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Are all calories created equal?

Posted Jul 20 2013 5:50pm
How-many-calories-to-lose-weight In a blog post on my website earlier this week, I taught how to count your calories and log your diet the right way. But it’s important to realize that especially for triathletes, it’s the nutrient density and quality of your food that truly matters – not the calorie content.

But wait – a calorie is a calorie, right? 

Not really.

In the most  recent such study  to date, two groups were compared (O’Connor). One group ate slow sugar release, low glycemic index foods (think raw nuts or beef jerky) and another group ate faster release, high glycemic index foods (think white rice or wheat bread).

But both groups ate identical amounts of calories.

Researchers then monitored blood sugar levels and appetite of the subjects, and found that those consuming the high glycemic index foods had a blood sugar level crash just a few hours after eating, and were hungrier sooner compared to the group that ate the slower release foods.

In other words, an identical amount of calories consumed from a sweeter food triggered food addiction symptoms and appetite cravings. Entire books have been written on the subject of why calories matter much less than we think. A good place to begin is Gary Taubes “Good Calories, Bad Calories“. But just in case you don’t have time to read an entire book on why calories don’t matter, I’ll give you 3 quick reasons why your primary focus should not be on counting calories:

1. Humans Don’t “Burn Calories”.

Calories technically don’t even exist. A calorie is just a unit of measurement used to describe the amount of heat produced when a nutrient is burned in a metal oven called a calorimeter. And your body is much, much different than a simple metal oven.  The process of burning fat or turning nutrients into energy or stored matter is way more complex than counting fictitious calories – and as you’ve learned from the study above, something as simple as a slight speed of sugar release difference results can result in massively different hormonal and metabolic reactions to a food.

2. Calories Aren’t Our Fuel For Exercise.

Human motion is not fueled by calories. It’s fueled by the nutrient derived chemical adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The problem with simple reliance on counting calories – besides the non-existence of a calorie – is that this somehow makes us believe that our bodies are using exactly what we ate before the workout for fuel. In reality, your own storage fat provides the most concentrated source of energy – and there are athletes out there (find them on sites like or Jack Kruse’s forum) who are exercising at a steady state for entire days with zero actual calorie intake. Their body is simply produced it’s own ATP from fat.

Getty-200565523-001-nutrients-x 3. Nutrients Are What Really Matter.

In reality, nutrients matter far more than calories, and nowhere is this more true than in exercising individuals. When the focus is on calories, everything becomes about the numbers rather than the nutrition – and you can easily end up missing key vitamins and minerals.

For example, a highly processed (but relatively nutrient empty) Tacquitos snack pack advertised as just 100 calories seems like a real deal if you’re counting calories. But in choosing the snack pack, you might pass on a calorically equivalent large apple that rings in at roughly the same amount of calories. Compared to the Tacquitos, the apple  delivers Vitamin C, folate, fiber, potassium, Vitamin B6, thiamin, and riboflavin.

So the apple beats the Tacquitos. And incidentally, 100 calories of wild salmon beats the apple. And (although you may not like  to hear this), 100 calories of organic, grass-fed liver beats the wild salmon.

Need a bunch of nutrient dense food ideas? Go read this post. That’s where you’ll find nutrient dense foods that allow you to quit counting calories.

Ben Greenfield is currently writing a book that teaches triathletes how to be healthy on the inside and healthy on the outside too. Visit to grab more free articles, videos, and a podcast from Ben.

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