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Are All Calories The Same ?

Many health practitioners, especially those educated years ago, continue to repeat the mantra that “A calorie is a calorie.” To lose weight, many recommend cutting calories below your current level, taking the position that calories from fats, proteins and carbs are the same. Many doctors and weight-loss companies also focus on cutting calories to lose weight. We even have computer apps to track and count calories, making the approach seem legitimate. It’s not!

That overly-simplistic approach to calories is a myth, based on a lack of understanding metabolism. People who use calorie restriction for weight loss often gain all the weight back, plus more! So if you follow the advice of cutting calories to lose weight, it will backfire! Why?

Calorie restriction is unwise and unhealthy. You’ll lose important vitamins, minerals, lean muscle, and bone. It also puts your body into starvation mode, which will slow your metabolism more. And any loss of muscle means you now have a smaller engine to burn food and calories, making weight gain easier once you stop dieting. In fact, the whole concept of “dieting” or cutting calories or food intake to quickly lose weight is a false promise!

Digestion and metabolism are the key

The reason that “all calories are the same” is a myth is that it doesn’t account for digestion and metabolism, where different foods are processed differently.

During digestion, sugars and refined carbs break down quickly, from chewing and saliva. They are quickly absorbed after leaving the stomach. Proteins and fats need more stomach acid, bile (from the gall bladder), and other enzymes to be broken down. Those nutrients take much longer. The simple list for digestion speed is: fats are slowest, proteins second slowest, and carbs, especially sugar/refined carbs like soda, cookies and crackers, are quickest. Refined carbs often spike blood glucose which is toxic to tissues! The result is often extra weight/fat.

Consider 2 meals with similar total calories (values approximate)

Here is a comparison of 2 meals, a 4-oz. chicken breast, a large serving of mixed veggies, a medium serving of brown/wild rice and mug of green tea, VS. 3-oz. beef burger on a bun, small fries, and a small, 6-oz. soda.

1. For the chicken/veggie meal, the overall totals are:

  • 480 calories for the chicken breast, veggies, rice mix and tea
  • 32 grams of protein
  • 28 grams of complex, high-fiber carbs
  • 22 grams of fat, mostly healthy types

2. For the burger/fries meal, the overall totals are:

  • 500 calories for the burger, bun, fries and small soda
  • 24 grams of protein
  • 54 grams of low-fiber, high-glycemic carbs
  • 23 grams of mostly unhealthy fat

(It was a challenge to get the calories to match exactly (I had to use smaller servings of fries and soda for the burger meal or would have been much higher). I got within 20 total calories which is sufficient.)


  • What stands out the most is that the burger/fries meal has far more refined, low-fiber carbs, and about twice as many total carbs, 54 vs. 28. Those refined carbs (bun, fries and soda) will spike your blood sugar more quickly, whereas the veggies and rice blend in the chicken meal will digest far more slowly, even slower than protein.
  • The chicken meal has more protein grams (32 vs. 24 grams for the burger), so the chicken meal will also digest more slowly because of the extra protein.
  • The fats in both meals were similar but the chicken meal had less saturated fat with more healthy, monounsaturated fat.
  • The chicken meal will give you more sustained energy over a longer period of time, resulting in little or no weight gain!

Similar calories but different outcomes

The impact on weight is clear! The lower-nutrient burger meal has 54 grams of high-glycemic carbs, along with less protein. That combo will spike your blood sugar faster and higher (think of a steep rise and fall like a sharp mountain peak), adding to weight gain and inflammation (the sugars, carbs and veggie oils are more pro-inflammatory).

The chicken meal with nutrient-rich veggies, rice blend and higher protein will digest far more slowly. It will keep blood sugar more stable compared to the burger meal (picture a gradual rise and fall over several hours like a small hill). With the slower rise, you can burn off those calories with normal activity, resulting in less fat. You might even lose weight! It’s also a low-inflammatory meal because it has more complex, healthy nutrients and fats. The green tea also adds anti-inflammatory polyphenols.

So the outcome on health is very different for the 2 meals: One leads to probable weight gain and inflammation (the burger meal), while the other leads to stable weight or weight loss, and can actually help to lower inflammation (chicken/veggie meal).

Burning Off Those Calories

How much activity does it take to burn off the glucose-spiking burger meal? How about 30-45 minutes of running, cycling or jumping rope to keep from gaining weight! That’s about how much exercise you will need to do to burn up most of the calories and the surge in blood glucose! How many people have these fast-food meals (or make them at home), and are working out every time they eat that way?

Keep in mind, many burger/cheeseburgers, fries and soda combinations have larger portion sizes than I used, reaching 700-1,000 calories. That means it could take an hour (or more) of exercise to burn off the calories and spiking blood sugar for one meal! No wonder so many people gain weight, year after year!

The burger-type meal will also contribute to a host of health conditions and diseases, such as heart disease, atherosclerosis, high BP, diabetes, arthritis, cancer and more! Those problems add to the unfortunate misinformation that all calories are the same. They are clearly not!

© 2012 by Steve Carney/


Steve Carney developed a passion for overcoming life challenges because of childhood illness. He learned what it’s like to be hospitalized and go through shots, surgeries, pain, etc. It was a real lesson in what happens when you lose your health. He even had to learn how to walk again! He overcame those challenges, including a limp that he had until his 30s! Steve has had to overcome other life challenges too, including dyslexia, excess weight, allergies, blood sugar problems, knee pain, a thyroid issue and even a recent car accident!

Steve has dual certifications as a Certified Nutrition/Fitness and Health Coach, and a Certified Professional Life Coach (CPC). His passion for health and longevity goes back 20 years and he still reads research daily (nutrition, supplements, health, disease and drugs).

His mission is to end sickness now by helping others with better nutrition, activity, and to live a longer, healthier life!

You can read more about Steve Carney and his work at his website: