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Calorie Focus Called Counterproductive
Incisive paper explains a growing consensus on food choices for weight control

12/29/2014 By Craig Weatherby
Obviously, calories matter.

But are all calories are created equal? 

Evidence published in recent years suggests that the answer is “no”.

Foods differ when it comes to two key factors: promoting overeating and accumulation of body fat.

A new paper summarizes a serious challenge to the prevailing belief that all calories – regardless of their sources – are equal for weight control or metabolic health.

Calorie equivalence: An outdated idea?
The idea that “a calorie is a calorie” implies that any two foods containing equivalent amounts of calories will produce identical effects with regard to body weight and composition.

In the context of weight control, the term “body composition” means the relative proportions of fat and muscle in your body.

Until recently, conventional medical wisdom held that consuming 100 calorie's worth of either salmon, olive oil, white rice, or vodka would exert similar effects on a person's body weight and composition.

But it's been shown that distinctly different foods produce correspondingly divergent effects on body weight and composition (Spreadbury I 2012; Stenvinkel P 2014).

An accurate medical diagnosis of “obesity” or “overweight” now depend less on a person's body mass index (weight versus height) than on their proportion of body fat.

And studies in humans show that proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and alcohol exert substantially different effects on brain and metabolic processes that affect appetite, weight, and body composition.

These include changes to the brain's neurotransmitters, our “working” genes, our gut microbes, and other factors affecting fat burning and accumulation … independent of the number of calories consumed (Stenvinkel P 2014).

Indeed, the human body's differing responses to different kinds of foods either promote or discourage overeating and accumulation of body fat.

For example, seafood and whole plant foods counteract the negative effects of a high-calorie diet through their beneficial “nutrigenomic” effects on genes that govern key metabolic processes.

Best choices include fatty fish (e.g., salmon, sardines, tuna. sablefish), colorful vegetables and fruits, onions, garlic, beans, whole rye, nuts, coffee and tea, herbs, spices, and fish-source omega-3 fats.

In contrast, fructose promotes insulin resistance (pre-diabetes) and accumulation of body fat. Both cane sugar and high-fructose syrup are about 50 percent fructose.

And rather than being a passive passenger, body fat is a major “endocrine” organ that secretes hormones and other messenger chemicals that discourage calorie-burning and promote fat accumulation.

This is especially true of abdominal (belly) fat and the fat around your internal organs, called visceral fat.

Unhealthful secretions from body fat also impair other organ systems, and promote metabolic disorders such as fatty liver, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

A new paper summarizes the growing consensus that all calories are not created equal … and supports the growing medical campaign against added sugars.

New review damns refined carbs and supports traditional, whole-food diets
The new paper comes from scientists at Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri (Lucan SC, DiNicolantonio JJ 2014)

Co-authors Sean Lucan, M.D., and James DiNicolantonio, PharmD, explore and critique two entrenched ideas about weight loss and control:
  • A calorie is a calorie, regardless of its source 
  • Calorie-counting is key to successful weight control
Instead, the authors argue that the evidence now requires a wider focus that includes the metabolic “quality” of calories from different foods.

Fat contains more than twice as many calories (nine calories per gram) than carbohydrates and protein (four calories per gram) … a fact that's led most weight control plans to strictly limit higher-fat foods.

But this approach ignores the healthful or unhealthful metabolic impacts of a fatty food that's relatively high in calories per gram.

Avoidance of all fatty foods regardless of their varying metabolic effects can lead to higher intakes of carbohydrates, including refined starches and sugars … which is just what happened during the low-fat craze of the 1990's and early 2000's.

The Saint Luke's paper hones in on the newly revealed, highly harmful effects of added sugars (primarily cane sugar and corn syrup) and refined starches such as white rice, skinless potatoes, and white flour.

These foods cause blood sugar and insulin to rise quickly, which can cause a rapid drop in blood sugar and a craving for more carbs.

However, the size and importance of this “sugar spike” effect is often exaggerated, and appears to be a less significant influence on appetite than commonly thought.

More importantly, refined carbs exert unhealthful influences on our working genes … impacts that promote chronic inflammation, reduced sense of satiety, storage of calories as fat, and other changes harmful to metabolic health.

As DiNicolantonio said, “The fact is that some calories will squelch a person's appetite and promote energy utilization [calorie burning], while others will promote hunger and energy storage. So while some calories send messages to the brain and body that say ‘I'm full and ready to move,' other calories send messages that says ‘I'm still hungry and just want to lie down on the couch.'” (SLMAHI 2014)

Lucan and DiNicolantonio cite ample evidence that whole, minimally processed foods help protect against overeating, obesity, and metabolic dysfunction.

And they urge practitioners, health agencies, and private diet programs to stop promoting blind calorie-counting. 

In fact, they say, by drawing attention from the metabolic effects or “calorie quality” of various food types, calorie-counting may be counterproductive.

Their case reflects the now-abundant findings in favor of diets rich in the whole foods proven to exert positive influences on our genes: colorful vegetables and fruits, nuts, seafood, extra virgin olive oil, beans, grass-fed meats and poultry, whole grains, herbs, and spices.

Without saying so, their paper validates the efficacy of traditional diets – including Paleo- and Mediterranean-style ones – for weight control and overall health.

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Randy Hartnell