Not All Calories are Equal

Calorie counting has been the dominant diet advice for over six decades. Yet we know that not all calories are created equal. Processed food has been exposed for the con artist it is and whole foods are back in favour. A recent study has exposed the research behind low fat diets as fraudulent…

The Sugar Cover-Up

Not according to the November 2016 review, “Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research” published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. Scientists illuminated the link between heart disease and sugar began emerging in the 1950’s. The review writes, “We examined Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) internal documents, historical reports, and statements. The SRF sponsored its first CHD research project in 1965, a literature review published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which singled out fat and cholesterol as the dietary causes of CHD and downplayed evidence that sucrose consumption was also a risk factor. The SRF’s funding and role was not disclosed. Together with other recent analyses of sugar industry documents, our findings suggest the industry sponsored a research program in the 1960s and 1970s that successfully cast doubt about the hazards of sucrose while promoting fat as the dietary culprit in CHD.”

Once these results were published, food companies started a worldwide movement to lower fat content in food. The first low fat foods were born. But without fat present what creates flavour? Sugar! The public began lapping up sweet low fat food, convinced it was healthy, yet the obesity rate began to increase.

soft drinks

Calorie Cons

The calories in fat are high and low in sugar; therefore dieticians were trained to promote calorie counting to keep the weight off. Yet this has not been an effective weight loss tool for the majority of the population. Unlike fatty foods, the consumption of low nutrient, high sugar foods actually increases the appetite.

Dr. David Ludwig, a professor in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health who specializes in endocrinology and obesity says, “Overall, these processed carbohydrates are worse than the fats they replaced.”

Ludwig conducted a study on calories in 2012, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Despite consuming the same number of calories, subjects on the low-carbohydrate diet burned about 325 more calories per day than those on the low-fat diet.


What Makes Us Fat?

The past view on weight gain simply said eating fat makes us fat, but that isn’t exactly how our biology works. Our hormonal state is in charge of weight gain. “Your weight is regulated by a complex system of genetic factors, hormonal factors, and neurological input, and not all calories affect this system the same way,” explains Ludwig.

High sugar in the system triggers the body to release high insulin to bind to glucose and take it where it needs to go, including into our fat cells. Ludwig suggests, “Insulin is the ultimate fat-cell fertilizer. We know that excess insulin treatment for diabetes causes weight gain, and insulin deficiency causes weight loss. And of everything we eat, highly refined and rapidly digestible carbohydrates produce the most insulin.”

Insulin’s effect on your brain chemistry causes an increased appetite. Dr Mark Hyman Medical Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine explains, “The insulin blocks your appetite-control hormone leptin. You become more leptin resistant, so the brain never gets the “I’m full” signal. Instead, it thinks you are starving. Your pleasure-based reward center is triggered, driving you to consume more sugar and fueling your addiction.” Attempting to eat fewer calories becomes an outrageous struggle against perpetual hunger.

In nature sugar is usually packaged with fiber. This intelligent system ensures that the blood sugar level stays quite stable as fiber reduces insulin. High sugar drinks are void of fiber and therefore create an even bigger blood sugar spike than normal. This triggers high insulin, which in turn activates storage of adipose fat and an increase in inflammation.

food blogger pancakes

Much of the processed food and drinks on the market contains high fructose corn syrup. Hyman goes on to say, “The fructose makes things worse. It goes right to your liver, where it starts manufacturing fat, which triggers more insulin resistance and causes chronically elevated blood insulin levels, driving your body to store everything you eat as dangerous belly fat. You also get a fatty liver, which generates more inflammation. Chronic inflammation causes more weight gain and diabesity. Anything that causes inflammation will worsen insulin resistance. Another problem with fructose is that it doesn’t send informational feedback to the brain, signaling that a load of calories just hit the body. Nor does it reduce ghrelin, the appetite hormone that is usually reduced when you eat real food.”

Obesity: A State of Starvation

It seems as though obese people are actually suffering from a strange form of starvation. “When fat cells get triggered to take in and store too many calories, there are too few for the rest of the body—that’s what the brain perceives,” suggests Ludwig. “We think of obesity as a state of excess, but biologically it’s a state of deprivation, or the state of starvation. The brain sees too few calories in the bloodstream to run metabolism, so it makes us hungry. It activates hunger and craving sensors in the brain, and slows down metabolism.”

Evolving the Diet Theory

Today there are many theories on the perfect diet, and interestingly very few are focused on calorie counting. In fact Paleo, Mediterranean, Plant Based and many others are all based on eating whole foods. “Mediterranean or low-carbohydrate diets outperform a low-fat diet every time, and that wouldn’t be true if calories were the only measure that mattered. If you eat the same protein and the same calories, but just begin with different proportions of fat and carbohydrates, do you influence…how much fat you’re storing versus how much lean tissue you have? That’s never been well addressed, but it’s a critical scientific question.”


Many nutritionists and scientist are now supporting the theory that certain high calorie, high fat foods such as fish, avocados, butter, eggs and olives are extremely nutritious. And that nutrition out trumps calories every time. “Some naturally high-fat foods are among the most healthful we can eat in terms of promoting weight loss and reducing risk for diabetes and heart disease.”