Is a Calorie a Calorie?



When it comes to weight loss, most health professionals base their program design on    the 1st law of thermodynamics, which is essentially, and energy in/energy out equation.

If you consume more energy in the form of calories, than you expend through activity,   then you are doomed to gain weight. On the contrary, if you consume less than you  expend through activity, then you lose weight.

A calorie is a measurement of energy.  A gram of carbohydrate and a gram of protein each provide 4 Kcal (calories), while a gram of fat provides 9 Kcal and a gram of  alcohol provides 7 kcal.

A pound is 3500 Kcal, so a deficit of 500 Kcal/day, should lead to weight loss of a  pound over a week.

Most people assume that because fat is more calorie dense, that eating more of it will make you fat, in addition, many people try to lose weight by reducing calories and/or  increasing activity without success.

If this model was accurate, why do so many people struggle with losing weight or  maintaining weight loss?

Do people have low willpower? Are they inherently lazy?  Or is there is more to the  story…

The 2nd law


The 2nd law of thermodynamics states that energy transfer (from calories consumed) is inefficient, i.e. it does not occur in a linear fashion, but is a  process that can be affected by a number of  factors, e.g. the type of calories consumed, one’s metabolism,  disease  states, stress and the list goes on (

Are all calories equal with respect to weight gain and metabolism?

Does it make sense   that 100 calories of broccoli would be metabolized the same as 100calories of Captain Crunch?

Numerous studies show unequivocally that isocaloric diets (diets with equal calories)  will impact one’s body differently based on their macro nutrient profile. One argument by the calories in/calories contingency is that many of these so called “fad” diets lack variety and are difficult to maintain.

My argument would be that not eating locally, seasonally, organic and sustainably; and  not emphasizing  plants and animals fed a diet that is organic and natural for them, are  significant risk factors with respect to weight gain, sub-optimum health and poor epigentics.

If this type of eating is difficult to maintain, then in my opinion, it is because there are so many “bad calories” readily available and advertised, that the majority of people  don’t understand the impact of these calories on their health.

The government and lack of nutrition education in medical schools compounds the  matter.

What about the calories out part of the equation?


Most people trying to lose weight though exercise spend hours doing cardio in the “fat  burning” zone.

After 60 minute of cardio on a treadmill, the average 150 lb. male running at 6 mph will burn about 680 Kcal.

A Starbucks double chocolate Frappuccino is about 500 Kcal.

Now most of us don’t necessarily go out and have one of these after exercise, but as you can see, it is not difficult to consume calories back easily (and in a matter of minutes).

Using aerobic exercise is an inefficient means of trying to lose weight using the energy  in/energy out model.

EPOC (Excess Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption)

EPOC is a measurably increased rate of oxygen intake following strenuous activity.

In recovery, oxygen (EPOC) is used in the processes that restore the body to a resting  state and adapt it to the exercise just performed. These include: hormone balancing, replenishment of fuel stores, cellular repair, innervation and anabolism.

EPOC is accompanied by an elevated consumption of fat post exercise, with the effects measurable up to 38 hour post-exercise.

You don’t have to be an endocrinologist  to see  that weight gain is strongly influenced by hormones (e.g. Insulin, cortisol, leptin, ghrelin etc) and that the relationship between hormones and food needs to be considered when using diet and exercise for weight management.

Most health professional have accepted the EPOC phenomenon as a viable metabolic  means of losing weight through exercise.

I wonder why so many of these same people  have difficulty accepting the science behind the metabolic effect of macronutrients, i.e. all calories are not metabolically equal with respect to weight loss and health.


Rather counting calories, how about making calories count!

Harvard University (in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association) found that the number of calories consumed is not necessarily as important as the quality of those calories.

The researchers studied 21 overweight and obese adults, starting each on a diet that  helped them lose at least 12.5 percent of their body weight. Then, to help them maintain that weight loss, the researchers put the participants on a cycle of three diets that they  were to stick to each for four weeks.

One was a low-fat diet, similar to the one recommended by the American Heart Association, which had participants reduce their dietary fat, and emphasized eating  whole grains and plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Another was modeled on the Atkin’s Diet, a plan in which participants ate more protein and fat but severely curbed their consumption of breads, pastas and other carbohydrates.

The final diet was a low-glycemic index plan, based on regulating the body’s blood sugar levels. The plan didn’t require the participants to reduce the fat or carbohydrates in their diets but focused on the quality of the carbohydrates they ate. The plan pushed     participants to replace some grain products and starchy vegetables with vegetables, legumes, fruits and foods rich in healthy fats.

The low-glycemic index diet helped dieters burn more calories, though not as manyas the low-carb diet, in addition, it didn’t increase disease-causing stress markers  that some low carb/high fat diets can.

Heavily processed carbohydrates, e.g. white bread, white rice, breakfast cereals and most grains, make sugar readily accessible.

Easily absorbable sugar leads to a rapid  surge and crash in blood sugar after a meal, which can sabotage weight loss.

Remember the old food pyramid, with six to 11 servings per day of bread, pasta or rice at the base? In light the above study, the government (pyramid) recommendations  would seem to provide an efficient prescription for weight gain.

My recommendations for weight loss and health (I know, you’ve read them before)

  1. Eat whole foods and avoid processed and refined foods.
  2. Focus on plants and eat animals that are fed a diet that they were meant to eat,    i.e. not corn and other grains
  3. Eat to maintain proper blood sugar regulation
  4. Eat to maintain proper digestive function
  5. Eat locally, seasonally, organic and sustainably
  6. Exercise briefly and intensely several times per week
  7. Sleep 9 hours a night
  8. Don’t stress








About the Author

Dr. Geoff LecovinNaturopathic Physician/Chiropractor/Acupuncturist/Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist/Corrective Exercise Specialist/Performance Enhancement Specialist/Certified Sports Nutritionist/View all posts by Dr. Geoff Lecovin