All Calories (and All Foods) Are Not Created Equal

A recent study makes the point that what you eat matters as much as how much you eat. That is, 100 calories of carrot sticks or grapes and 100 calories of deep-fried anything are not the same, in that our bodies do not burn them off in the same way.

In particular, more research suggests that the body treats foods made from highly processed carbohydrates (white flour, sugar) differently. Eating these results in spikes in blood sugar and insulin and in our retaining fat rather than burning it off.

In the study (published in the Journal of the American Medical Association), Cara Ebbeling and David Ludwig, the associate director and director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center of Boston Children’s Hospital, looked at how well people were able to maintain weight loss. As New York Times writer Mark Bittman points out, “few people maintain even a small portion of their weight loss after dieting.”

21 overweight and obese young adults who had lost 10 to 15 percent of their body weight were randomly asked to follow each of three diets for four weeks:

Diet #1. A standard low-fat diet with 60 percent carbohydrates (with fruits, vegetables and whole grains, though not unprocessed ones), 20 percent from protein and 20 percent from fat — a diet that has been widely recommended for 30 years.

Diet #2. An ultra-low-carb diet  with 10 percent of calories from carbohydrates, 60 percent from fat and 30 percent from protein — what is popularly known as the “Atkins” diet.

Diet #3. A low glycemic diet, with 40 percent carbohydrates (specifically, minimally processed grains, fruit, vegetables and legumes), 40 percent fat and 20 percent protein.

On diet #1, the standard low-fat diet, participants burned the least amount of calories. They burned 350 calories (about an hour of moderate exercise or, notes io9, a Snickers bar) more a day on #2, the “Atkins” diet. They burned 150 calories more (about an hour of light exercise) on the low glycemic diet.

So, eating some foods does makes you burn off more calories. However, the “Atkins” diet, while providing the best metabolic benefits in the short run, poses health risks in the long term. It raises levels of CRP (c-reactive protein), a measure of chronic inflammation, and cortisol, a hormone that mediates stress, and both of these are  “tightly linked to long term-heart risk and mortality,” says Ludwig. The best diet over time is #3, the low glycemic one because, along with the (milder) metabolic benefits, it does not require that you remove “an entire class of nutrients” from your diet. Doing so is, says Ludwig, “not only hard from a psychological perspective but may be wrong from a biological perspective.”

The real surprise is about the standard low-fat diet. In fact, Ludwig says that it is actually “the worst for most outcomes, with the worst effects on insulin resistance, triglycerides and HDL, or good cholesterol.”

The culprit in the “obesity pandemic” — Bittman observes that many experts consider “epidemic” to be “no longer a strong enough word” — is the amount of over-processed carbohydrates we eat. He cites statistics showing that “at least a quarter of our calories come from added sugars (seven percent from beverages alone), white flour, white rice, white pasta,” as well as “white potatoes” and, let’s face it, beer. So, according to Ludwig, what we need to add to our diet is minimally processed carbohydrates. He even suggests this:

If you take three servings of refined carbohydrates and substitute one of fruit, one of beans and one of nuts, you could eliminate 50 percent of diet-related disease in the United States.

The study makes a real case for getting “Big Food” out of our diets. Drinking 100 calories of sugary “fruit-based juice drink” really is not the same as eating 100 calories of actual fruit: Some calories are more beneficial than others.

Related Care2 Coverage

Big Food Gets Punched by Health Site

Are Supermarkets To Blame For the Obesity Epidemic?

Save the Planet: Eat Less Meat



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Alicia Coker
Alicia Coker3 years ago

very interesting...

Jim S.
Jim S.3 years ago

This makes something like evidentiary points 749 through 756 to convict the food industry of the most vile and malevolent criminal behavior. So many of our health, ecological, social, and economic ills would fall by the wayside if this industry, or more specifically just the mass-commodity component of it, could be humanely dismantled and left in history's trash heap of moral discards.

Lika S.
Lika S.3 years ago

I've been saying that not every calorie is created equal, and I've been looked at as if I'm a living alien from Andromeda. It would have been nice if the article could have put more details in that were pertinent, because some of us have been struggling with the traditional "diet" or eating habits, and we could use the pointers to get better results.

Prentise W.
pre,tpse w.3 years ago

The book, "Cure Tooth Decay," says that the low animal fat diet is related to tooth decay and oral disease.

Kristie C.
Kristie C.3 years ago

i think this really needs to be emphasized, especially for those who obsessively count calories. calories are important, but so are the nutrients and contents you get them from

Piero P.
Piero P.3 years ago

i think this study's big takeaway is that first the american heart association. (AHA) has been as wrong about this as they possibly could be. a decade of low fat bs has fattened up an entire all generations. Bear in mind this is the same folks that want proof that periodontal disease is causal too heart disease after a flood of research has been looking at its association to very high crp levels the cardiovascular inflammatory marker that all cardiologists are now pointing to that makes high cholesterol seep into arteries and gives us arteriosclerosis. Gum disease being the most prevalent inflammatory disease on the planet and as such is the biggest culprit of high crp's. instead they find no causal relationship (again they will be proven wrong) dont wait another decade. a new book comming to print "Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is" will be out shortly. you will find it written for the laymen in understandable language that will buy you birthdays. author p.,piero d.d.s. inventor of dental air force.

Mary Mattarelli
Mary Mattarelli3 years ago

Low Gi foods, way to go.

Diane G.
Diane G.3 years ago


Siti R.
Siti R.3 years ago

simply listen to your body and maintain a healthy lifestyle. understand the relation of our appetite not just for food but what we substitute for food. food is never the culprit but our choices.

Kristen H.
Kristen H.3 years ago

Very interesting. I would be interested to know what kinds of activities the study group engaged in, and whether their lifestyles were sedentary, active, or somewhere in between, and whether their activity level had any influence on the permanence or transience of their weight loss.