Myth #5: Calories are just calories.

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I have had a lot of nutrition lectures.  Whether it was a medical instructor or a dietician that I visited when I was trying to lose weight, almost all of them said weight loss is all about calories.  Although this is true to a point, it is also overly simplistic and there is research to disprove this myth.  Sure, a single calorie is a unit of energy and each calorie has the same energy content whether you get it from alcohol, carbohydrates, fat, or protein, but each of these macronutrients has a different effect on the body.

Notable Effects:

  1. Some carbohydrates tend to raise your insulin and can make you hungry and sleepy.  Now, that sounds like a bad idea when you are dieting.
  2. Alcohol is more calorie dense than protein and carbohydrates and lowers your inhibitions and tends to make you snack.  This is another bad idea.  
  3. Fat has the highest calorie density but it tends to make you feel satisfied quicker.  This is both good and bad.  
  4. Protein has none of these effects, but your brain and heart cannot use it for energy.  

How do each macronutrient’s calories effect weight loss?  Since we are interested in weight loss and maintenance, this is the key question we need to answer.  Each macronutrient takes a different “path” down the metabolic pathway to be burned to produce energy.  They each have a different effect on hunger and even cause different hormone releases.  These differences have an effect on your weight loss and maintenance.   

Research:

  1. Carbohydrates:  
    •  One study looked at appetite in refined carbohydrates such as what found in sugar-sweetened drinks[1].  It found that these carbohydrates increased appetite and reduced satiety which would hinder weight loss.
    •  Also, calories from whole foods (like fruit) tend to be much more filling than calories from refined foods (like candy) due to their fiber content.  Fiber is a form of carbohydrates that has zero usable calories.  Fiber has been proven to reduce your appetite.  
  2. Proteins:  
    • I am not a high-protein guy anymore, but there are a lot of studies that support a higher protein intake in dieting.  One such study showed that 25-30 grams of protein in a meal lead to improvements in appetite and body weight management, but there were issues with dietary compliance[2].  
    • Potential beneficial outcome associated with protein ingestion include increased satiety to a greater extent than carbohydrate or fat[3].  
    • Another study looked at low-fat and different levels of protein over a 6-month span.  They found a fat-reduced diet high in protein seems to enhance weight loss and provide a better long-term maintenance of reduced intra-abdominal fat stores[4].  In particular, at 6 months the high protein group had a 9.4 kg weight loss versus 5 Kg in the medium protein group.  At one year there was not a significant difference in weight lost on the two groups but the high protein group did have 10% less intra-abdominal adipose.  
    •  Another great study showed that a 20% higher protein intake resulted in a 50% lower body weight regain, but also increased satiety and decreased energy efficiency[5].  
  3. Fats:
    • A study performed on high carbohydrate and high-fat meals found that subject on the higher fat meals had a higher degree of satiety[6].  Although it was short-lived in the study, there are other in rats and humans that show dietary fats have both short and longer-term effects on decreasing appetite.  
    • Another such study recruited subject that ate high-fat and low-fat diets and found that higher fat diet subjects individuals had a blunted appetite hormone response to the high-fat test meal.  This may not apply to all but it is interesting that this group did have less of an appetite to fatty foods[7].   

Recommendations: I would not recommend that you go one a high protein diet, but if your choice is a piece of beef jerky or a Reese Cup, the choice should be easy.  As I pointed out above, not all sources of calories have the same effects on health and weight. Protein can have a lower effect on your future weight so it might be the better snack as long as you do not strap on the feed bag and overeat.  Replacing some carbohydrates and fat with protein can reduce appetite and cravings and may assist with weight loss.  

Footnotes
[1]Spadaro et al., “A Refined High Carbohydrate Diet Is Associated with Changes in the Serotonin Pathway and Visceral Obesity.”
[2]Leidy et al., “The Role of Protein in Weight Loss and Maintenance.”
[3]Paddon-Jones et al., “Protein, Weight Management, and Satiety.”
[4]Due et al., “Effect of Normal-Fat Diets, Either Medium or High in Protein, on Body Weight in Overweight Subjects: A Randomised 1-Year Trial.”
[5]Westerterp-Plantenga et al., “High Protein Intake Sustains Weight Maintenance after Body Weight Loss in Humans.”
[6]Hopkins et al., “Differing Effects of High-Fat or High-Carbohydrate Meals on Food Hedonics in Overweight and Obese Individuals.”
[7]Clamp et al., “Lean and Obese Dietary Phenotypes: Differences in Energy and Substrate Metabolism and Appetite.”
Clamp, L, AP Hehir, EV Lambert, C Beglinger, and JH Goedecke. “Lean and Obese Dietary Phenotypes: Differences in Energy and Substrate Metabolism and Appetite.” The British Journal of Nutrition 114, no. 10 (November 28, 2015): 1724–33. [PubMed]
Due, A, S Toubro, AR Skov, and A Astrup. “Effect of Normal-Fat Diets, Either Medium or High in Protein, on Body Weight in Overweight Subjects: A Randomised 1-Year Trial.” International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders : Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity 28, no. 10 (October 1, 2004): 1283–90. [PubMed]
Hopkins, M, C Gibbons, P Caudwell, JE Blundell, and G Finlayson. “Differing Effects of High-Fat or High-Carbohydrate Meals on Food Hedonics in Overweight and Obese Individuals.” The British Journal of Nutrition 115, no. 10 (May 28, 2016): 1875–84. [PubMed]
Leidy, HJ, PM Clifton, A Astrup, TP Wycherley, MS Westerterp-Plantenga, ND Luscombe-Marsh, SC Woods, and RD Mattes. “The Role of Protein in Weight Loss and Maintenance.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, April 29, 2015. [PubMed]
Paddon-Jones, D, E Westman, RD Mattes, RR Wolfe, A Astrup, and M Westerterp-Plantenga. “Protein, Weight Management, and Satiety.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 87, no. 5 (May 1, 2008): 1558S–1561S. [PubMed]
Spadaro, PA, HL Naug, Toit DU, D Donner, and NJ Colson. “A Refined High Carbohydrate Diet Is Associated with Changes in the Serotonin Pathway and Visceral Obesity.” Genetics Research 97 (December 28, 2015): e23. [PubMed]
Westerterp-Plantenga, MS, MP Lejeune, I Nijs, Ooijen van, and EM Kovacs. “High Protein Intake Sustains Weight Maintenance after Body Weight Loss in Humans.” International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders : Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity 28, no. 1 (January 1, 2004): 57–64. [PubMed]
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About the Author

ChuckH

I am a family physician who has served in the US Army. In 2016, I found myself overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, so I made a change to improve my health. This blog is the chronology of my path to better health and what I have learned along the way.

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