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6 reasons why calories are not created equal

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Benjamin Siong is the founder of Australian Strength Performance and has worked with top international bodybuilders and models. He is based in Melbourne, Australia.

The concept of the ‘calorie’, especially in regards to fat loss, has been extremely popular in mainstream nutrition advice for the past few decades. But what is a calorie? It’s defined as the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1g of water by one degrees celsius, and is recognised as the basic unit of measurement for energy contained within foods, and energy expended by the body.

The premise of most modern weight loss diets is based on the exchange between total calories consumed and total calories expended. In other words, the premise is that if you consume more calories than you burn you will gain weight. However, if you consume fewer calories than you burn you will lose weight.
This view is valid to a certain degree yet it is often overly simplistic.

The body is a constantly-evolving entity, where the ability to adapt and evolve is key to our survival. As such, seeing the body’s ability to gain weight or lose weight as purely a mathematical equation of energy input and output is highly flawed. My point is that while this concept is fully embraced by many as a simple formula that dictates fat loss, this calorie equation does not take into account following six factors that also have a significant effect on whether you lose or gain body weight.

1 The micronutrient value of food
Micronutrients refer to vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and other compounds found in food that contain no calories yet are absolutely essential for the optimal functioning and wellness. For example, zinc is a primary anti-aromatase agent – a precursor for the absorption of all nutrients – and is crucial for the production of hydrochloric acid in the gut for digestion. A diet low in zinc can lead to digestive issues, malnutrition and the depletion of testosterone, the primary anabolic hormone. Another mineral, magnesium is crucial for the suppression of cortisol, the stress hormone. It is thus an anti-catabolic supplement and crucial for optimal muscle functioning.

2 The thermic effects of food
The thermic effect refers to the heat generated by the breakdown of each type of food. Even though protein and carbohydrates both have four calories per gram, protein breakdown requires up to 30 calories for every 100 calories of protein consumed. While this amount varies depending on the amino acid profile of the protein, carbohydrates require only five calories per 100 calories for its breakdown. As such, a diet higher in protein will incur more calorie burn than one higher in carbohydrates.

3 Food intolerances
Food intolerances or sensitivities can be attributed to our genetic make-up, or can develop when we are constantly overexposed to foods and drinks that irritate our guts, leading to symptoms such as diarrhea, bloating, excessive mucus secretions, or poor sleep. Intolerances increase cortisol output and thus the overall loading of stress on our system. This often results in unexpected weight gain, water retention, poor liver function and muscle breakdown. Common examples of food intolerance include dairy products, chicken, nuts, eggs, gluten and wheat.

4 Nutrient timing
Nutrient timing represents the most appropriate time to have certain foods because of the effect it will have on the body. For example, a protein isolate higher in sugars is best utilised post workout as the body is most insulin sensitive, which allows the insulin spike to facilitate optimal muscle growth. On the other hand, consuming a protein isolate away from a workout will unnecessarily spike insulin, and is not in the best interest of body composition because it may actually encourage fat gain.

5 Digestive health
Disrupted gut health stemming from issues such as poor gut flora, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), leaky gut syndrome and low levels of hydrochloric acid can all contribute to poor digestion and assimilation of nutrients. So even though you may be having the ideal amount of calories and eating the right foods, poor digestion can mean losing a lot of the nutrients that should be absorbed in the first place.

6 Hormonal response to foods
Carbohydrates as well as certain proteins, such as eggs and refined protein powders and bars, are termed insulinogenic because they trigger a greater insulin response. The function of insulin is storage, yet for individuals with a low carbohydrate tolerance a large proportion of the excess sugars consumed will be stored as glycogen within fat cells rather than the muscle or liver, leading to excessive fat gain. Conversely, for a high carbohydrate tolerant individual, a large proportion of the excess sugars will be stored as glycogen within the muscle and liver, rather than within the fat stores.

Recent studies have also shown that foods containing the artificial sweetener aspartame can also elicit the rise of insulin despite having no calories. In fact, aspartame triggers a response that causes increased cravings for more sugar, leading the person desiring more unnecessary carbohydrates that can eventually lead to fat gain. To make a calorific plan work effectively for your body, it is crucial to look at the bigger picture and consider these other factors for optimal muscle gain and body composition. Remember, you are not what you eat, but what you absorb.

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