Not All Calories Are Created Equal

Imagine with me for a second you’re sitting at a table. On the table in front of you lies two plates. Both plates contain 1200 calories worth of food however, the plate on the left has doughnuts, cupcakes, and candy, while the plate on the right contains lean meats, cheeses, and vegetables. Which is better? Obviously, we’ve all been taught that the plate on the right is better, but why? Both plates contain 1200 calories, right? To a serial calorie counter, this number is the only thing that seems to matter, but it’s not. The source of your calories matters. It can mean the difference between success and failure. But why? Let’s take a closer look at calories and why they matter so much!

What is a Calorie?

fresh vegetables and calories table isolated on black, healthy lifestyle concept

We all know that all foods contain calories, but what IS a calorie? To most its just an evil number they need to keep as low as possible or they’ll get fat right? Wrong. A calorie is nothing more than a unit of energy. Historically scientists have used it as a measure of energy or heat from a number of sources such as natural gas, however to us in the nutritional sense a calorie is all types of food whether fat, protein, or carbohydrate. All are calories; however, each macronutrient has its own defined calories as seen below.

  • 1 gram of carbohydrates = 4 calories
  • 1 gram of protein = 4 calories
  • 1 gram of fats = 9 calories

So, it’s easy to see that a calorie is nothing more than a way to measure potential energy in a given food. Similarly, calories also measure the amount of energy our bodies need to continue to function. For example, when you’re jogging on a treadmill and it tells you “Calories Burned: 250” that means it’s telling you that your muscles have used 250 calories worth of energy to carry you that far. Everything we do in fact burns calories, even down to our heart beating and our lungs breathing. This is called our bodies resting metabolic rate. Essentially all this tells us is how many calories our bodies burn at rest.

How many calories do I need?

CALORIE counting counter application Medical eating healthy Diet concept

Similarly to the question in my previous articles How many carbs will break ketosis, and What fats should you eat on the Keto Diet there is just no way to give it a blanket answer. Your daily caloric intake all depends on your activity level and your resting metabolic rate. There are lots of calculators out there online, but these will only give you a very vague ballpark number for your caloric needs. If you want a more exact number, you can easily go into your doctor or dietitian and they can easily figure out exactly what your bodies needs are. It is however generally accepted that women should not drop below 1200 calories per day, while men should not go below 1500 calories per day.

Calories and weight loss

Now that we understand what calories are, we can see why they are so important to us in terms of weight loss. If we are eating more calories than we consume in a day, our bodies will convert those calories into bodyfat so it can be used later. Think of it like this; bodyfat is a fuel source like gasoline is in an engine. Like a racecar we want our bodies to have just the right amount of fuel to finish the race. Too much fuel and we will be too heavy, which will make us slower than the other cars, but not enough fuel and we putter out and die before we can finish the race. Our body turns unused calories into bodyfat essentially putting fuel into its reserve fuel tank. A natural response left over through evolution from days long since gone where meals were not as easy to come by. While this was super handy for keeping our ancestors alive during the hunter gatherer days of human history, its more of a pain in the butt for us today. Therefore, knowing your resting metabolic rate is so important for losing weight. You need to keep yourself in a slight but healthy caloric defecate (slightly under your daily calories burned). This will force your body to begin burning off its reserve fuel tank (unwanted body fat) without sending it into a panic, and make your body think it needs to be in starvation mode.

Empty Calories

Now that we have a good understanding of what calories are, and how they work in our bodies, lets go back to that table with the two plates. On the left, we have doughnuts and cupcakes, and on the right, we have lean meats, cheeses, and vegetables. So, which do you choose and why? The plate on the right contains a wide variety of foods, some high-calorie type foods like meats and cheeses, and some low-calorie foods like vegetables. However, what they all have in common in they are all nutrient rich foods. Everything on that plate is a good source of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals your body requires to continue functioning properly. These nutrients are all used for various functions inside the body, thus making them consumable making it extremely important for you to replenish these nutrients as you use them. The plate on the left however is loaded with what is known as “Empty Calories”, or foods that contain little to no nutrients. Foods that fall into these categories are typically high sugar options like ice cream, soda, and candy. Even things with “some nutritional value” like pizza, or processed meats like hot dogs fall into this category simply because the do not provide the right or enough of the right nutrients your body needs.


So, as we can see, while both plates contain 1200 calories of energy, only one plate will offer you a longer lasting healthy source of energy. While the other plate will do nothing more than give you a huge sugar rush, followed by a crash. This crash will leave you seeking more and more calories to keep you going, unfortunately while you may feel like you have no energy, your body has not even come close to burning those calories off, so all you’ll be doing is adding fuel to the reserve tank of your race car… making it heavier, and too slow to compete.

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