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Are all Calories Equal?
Guest columnist Chris Mohr, Ph.D. probes conventional wisdom on weight control
4/11/2013
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By Chris Mohr, Ph.D.
 
My first nutrition class at Penn State was memorable.
 
Our professor certainly didn’t look like the people in the pages of the fitness magazines from where I’d been getting my information.
 
After going over the syllabus she declared, “One of the most important lessons in nutrition is that all calories are equal.”
 
“Nutrition, health and weight loss are really simple,” the professor continued. “When calories consumed equal calories burned, your weight is stable. When calories burned exceed calories in, you lose weight. If calories consumed exceed calories burned, you gain it.”
 
Like all the other students, I was writing as quickly as I could.
 
This message from professors persisted through my master’s and doctoral courses … where my research focus was on teaching people how to lose weight permanently.
 
And it was during my Ph.D. studies that I started to question things a bit more.
 
Really? Are all calories the same?
 
It didn’t make sense to me.
 
About Chris Mohr
Christopher Mohr, Ph.D., RD is a consulting sports nutritionist for the Cincinnati Bengals and Under Armour’s TNP Training Council. Through his company Mohr Results (www.mohrresults.com), he works with everyone from soccer moms to collegiate and professional athletes.

Dr. Mohr often appears on TV as a nutrition expert, provided nutrition expertise for the NY Times bestseller, LL Cool J’s Platinum Workout and worked closely with fitness celebrity Denise Austin on the nutrition component of her latest book.

Chris also serves on the Advisory Board for Men’s Fitness magazine and has written over 500 articles for consumer publications such as Men’s Fitness, Weight Watchers, Men’s Health and Fitness.
 
He earned his Master of Science degree in Nutrition from the University of Massachusetts, and his doctorate in exercise physiology from the University of Pittsburgh. He’s also a Registered Dietitian and Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics.
A closer look at calories and weight control
Looked at from the perspective of the law of thermodynamics, it does make sense.
 
If you walk for one mile you burn 100 calories. If you eat 100 calories worth of food, you’ve essentially created a “wash.” Nothing gained, but nothing lost either, it seems.
 
But what if you compare extremes?
 
For example:
  • 1 pound of sugar = 1,540 calories
  • 26 apples = 1,540 calories
Same calories in the sugar and apples.
 
But do you think the nutritional quality or hormonal effects of one pound of sugar and 26 apples are the same? Of course not.
 
Aside from the serious problems getting most of your daily calories from just sugar would cause – nutrient deficiencies, scurvy, tooth decay, dangerously high blood sugar – how do you think the person eating the one pound of sugar would look, feel and perform?
 
Of course 26 apples isn’t the ideal daily diet either, but you get the point.
 
It’s rather like saying a pound of bricks is the same as a pound of feathers. While they weigh the same, there are clear differences between the two.
 
So as we started to learn more via research and our experiences with clients, we changed our tune to go against the grain and give this message: Quality of diet is more important than quantity of calories.
 
It was gratifying to read a recent study by researchers at Harvard University that confirmed our view of how the quality of calories consumed — above and beyond just quantity — can help with fat loss and continuous weight control.
 
The study certainly wasn’t the final word, because it wasn’t a clinical trial that could prove a “cause and effect” link between diet and health.
 
Instead, it looked for statistical correlations between the self-reported diets and documented health outcomes among some 120,000 healthy, well-educated men and women over periods ranging from 12 to 20 years.
 
They then identified food items that were statistically linked to weight loss or weight gain among the subjects. First, the average participant gained about 0.5 kg (1.1 lb.) per year.
 
Who cares, right? It’s just one pound. The problem is that one pound per year adds up and most people never lose the weight, which becomes more dangerous over time.
 
Which foods were linked to weight loss and which were linked to weight gain?
 
Weight loss
  • Veggies
  • Fruits
  • Nuts
  • Whole grain foods
Weight gain
  • Potatoes
  • Processed meats
  • Sugar-sweetened drinks
The take-away points were simple:
  • Don’t focus so heavily on calories.
  • Shift your diet away from processed foods and refined carbohydrates.
  • Focus on whole foods: veggies, fruits, nuts, and beans … plus protein foods either relatively low in fat (lean meats) or rich in healthy omega-3 fats (e.g., fatty fish).
Critically, it’s important to consider how different foods affect the hormones in our body – namely, insulin, a powerful fat-storage-stimulating hormone.
 
Again, it’s not just how much you eat, but what you eat.
 
Pretty basic … but very effective.
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