Weight Loss Debate: Is a Calorie a Calorie?

Weight Loss 101: If you consistently consume less calories per day than your total daily energy expenditure you will lose weight. 

There’s no debating this. Yes it really is that “simple“. No pls don’t come at me with some fitfluencers fit teas, “life hacks“, overpriced supplements or any other antiquated explanations for how to lose weight.

If you want to lose weight you have to come up with some process where the end result is that ^. Doesn’t matter how you get there, but that HAS to be the end result.

Now…that being said, I do believe weight loss got OVER simplified because of this fact and the popular phrase “a calorie is a calorie” got coined. Meaning, the particular source of your calories doesn’t matter in regards to weight loss. 100 Calories of doughnut and 100 Calories of lean chicken breast would be weighed equally in this case.

People will debate this from varying scientific standpoints, how certain calories get metabolized differently compared to others, differences with the thermic effect of food in response to certain macros, and even certain foods effects on hormone levels. I’m going to take a much simpler stance. 

A calorie is NOT a calorie and you SHOULD care about where your daily intake of calories is coming from. But not for any crazy super scientific reasons. You should care about where your calories are coming from on the simple grounds that picking quality sources of calories can make your weight loss journey feel significantly easier.

1. Satiety

At the top of the list of why “a calorie is not a calorie“, is that different foods will effect your satiety (how full you feel) differently.

For example, protein is consistently research proven as the most satiating macronutrient (macronutrients: carbs, proteins and fats). But you didn’t even need me to tell you that. Think about the difference in fullness you’d feel consuming 500 calories of chicken breast (mostly protein) vs. 500 calories of cookies (most carbs and fats). 500 calories of cookies? You’re going to be ready to slam into more cookies almost as soon as you’ve finished eating them. 500 calories of chicken though? That’s ballpark around 10 oz of bird you gotta work through.

One of the best weight loss strategies is choosing foods which leave you feeling fuller, longer especially if you don’t have that many calories to work with each day to begin with. This is a BIG reason why you should be paying attention to where your calories are coming from.

2. Calorie “Purpose

Secondly, simplifying things down to “a calorie is a calorie” gets rid of intent behind what you are eating. Is this meal to help your muscles recover? Are you trying to fuel up for a hard workout? Or are you just trying to start your day on the right note and make sure you’re mentally up to speed?

Different macros help our body’s accomplish different tasks. Carbs are our body’s preferred energy source and are great for fueling hard workouts and critically important for endurance athletes. Protein is known by everyone to be key in the muscle repair process but also plays so many critical roles in your body that you wouldn’t function without them. Finally, fats play vital roles in cellular maintenance as well as vitamin absorption.

A calorie is a calorie” takes any sort of intent or purpose out of fueling your body properly and more so tunes you into mindless eating.

3. Nutrient Density

Additionally, calorie consumption doesn’t just imply energy intake but nutrient intake as well. At least it should. 

Choosing foods which are “nutrient dense” (high vitamin and mineral to calorie ratio) will not only have your body functioning at maximum capacity but also have you feeling your absolute best as well.

Not only is this critical in the…you know…whole keeping you alive thing, but it’s also important for staying on your diet. If you only ever feel slow and sluggish on your diet, you’re very likely to ditch it over the long term.

4. Food “Volume” Per Calorie

On a similar vein as the nutrient density issue, the final reason I’d say you should carefully consider where your calories are coming from is because if you’re smart with your choices…you can eat more!!

Foods like non starchy vegetables can be piled in literal mounds without costing you much in the calorie department, while you’d be genuinely shocked by how many calories can be jam packed into that “finger food” dessert item you’re holding.

Choosing foods that have a low calorie density can help you just the same as choosing ones which leave you feeling satiated. You’re not going to feel like you’re starving yourself while you’re trying to loose weight.

Conclusion: 

Who cares about the “sciencey” debate revolving around “is a calorie a calorie?”.

The simple fact of the matter is that being smart with where you are sourcing your calories from can have a massive impact on how easy a diet feels, how satiated you are, and how good you are actually feeling on a day to day basis. Fight the temptation to oversimplify your weight loss goal and make those food decisions which are most likely to lead you to overall success!

Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.