Carbs, Fat and Protein: Are all Calories Created Equal? 

Posted June 30, 2016


Does it really matter where the source of your calories come from? Are all calories created equal? If you put ten people in a room you may just get ten different answers. What comprises the food items on your plate will make a big difference not only in your mood, appetite, lean muscle, and blood markers … but also in whether the weight stays on, or off.

A calorie by no other name: In scientific terms, a calorie (also known as kilocalorie or kcal), is the amount of energy required to raise one gram of water one degree Celsius. By that definition, chemically speaking, calories from fat, protein and carbs might be considered equal. However, when we consider the hormonal, physiological, and psychological effect of various macronutrients, the results change. In one study from the University of Copenhagen, 938 overweight adults from eight European countries were put on a strict 800 kcal/day diet for eight weeks, and their weight loss recorded. The volunteers were then randomly assigned to one of five different low-fat diets, and tracked for six months to find out which diet was best at preventing weight gain. After six months an average weight regain among all participants was 0.5 kg, but those in the low-protein/high-GI group showed the poorest results with a significant weight gain of 1.67 kg. The weight regain was 0.93 kg less for participants on a high-protein diet than for those on a low-protein diet and 0.95 kg less in the groups on a low-GI diet compared to those on a high-GI diet. The take home point? Higher protein, lower GI fares best in the long haul.

The power of protein: Protein is a necessary building block for many hormones including serotonin, melatonin, growth hormone, thyroid hormone and dopamine. If we fail to get enough in our diet, we can experience mood disorders, memory loss, increased appetite and cravings, decreased metabolism, sleep disruption, muscle loss and weight gain. Protein triggers glucagon (which maintains normal levels of glucose in the blood while carbohydrates trigger insulin (your fat storing hormone). As you can see, two very different hormonal reactions.  Protein also stimulates the release of Peptide YY from the gut, suppressing our appetite by acting on our feeding center in the hypothalamus. A protein-rich diet also helps to shed stubborn belly fat, according to a study published in Diabetes Care (March 2002). Researchers compared a high-protein diet with a low-protein diet in 54 obese men and women with type 2 diabetes. Those on the high-protein diet had significantly greater reductions in total and abdominal fat mass and a greater reduction in LDL cholesterol.

Fat begets fat: Every single cell membrane in our body is made up of fats. Fats also help us feel full and satisfied because of their effects on our appetite-controlling friends, leptin and CCK. They prevent cravings and actually help us to lose weight when we consume them in the right forms and amounts.  Perhaps the most convincing evidence proving that we need to consume fat to lose fat comes from a team of scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine. Their research showed that old fat stored around the belly, thighs or butt cannot be burned off effectively unless we have new fat coming in from our diet or our liver. In a study of 65 obese adults at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, California, for example, one group added 90 grams (3 ounces) of almonds to a 1,000-calorie liquid diet; another group added complex carbohydrates like popcorn or baked potatoes. Both groups ate roughly the same number of calories and amount of protein, but the almond diet had more than double the fat, primarily healthy monounsaturated fat. Over 24 weeks, the people on the almond diet reduced their weights and body mass indexes by 18 percent compared with 11 percent in the carb group. Almost all the diabetic participants in the almond group were able to control their blood sugar on less medication, compared to only half of those in the carb group.

Carbs is the limit: Insulin imbalance does not always outwardly manifest as obesity. Sometimes the increase in fat occurs in the liver, where its dangers can remain unseen. Curbing carbohydrates is more effective than cutting calories for individuals who want to quickly reduce the amount of fat in their liver, according to Southwestern Medical Center researchers. Both the low-calorie dieters and the low-carbohydrate dieters in the short study lost an average of 10 pounds. However the study participants on the low-carb diet lost more liver fat. A separate study found that cutting carbs is more effective than a low-fat diet for insulin resistant women. While another study found that even a modest reduction in consumption of carbohydrate foods may promote loss of deep belly fat, even with little or no change in weight.

The bottom line: Remember, the primary hormone that tells your body to store energy as fat is insulin; therefore, lower insulin is always better for fat loss. Maintaining consistent blood sugar and insulin is one of the most important steps to balancing all hormones in the body and achieving lasting weight loss. The bottom line is that your diet should focus on eating foods that have the least impact on glucose levels in order to keep insulin in check. Enjoy plenty of protein, low glycemic fruit, green leafy vegetables, healthy fats and stick only to the carbs that keep your weight, mood and cravings in check.

So the next time you sit down to eat, look at your plate and ensure that you have enough protein and healthy fats to balance your hormones – because it is the source of the calories in your meal that matters most, not just the calories alone!


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