Updated: Jul 8
A CALORIE ISN’T ALWAYS A CALORIE
Let me explain how calories from whole plant foods behave differently from the processed foods most people consume. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. “Calories in must equal calories out”, otherwise weight gain will follow. This is only partly true. The saying “a calorie is a calorie“ assumes that a calorie coming from any food source, whether it’s French fries or a garden salad, will behave the same way once in our bodies. Let me make it crystal clear, 700 calories coming from French fries WILL NOT affect your weight, metabolism and hormones the same way as 700 calories coming from an unprocessed whole food source. I wouldn’t want someone looking to lose weight to choose processed foods instead of eating the same amount of calories from whole foods, thinking that their impact on weight gain or loss will be the same. People love hearing good news about their bad habits, so I’m sure they would love to hear that they can have the French fries, thinking its calories will have the same impact on weight than any other food with the same calories. That simply isn’t true. It assumes that 300 calories of French fries from McDonald’s will have the same impact on weight gain as 300 calories of beans or nuts and we know that this is not the case.
I’m very passionate about having this myth debunked since I’ve had patients tell me they avoid super healthy foods, like nuts, seeds or legumes because they’re high, or dense, in calories. People assume that if they count calories, and are in a calorie deficit, they’ll automatically lose weight, which is only partially true. Although I do agree that if you eat a calorically deficient diet, you will lose weight, you have to remember that calories behave much differently in your body, depending on what food they come from. Let me explain…
When you eat white rice, you’re eating a processed food. The husk, brand and germ of the rice has been removed to make it more shelf stable and to prevent spoilage. This removes the fiber and most of the vitamins and minerals that were attached to it. But lack of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) isn’t the only problem with processed white rice, or any other processed food. The processing has made the grain so easily digestible that we convert it rapidly into glucose, causing a quicker rise in blood sugar than it’s unprocessed counterpart brown rice. This is exactly what the glycemic index measures. It describes the speed and level that blood sugar rises after eating a specific food. Foods that have a higher glycemic index will affect the body’s response differently. For example, the blood sugar rise seen with white rice is faster and higher than that seen with brown rice. The ensuing insulin spike will be higher with white rice than brown, and the body will be jolted into calorie and fat storage mode in response to insulin, a major risk factor for diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. High glycemic index foods, like fast foods, or other processed foods, have been proven to actually increase appetite. This is a major barrier and reason it becomes so difficult for people trying to lose weight. Imagine trying to stay in a calorie deficit while eating highly processed foods. The actual foods you’re trying to limit are increasing appetite and are lacking so much nutrition that their trying to convince your nutrient starved self to eat more. The fact that foods with a high glycemic index increase appetite is very well studied. The slow and steady rise in blood sugar with brown rice will lead to a more slow and steady rise in insulin and lowers the risk of consuming excess calories, lowers the insulin spike, and lowers the risk of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. 2-3 hours after eating brown rice, the fiber (that unfortunately has been removed from the white rice), will make its way to the colon where it will feed our gut bacteria. After feasting on fiber, our friendly gut bacteria will produce compounds called postbiotics (specifically short-chain fatty acids, or SCFA) that will then send satiety signals (feeling of fullness after a meal) to our brain. You read that right. Feasting on fiber at noon will not only make you feel fuller now, it will decrease hunger, slow down digestion and limit calorie intake (this has been studied and proven) at the next meal too. It’s untrue to say that 300 calories of white rice is metabolically equivalent to 300 calories of brown rice. They’re not digested the same, they’re not absorbed the same and their impact on subsequent calorie intake at the next meal is NOT the same. So 300 calories of one food isn’t equivalent to 300 calories of another one. So if you read that correctly, you’d now realize that high glycemic foods have been found to have metabolic and hormonal effects that tend to promote excessive eating, while low glycemic index foods do the opposite!
The second point, after the glycemic index of a food, is the fact that it’s not the calories you eat that matter, but the ones you absorb. For example, we’ve all had this next experience. We overindulge in tasty foods, like blueberries, or corn on the cob. We gulp them down, swallowing some whole, practically not even chewing between bites. Then at our next visit to the bathroom, we see bits and piece of these very foods, even undigested whole pieces in our stools. These foods have calories in them. And if you flush them down, you don’t absorb their calories. Processed foods are so manipulated, refined and their calories are so easily digestible that no calories make their way to our colon, having been rapidly and 100% digested and absorbed in our small intestine. Basically, we absorb all of the calories that we eat from processed foods. None of them are left over in our colon to feed the SCFA-producing bacteria or available to flush down the toilet.
During an encounter with one particular patient, she asked where she could find beneficial fats in her diet. I recommended nuts and seeds, walnuts to be specific. The patient said that she thought that nuts were unhealthy, calorie dense and contained lots of fat, and so she had avoided eating them. This is the classic example of misinformation. What she didn’t realize is that for one, people who eat nuts tend to have longer life expectancies. They cause a very slow rise in blood sugar, with a very low glycemic index (most nuts range from 0-20, white rice is at 70+). Secondly, nuts being hard to digest means that microscopic particles make their way to the colon and also feed our friendly flora. Our gut bugs reward us with beneficial SCFA which slows down digestion and helps us eat less calories at the next meal. Does that mean that 300 calories of nuts isn’t the same than 300 calories of nut butter? Exactly! Experiments have shown that the more processed foods are, the less chance they have to make their way to our colon to feed our good gut bacteria. If our gut bugs don’t get fed, they won’t reward us with SCFA that decrease subsequent calorie intake. So choose the whole unprocessed version first. Choose the nuts instead of the nut butters if you’re counting calories. You can safely eat the same amount of calories from whole nuts, knowing that the whole food version will lead to some of the calories not being absorbed at all, and indigested food particles will end up feeding our gut bacteria that will then send signals to our brains (via SCFA) to suppress appetite and subsequent calorie intake at the next meal.
I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the point. Calorie deficits are necessary for weight management, but that really only becomes an issue for processed foods. Whole plant foods are engineered by nature to be almost impossible to overeat. Calorically dense whole foods like nuts and seeds are among the healthiest on the planet, and I find it very sad that people would avoid these life prolonging and disease preventing foods in fear of weight gain.
A calorie is NOT a calorie. It depends on the food. It even depends on when we eat it. This phenomenon, called chronobiology, is widely studied and will be explored in more detail in a future post. When eating whole plant foods, they’re already engineered in a way that they’re practically impossible to overeat. Eating 200 calories of carrots would take 2 hours of constant chewing! So enjoy life saving nuts and seeds, or beans and chickpeas. Don’t fear their calorie content. It’s processed and fiber depleted foods you should fear. These ones have been engineered to hijack your satiety signals and make you over consume calories. They’re the real enemy!
Obviously, I recommend whole plant foods for health, but if it’s weight loss you’re looking for, they’re naturally engineered to help with that too. So next time you’re debating between two meals that have the same calorie contents, remember that calories from whole foods do not behave the same way than calories from processed foods.
The solution for health, or weight loss, is simple: eat whole foods, not too much, mostly plants.
Check out my website plantbaseddrjules.com and look for the “How To” section in the menu. There, you’ll find tips and tricks that helped me on my journey towards a plant-predominant diet. Everything there is completely free, no catches! If you're looking for quick, easy and healthy plant-based recipes, check out plantbaseddrjules.com and download my free recipe eBook!
Look for me on the socials, @plantbased_dr_jules on Instagram and go like my Facebook Page, Plant-based Dr. Jules. If you’re looking for some fitness motivation and are curious to see what a plant-based athlete can accomplish, follow me, @maritimeninja, on my fitness account on Instagram or check out my fitness group on Facebook, called Maritime Ninja Warrior. I'm a two-time world championship qualified athlete and you can follow my fitness journey there! You can even access the resources section by becoming a member. It's free and there, you can download free resources like my plant-based recipe eBook!
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Plant-based Dr. Jules
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