candy in that list. I will try to eat the right foods but no promises.

french friesFat Calories

You also have to figure where your fat calories are coming from. The total fat you eat in a day should be no more than 20% to 35% of your daily caloric intake. Saturated fat should be no more than 10% of those calories. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the maximum amount of added sugars you should eat in a day are Men: 150 calories per day (37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons), Women: 100 calories per day (25 grams or 6 teaspoons). That is a mere two cups of tea a day.

Figuring 1600 calories a day, that means you should eat no more than 100 calories from sugar, 560 from fat, 160 from unsaturated fat, and the remaining 780 calories you should get from your daily intake of grains, vegetables, and lean meat. That equals to 62 grams of fat (including 18 grams of unsaturated fat), 25 grams of sugar, 18 from unsaturated fat, and then the remaining 780 calories from other sources. This is all too confusing. Counting calories is much easier to remember.

bread and butter

Fat in Food

Now I have to learn the difference between saturated and unsaturated fat. They say that unsaturated fats are better for you than saturated fats. Saturated fats are mostly solid at room temperature. That is not too hard to remember. No more crisco for me.

The worst fat by far is trans fats. They have no nutritional value and are harmful to your health. Even I know that. They are found in fried foods, processed snacks, and baked goods. That I did not know.

Saturated fats are in the same league as sugars. They are not complex and are not good for you. The restaurant chips I like so much have 18 grams of carbohydrates, 8 grams of fat & 140 calories per serving. That is for 10 chips. Who can eat only 10 chips? The next time I want to get full quickly I will dip my hummus (yes, surprisingly I do like hummus) in carrot sticks. Hopefully not so many calories and definitely not so many empty calories.


Now for Protein

Protein is contained in many great and no so great foods. Protein uses energy to metabolize so you are not keeping as many calories as the protein actually contains. Essentially if the protein contains 100 calories but needs 25 calories to metabolize, you only end up storing (or possibly using) 75 calories. A chocolate bar may contain the same 100 calories but only needs 2 calories to metabolize so you get to keep 98 calories. Whole foods require more calories to metabolize so stay away from the processed food your body never lets go of. In addition, protein makes you feel fuller and deadens your appetite so you will eat fewer calories.

Some foods that contain proteins are:

lean meat, poultry, and fish
dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese
seeds and nuts, especially almonds and peanuts
beans and legumes (such as lentils and chickpeas)soy products like tofu
some grain and cereal-based products are also sources of protein but are generally not as high in protein as meat and meat alternative products.
lean beef
fish including tuna
brussel sprouts

overlooking sunset

My Takeaways

Counting calories is easier than any other method of diet control
Try eating complex carbohydrates if you are hungry
Go for a walk before eating those girl scout cookies but after step 2
Stay away from trans fats, including processed foods
Eat your broccoli as it is the “perfect food”
Read the labels on all foods
Simple is not always the best (ie. simple sugars)

So if you’re following a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, your target range for total fat is 44 to 78 grams a day. Of that, saturated fat should make up no more than 22 grams. To monitor the fat in your diet, simply add up the fat grams from the foods you ate during the day

No fat or nonfat does not necessarily mean that food is better for you. Sugars and refined carbohydrates are often used to replace fat in processed foods. That adds up to a lot of extra calories with little to no nutritional value and a lot of extra weight. High fiber foods provide volume and take longer to digest, making you feel fuller with fewer calories.

None of this means I have to like it. However, since I am getting older, I have more difficulty controlling my weight. I will give it a try. I like taking food out of the freezer and into the microwave. Today I looked at the package description and decided to forgo the frozen food. It had way too many fat calories so I stir-fried (just a little bit of oil, no crisco) some fresh veggies and served them over a bit of spaghetti. We will see how long it lasts.

Join me in my quest to eat a more healthy diet. It won’t be easy but anything worth doing is never easy.

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