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Are all calories created equal?

As I wrote yesterday, to help you get through my long posts, from now on I will put bullet points at the start, telling you in brief what the post is about, and in brief, the main conclusions or points that I come to.

This way, if you are short of time, you can read the bullet points, which only takes 30 seconds, and it should tell you the essence of the post – if it sounds interesting, you will find the 5 minutes you need to read the whole thing, but otherwise, the bullet points tell you enough to get the main idea.

I will try to remember to summarize all future posts this way. I hope this is helpful!

What is this post about?

  • So-called ‘flexible eating’ seems to be the latest popular diet fad
  • The idea is that you can eat pretty much whatever you like, providing you still burn more calories than you eat, so you don’t get fat
  • Here at MND HQ, I think that is downright wrong, and down right ignorant
  • This post looks at the main arguments, between ‘flexible eating’ - “a calorie is a calorie”, and ‘clean eating’ - “all calories are not created equal”

Main conclusions:

  • In my opinion, all calories are NOT created equal
  • Many factors affect your body’s absorption of the calories you consume, and the speed of that absorption, and the chemical make-up of those calories, affect HOW your body absorbs those calories
  • In my opinion, this ‘flexible eating’ is just the latest modern version od calorie counting

Read on to learn more.

Paleo diet, flexible dieting and clean eating

In 2013, the most searched for ‘diet’ online was the Paleo diet. In 2014, I am seeing a rising trend in ‘flexible dieting’ or ‘flexible eating’.

I’m very active in a number of online discussion groups, and in one of those online groups, the subject of flexible dieting comes up as a regular topic. It’s an area I have been looking at for some time now.

The main point of the flexible dieting fraternity is “a calorie is a calorie” and you can eat roughly what you like providing you stay in caloric deficit, then you won’t get fat. They do ‘mostly’ suggest you eat ‘mostly’ good real foods, but there are many proponents of flexible dieting out there suggesting you can eat pizza, chips, ice cream, chocolate bars, white bread, cake and more on a regular basis, daily indeed, providing you stay in caloric deficit - I.E. you burn more calories that you eat. I’m not a fan of this way of thinking, as you know.

Here on I promote “you can eat as much as you like providing you are eating the right things and getting regular exercise”. So there is a difference of opinion between MND and ‘flexible dieting’. In time, I will publish a full ‘opinion piece’ on flexible eating on my MND FAQ’s page, but today, I just wanted to share with you a few thoughts on how I see this issue that “a calorie is NOT just a calorie”.

MND is all about cutting through the bull, dropping the ‘too much science’ headache, and keeping things simple. As I see it, and I have been asking YOU about this for the last two years, the VALUE I bring to you is that “MND takes all the complexity, and delivers it to you as simplicity - a series of easy-to-follow guidelines for abundant healthy living”. This is one of the key guiding principles of what MND is all about. That’s what I am trying to do today - take this very complex and frankly thorny issue, and present it to you as a few plain-English facts.

A quick science lesson first

So here, let me delve into the science, to show you how I do that, how I take all that complexity, and give it to you as simplicity.

MND thoughts on “not all calories are created equal”

Leaving fats and proteins to one side for a moment, let’s look at just carbohydrates, a favourite topic of mine! Ha ha!

The ‘flexible dieting’ guys are saying that carbohydrate calories are ALL the same, whether they are coming from choc-chip cookies or boiled broccoli. They argue that “a calorie of carb, IS a calorie of carb, all carb calories are identical”.

Basic “carbs science 101”: All carbohydrates are sugars, clumps of sugar molecules bound together. You have heard of ‘simple carbs’ or ‘simple sugars’ - these are where there are just a few molecules together. And then you have heard of complex carbs - these are foods where many molecules are clumped together in long complex strings.

When we eat carbs, those sugar-strings get into our gut, where they are broken down inside the upper intestines (mostly) into basic glucose molecules. In order to pass sugar molecules through the gut wall, all sugars must be broken down to very basic sugar molecules, glucose and fructose.

Complex carbs (long strings of sugars) cannot pass through the gut wall until they are broken down to these basic sugars. Your body uses chemicals, known as digestive enzymes, to break these chains or strings of molecules down. I am sure you have heard personal trainers or nutritionists telling you to eat ‘complex carbs’ like pasta, because it offers you ‘slow release’ energy, compared to ‘quick release carbs’ such as a Mars bar, which is ‘quick release’ energy. Right?

All this means is, the chocolate bar is already made of mostly basic sugars, there is not much starch in a chocolate bar (like, none!), so when the chocolate reaches your gut, it’s already mostly in glucose form, you can very quickly transport those sugars (glucose molecules) to an area of the gut wall called the brush border, where the molecules are passed through the gut wall into your blood, where they instantly raise your blood-sugar levels - the so-called ‘sugar hit’.

But with ‘complex carbs’ such as potatoes and pasta, the chains of carbs are made up of many molecules, and your intestines have to break these down (using the digestive enzymes I mentioned) before they pass the glucose molecules to the brush border for transport across the gut wall and into your blood. This digestive process takes a little time, hence the ‘slow release of energy’ as the sugars are released into your blood more slowly, crossing the gut wall in dribs and drabs as the enzymes break down the long strings.

Now, we all know, the speed with which the sugar is delivered to our blood, determines the speed of the insulin response - I.E. fast hit of sugar, big insulin spike (unhealthy). You know this, right? If you need to take a quick refresh on this now, follow this link and remind yourself how eating sugar, triggers an unhealthy insulin response in your body.

OK, science lesson finished, well done!

Now back to the point…are ALL carb calories created equal?

So if ALL carbs end up as glucose or fructose molecules, then whether those carbs come from chocolate cake, or savoy cabbage, the calories are all the same…right?


Let’s suppose we have a plate in front of us, and on that plate is cookies, forget the weight of the product, and forget the total calories, just know that the cookies contain 200 calories of carbohydrate.

The next plate beside us has broccoli on it. Forget the weight and total calories, just know that the broccoli contains 200 calories of carbohydrate.

So according to the ‘flexible eating camp’ who say “a calorie of carb is a calorie of carb”, then the 200 cals of carbs on each plate are absolutely IDENTICAL.

Not all calories are created equal

But if I now eat the cookies, the question has to be - what else am I eating in the course of ingesting those 200 carb calories? Those calories will be mostly pure refined sugar, and frankly there won’t be an awful lot else in the cookies - just some saturated fat, and likely some refined nasty cancer-promoting trans-fat from some highly processed vegetable oil, some kind of chocolate flavouring, and that’s about it. So those 200 calories of carbs will be reaching my blood stream in such a way that has a certain effect on my blood chemistry - particularly with reference to insulin released and the effect that insulin has on opening up a pathway to store excess glucose in fat cells.

If you read the piece linked above, explaining how our blood chemistry is changed when high levels of insulin are present, then you will remember that eating the cookies, opens those ‘one-way doors’ to store excess calories in our fat cells, as energy for later use.

Let’s take a quick look at some typical nutrition data for a typical serving of ‘choc-chip cookies’  (please ensure you set the serving size drop down box to 100 grams, for comparative purposes) in general. We can see that our 200 cals of carb will likely bring along about 100 cals of fats too, and very little of anything else. Some sodium from added salt, and virtually no micronutrients. It seems we will only need about 60 or 70 grams of this food (that is 4 whole cookies) to supply 200 cals of carbs and 100 cals of poor-quality fats. We can see the ingredients of this product here and in all honesty, it’s not very pretty - it’s bleached refined flour, water, sugar, HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup) and vegetable oil shortening (there are those trans fats!) mostly, with a few tiny flavourings added.

Your body needs help digesting that crap…

However, in order for a human body to metabolise refined sugar, such as the sugar that makes up these cookies, the body needs to use a certain amount of vitamin B1, B3, some vitamin C, and also some calcium and trace amounts of potassium, magnesium, zinc and chromium. So the cookies use more micronutrients than they supply. If you see the NutritionDataSelf link for the cookies above, it shows that about 4% of daily B vitamin RDAs are supplied by the cookies - in the ingredients we see that the bleached flour is enriched with…B vitamins! So the ONLY vitamins this product provides, are synthetic vitamins added in manufacturing - otherwise, the bleached flour, sugar, water and oil is ALL inert, dead, lifeless, it’s just chemical gunge that contains no goodness whatsoever.

They have to enrich bleached refined white flour with B Vits by law - since it was discovered over the last 200 years that sugars and bleached flour cause B Vitamin deficiency diseases such as anaemia, pellagra, beriberi and so on. The ONLY micronutrients found in the cookies are those synthetic vitamins added to the flour to stop it from making people sick. If they didn’t add synthetic vitamins, and you were stupid enough to eat ONLY these cookies for weeks on end, you would become very sick and DIE eventually. The cookies are a ‘net-micronutrient drain’ on the human body - it costs minute amounts of micronutrients to digest and metabolise these foods.

Now let’s look at some REAL food

By contrast, when I eat the plate of broccoli, that is going to reach my intestines in a very different form. Gastric emptying (the speed/time it takes for your stomach to pass the food on down to your guts) from my stomach will occur much more slowly, because there will be a greater physical bulk of food. It requires about 800 grams of the broccoli to deliver the same 200 calories of carbs. That is approximately one and one half whole good sized heads of broccoli (almost 2 pounds of broccoli, an entire meal and then some!), and because the food is fibrous, it will require more time in my stomach to be broken down and passed on.

Can we just pause here for thought - so 200 grams of carbs is either 4 cookies, or one and a half whole heads of broccoli! Think about that and why people tend to OVER EAT these days! Now you know why MND says ‘don’t eat processed foods’!!

After leaving my stomach, those 200 calories of absorbable carbohydrates will still be partially bound up in fibrous tissues, needing to be mechanically and chemically (digestive enzymes, remember?) extracted from the fibre before being passed through the gut wall more slowly, along with some vegetable proteins and virtually no fat. Let’s take a look at the nutritional data for our broccoli, here. Please remember to set the drop down selection for ‘Serving size to 100 grams again, and then remember that all the micronutrient profile data here is for 100 grams, so we need to multiply it all by 8, in order to make the comparison. We can see that the broccoli delivers a massive amount of micronutrients: almost 900% Vit C, all the A for the day, an excellent 2:1 Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio, pretty much 50% to 100% RDA on all major Vits and minerals apart from Vit D and B12, which obviously need to come from animal sources.

900% of my Vitamin C, and some FREE protein, too!

The broccoli also delivers 20 grams of protein, a nice bonus for anyone engaged in athletic activity or looking to build muscle, and the broccoli delivers a day’s worth of fibre. Eating all that broccoli (and I might imagine few people could actually chomp through 800 grams of broccoli in one sitting - though I bet I could, I love the stuff!), the composition of my blood chemistry will be different, with much less insulin released, and that insulin release will be slower, and hence both the glucose and the amino acids will be collected and utilised more slowly. As the carbs are digested more slowly, the insulin release will be far more controlled, and with those 20 grams of vegetable protein coming along with the carbs, the insulin will help both those macronutrients end up where they need to go, at the right speed.

Here is the key point we have just proved - A carbohydrate calorie is always a carbohydrate calorie, but how it’s absorbed and utilised will be different for different foods in different combinations.


So it looks to me, like 4 choc-chip cookies (a snack, not a meal), gives us our 200 cals of carbohydrate. Consumed as choc-chip cookies, this delivers to a human body, 200 cals of bleached white flour and pure refined sugar, 100 cals of poor-quality fats (flexible dieters, that will have to come out of your fat allowance elsewhere), triggers an insulin release which sets up blood chemistry in a way to encourage the storage of excess energy in fat cells, and then - because of the speed of the sugar/insulin response - very likely triggers a blood sugar low afterwards (rebound hypoglycaemia), probably signalling hunger and the desire to eat again, and it leaves our bodies with fewer micronutrients that before we ate.

But by contrast, the 200 cals of carbs we eat from our broccoli, is a meal-and-a-half, not just a snack, and it triggers a much slower insulin release, not a ‘spike’, and it delivers masses of micronutrients to our bodies, and we certainly won’t feel hungry afterwards. The broccoli offers fibre and protein as a bonus, and an all-important boost to our Omega fatty acids ratio.

This “all carbohydrate calories are identical” thing is wrong, because it looks at one small aspect of “a food” in isolation, when we should be looking at complete foods, in my opinion.

We could study calories from protein under the same light

The flexible eating folks say “A calorie from protein is always the same as another calorie from protein.” But if ALL protein calories were ALL the same, bodybuilders could eat peas all day long and not beef, chicken and eggs. But they don’t, because they know the pea protein has an incomplete amino acid profile, and they need the more complete proteins that come from animal sources. Therefore, as I am sure any strength athlete would agree, a calorie of protein from beef is “not going to achieve the exact same result in your body” as a calorie of protein from a pea. Vegan bodybuilders are masters of knowing what vegetables, legumes and grains to eat in combination to achieve full spectrum amino-acid profiles. They KNOW that all calories from protein are not exactly the same.

I believe that the problem with ‘flexible dieting’ is that it takes calories in isolation and fails to look at the bigger picture. It fails to look at foods. You see, people talk about calories all day, but who knows what a calorie is? Oh sure, you can tell me its the equivalent amount of energy required to raise a gram of this by that…bla bla bla. But what does a calorie look like? Have you ever held one, can you describe it, what does it smell of?

Right. You don’t know. No one does.

But you know what broccoli is. You know what beef is. You know what they smell like, feel like and taste like.

Counting calories is scientific game playing. The fundamental point that to lose weight, people should burn more calories than they eat, is correct, but beyond that, calories are marketing tools companies use to trick you, scare you and create products and systems for you to buy in to. If you follow MND principles, such as -

  • Just eat real food
  • Have more exciting things in your life that ‘what’s for dinner tonight?’
  • Stay active, every day
  • Only eat when you are hungry
  • Stay well hydrated

- if you stick to those principles, it’s actually quite easy to lose weight, quite hard to get fat and quite easy to find healthy equilibrium.

This is exactly why I created MND and the 12 Core Principles in the first place - to be a permanent sustainable lifestyle, not a fad diet that people yo-yo in and out of. And because “dieting is tough”, MND isn’t a diet, it’s a way of life, pleasurable and rewarding, not tough and restrictive, not a hardship.

At the end of the day, every ‘diet’ works for some, temporarily for some, permanently for others, and not at all for yet others! My goal in MND is to educate people about how their bodies work, how we should nourish them to be more closely aligned with Mother Nature’s grand design, and how to live to THRIVE, not just SURVIVE.

21st Century Calorie Counting

In my opinion, flexible dieting is simply the modern version of ‘calorie counting’, it’s a bit like a Weight Watchers points-based system in new clothes.

The old 1990s calorie counting idea: You eat a mix of carbs, protein and fat, and the exact amounts don’t matter too much, as long as there is a bit of each in there, just don’t exceed your daily total calories. Once you’ve had some carbs, proteins and fats, and you have a few calories ‘left over’ for the day, then you can eat what you like – so-called ‘red foods’, sin points, call it what you will, just don’t exceed total cals. Total cals for each individual are worked out based on size, weight, body composition and weight loss goals.

The modern ‘flexible eating’ idea: You eat a mix of carbs, protein and fat, the amounts of each worked out depending on if you are building muscle or cutting fat, but there will a bit of each in there, just don’t exceed your daily total calories. Once you’ve had some carbs, proteins and fats, and you have a few calories ‘left over’ for the day, then you can eat what you like – red foods, sin points, ‘cheat meals’, call it what you will, just don’t exceed total cals. Total cals for each individual are worked out based on size, weight, body composition, muscle building/training goals and weight loss goals.

It’s really nothing new.


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