Food Is More Than Just Calories "In"
Sunday, February 13, 2011
LifeTime WeightLoss in Nutrition, Tom Nikkola, calorie balance, calorie equation, calories in, calories out

Written by Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

As you read through the articles on the Life Time Weight Loss site or participate in Life Time Weight Loss programs, you’ll quickly see we hold strong opinions about what’s needed to get body weight or body fat levels under control.

In the following weeks, we’ll look at a couple other areas of diet, exercise and lifestyle we feel are important for people to understand in order to manage weight and live a healthy way of life.

Today, we’ll look at why food is more than just “calories in.”

Calorie counting is commonplace among most diet programs. Restaurant menus are expected to display calorie counts. Food package labels display calorie counts (especially those marketed as healthy). Even the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans regularly mention caloric balance. It makes one wonder how we ever stayed lean in our ancestral past without knowing how many calories we consumed.

There’s a lot more to food than the calories in it. Food quality plays a significant role in weight management and general health. In fact, many people find that once they begin choosing the right kinds of foods, calories become less relevant.

The often-mentioned caloric balance looks like the graphic below. From a calories-in standpoint, you can see energy comes from carbohydrates, protein and fat. Alcohol could be added as well, but the main three are what are shown. Calories out result from resting metabolic rate (RMR), physical activity that includes exercise and the thermic effect of food (TEF).


Food “burns” calories

When you look at a food label, you can see the energy value of the food you’re eating. Eating a 400-calorie sandwich with 60 grams of carbohydrate, 10 grams of fat and 17 grams of protein would lead us to believe those 400 calories are available for energy or fat storage. However, the body needs to use energy to break down calories through the thermic effect of food.

Fat is pretty easy to digest and absorb. Two to three percent of calories coming from fat are burned in digestion. For carbohydrates, the percentage is closer to 5-8%. Protein requires the most work to digest and absorb. Between 20-28% of the calories in protein are burned for digestion.

So what impact does this have on the calorie balance equation? By modifying the macronutrients in the diet, consuming more protein and less fat or carbohydrate, the calorie count may not change, but the calories actually available to the body for energy and fat storage are reduced.

Example 1: 400 Calories*


Estimated TEF

Net Calories

60 grams carbohydrate

240 calories

7% (17 cal.)

223 calories

10 grams fat

90 calories

3% (3 cal.)

87 calories

17 grams protein

68 calories

25% (17 cal.)

51 calories




361 net calories


Example 2: 400 calories*


Estimated TEF

Net Calories

25 grams carbohydrate

100 calories

7% (7 cal.)

92 calories

15 grams fat

135 calories

3% (4 cal.)

131 calories

41 grams protein

165 calories

25% (41 cal.)

124 calories




347 net calories

*These are examples and should not be construed as individual dietary recommendations.


As you can see from the above example, neither meal nets an actual 400 calories. The second example, which is higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates, nets 14 fewer calories. What’s the big deal about 14 calories? Well, what if that difference took place three times a day? It would result in 42 fewer calories a day. Forty-two calories doesn’t seem significant, but if we go back to the calorie balance equation above, what does an excess of 42 calories per day look like?

42 excess calories per day X 365 days X 10 years = 153,300 excess calories

153,300 excess calories / 3500 calories per pound of fat = 43.8 pounds of fat

Yup, in theory, 42 fewer calories per day could result in 43.8 pounds of fat lost in ten years!

How does this tie in with the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.)? The S.A.D. tends to be lower in protein and higher in carbohydrate. Even worse, when people try to limit their fat intake, they often limit their protein intake as well, which further reduces the advantage of TEF. If people were to consume the same amounts of “calories” off a label, but ate foods typical of the Standard American Diet or low-fat diet instead of a more moderate level of carbohydrates and a little more protein, it could have a significant effect on weight gain over a period of years.

Food can decrease (or increase) hunger

Studies show protein has a significant effect on satiety, meaning an increase in protein helps people feel satisfied longer.[i] Have you ever tried to eat 1000 calories worth of chicken breast? It’s not easy to do. On the other hand, it’s not that hard to consume 1000 calories of cheesecake in a single sitting. One of the most effective habits I recommend to clients is to eat their vegetables and protein first, so they’re less likely to overeat starches.

Even when people eat a higher amount of whole grains in place of processed grains, such as in the Mediterranean diet, their level of satiety has been shown to be less than when individuals follow a slightly higher-protein, Paleo-style diet. In a recent study, participants were shown to be more satisfied with the Paleo diet than the Mediterranean diet, even though they ate fewer total calories on the Paleo diet.[ii]

On the other end of the spectrum, have you ever tried controlling cravings while eating a low-fat, high-carb nutrition diet? An excess of carbohydrates (especially processed carbs) send blood sugar levels skyrocketing, especially in the absence of protein. After blood sugar levels rise, insulin is secreted, which brings blood sugar levels back down. As blood sugar levels fall, cravings increase and people want to eat again. Not only does the insulin turn off the body’s ability to burn fat, but it can also create a roller-coaster of hunger and cravings.

Besides insulin, other hormones are affected by the types of foods we eat. Leptin and ghrelin give us the signals of when we should be full and when we’re hungry again. Both are affected by the types of foods we eat. Another hormone, thyroid, has a significant effect on metabolic rate. When people reduce their calorie intake, it can reduce the amount of thyroid produced. This can be a double-edged sword, because people who use low-calorie diets to create a caloric deficit can end up suppressing their metabolism, making it more difficult to achieve what they want.

Other effects of food

Real food provides a variety of nutrients that go beyond vitamins and minerals. Manufactured or processed foods are often made with ingredients stripped of nutrients. Although they are often fortified, adding vitamins and minerals back in does not give the food the same value it had when it was whole.

For some people, even foods they thought were healthy for them can lead to immune problems. Dairy, gluten and soy are common allergens that can wreak havoc on the digestive system, which is where a large part of the immune system if found. Understanding how to replace allergenic foods can help ensure people with sensitivities still meet their daily nutrient requirements.


Whatever your goal—whether increasing lean body mass, decreasing body fat, living longer, performing better, or all of the above—understanding the way your choice of food affects your body can be more important than knowing calorie counts.

Share thoughts, ask questions below.

Written by: Tom Nikkola – Director of Nutrition & Weight Management, Life Time Fitness

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

[i] Leidy HJ, Tang M, Armstrong CLH, Martin CB, Campbell WW. The Effects of Consuming Frequent, Higher Protein Meals on Appetite and Satiety During Weight Loss in Overweight/Obese Men. Obesity. 2010. doi:10.1038/oby.2010.203

[ii] Jonsson T, Granfeldt Y, Erlanson-Albertsson C, Ahren B, Lindberg S. A Paleolithic diet is more satiating per calorie than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischemic heart disease. Nutrition & Metabolism. 2010;7:85

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