Are Some Calories More Fattening Than Others?

There's a simmering debate about whether calories matter when it comes to weight loss. Is weight loss an issue of quality or quantity? Or could both play a role?

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
June 17, 2014
Episode #288

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The nutrition world seems to be split into two warring camps these days.

On the one side are those who insist that weight loss is simply a matter of taking in fewer calories than you burn. This is a somewhat old-school view that you're likely to hear from spokespeople for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics or the Harvard School of Public Health.  Taken to its absurd conclusion, this view holds that you can lose weight while eating nothing but Twinkies if you don't eat too many and that you can gain weight eating nothing but salad if you eat too much of it.  (Not that anyone from the AND or HSPH are suggesting that you do that).

See also: Can You Lose Weight Without Counting Calories?


In the other camp are those who insist that calories don't matter--it's the type of food you choose that determines whether or not you gain or lose weight and not how much of it you eat.  This camp includes folks like Gary Taubes, Robert Lustig, and David Ludwig. These guys argue that calories from some foods (specifically, sugar and grains) cause you to gain weight more quickly than calories from protein and fat. Taken to its absurd conclusion, this view holds that you can eat as much as you want without gaining weight as long as you avoid those bad foods.

See also: Carbs and Weight Gain


This issue has become a sort of litmus test. A lot of people want to know which camp I belong to so that they can decide whether I'm full of beans or not. Well, as my friend Jose once quipped, "There are two kinds of people in the world - those who believe that the world is made up of two kinds of people and those who don't!"

I actually believe that both sides have it partially right and that the two views are not as mutually exclusive as some would have us believe.

Some Calories Are More Fattening Than Others

It's true that not all calories affect metabolism in the same way. As I've talked about before, calories from protein have a (very modest) effect on metabolism, causing you to burn a few extra calories. Theoretically, you could lose weight without cutting calories simply by increasing the proportion of calories that you get from protein. Your weight loss might only be measurable by an atomic scale but nonetheless it does support the argument that some calories are more or less fattening than others.

See also: Double Your Protein, Lose More Fat?


I've also talked about the way that sugar and refined carbohydrates affect metabolism. These foods are relatively rapidly converted into glucose and absorbed into the bloodstream, which triggers a cascade of hormonal effects which - among other things - signal the body to store fat, which in turn reduces your metabolic rate. Highly processed foods also require less energy to digest which means that a greater proportion of the calories remain in the body after digestion. Again, this supports the view that some calories are more (or less) fattening than others

See also: Carbs and Weight Gain


Those in the "calories don't matter" camp are probably nodding in agreement right now while those in the "calories in/calories out" camp are shaking their heads in dismay. But hang on. I'm about to turn the tables.  Because even though I acknowledge that calories are not all created equal, I still believe that losing weight is about taking in fewer calories than you burn.

Let me explain......


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