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Why Calories Don’t Matter

Why Calories Don’t Matter

The vast majority of conventional nutritionists and doctors have it mostly wrong when it comes to weight loss. Let’s face it: If their advice were good and doable, we would all be thin and healthy by now. But as a general rule, it’s not. And the mainstream media messages often confuse things even more. It is based on many “food lies”.

And the biggest lie of them all is this: All calories are created equal.

Is this really true? Not really. Let us explore why.

Take a class of sixth graders. Show them a picture of 1,000 calories of broccoli and 1,000 calories of soda. Ask them if they have the same effect on our bodies. Their unanimous response will be “NO!” We all intuitively know that equal caloric amounts of soda and broccoli can’t be the same nutritionally. But as Mark Twain said, “The problem with common sense is that it is not too common.”

I guess that is why the medical profession, nutritionists, our government, the food industry, and the media are all still actively promoting the outdated, scientifically disproven idea that all calories are created equal. Yes, that well-worn notion—that as long as you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight—is simply dead wrong.

Newton’s first law of thermodynamics states that the energy of an isolated system is constant. In other words, in a laboratory, or “isolated system,” 1,000 calories of broccoli and 1,000 calories of soda are, in fact, the same. I’m not saying Newton was wrong about that. It’s true that when burned in a laboratory setting, 1,000 calories of broccoli and 1,000 calories of soda would indeed release the same amount of energy.

But sorry, Mr. Newton; your law of thermodynamics doesn’t apply in living, breathing, digesting systems. When you eat food, the “isolated system” part of the equation goes out the window. The food interacts with your biology, a complex adaptive system that instantly transforms every bite.

To illustrate how this works, let’s follow 750 calories of soda and 750 calories of broccoli once they enter your body. First, soda: 750 calories is the amount in a Double Gulp from 7-Eleven, which is 100 percent sugar and contains 186 grams, or 46 teaspoons, of sugar. Many people actually do consume this amount of soda. They are considered the “heavy users.”

Your gut quickly absorbs the fiber-free sugars in the soda, fructose, and glucose. The glucose spikes your blood sugar, starting a domino effect of high insulin and a cascade of hormonal responses that kicks bad biochemistry into gear. The high insulin increases storage of belly fat, increases inflammation, raises triglycerides and lowers HDL, raises blood pressure, lowers testosterone in men, and contributes to infertility in women.

Your appetite is increased because of insulin’s effect on your brain chemistry. The insulin blocks your appetite-control hormone leptin. You become more leptin resistant, so the brain never gets the “I’m full” signal. Instead, it thinks you are starving. Your pleasure-based reward center is triggered, driving you to consume more sugar and fueling your addiction.

The fructose makes things worse. It goes right to your liver, where it starts manufacturing fat, which triggers more insulin resistance and causes chronically elevated blood insulin levels, driving your body to store everything you eat as dangerous belly fat. You also get a fatty liver, which generates more inflammation. Chronic inflammation causes more weight gain and diabesity. Anything that causes inflammation will worsen insulin resistance. Another problem with fructose is that it doesn’t send informational feedback to the brain, signaling that a load of calories just hit the body. Nor does it reduce ghrelin, the appetite hormone that is usually reduced when you eat real food.

Now you can see just how easily 750 calories of soda can create biochemical chaos. In addition, the soda contains no fiber, vitamins, minerals, or phytonutrients to help you process the calories you are consuming. These are “empty” calories devoid of any nutritional value. But they are “full” of trouble. Your body doesn’t register soda as food, so you eat more all day long. Plus, your taste buds get hijacked, so anything that is not super-sweet doesn’t taste very good to you.

Think I’m exaggerating? Cut out all sugar for a week, then have a cup of blueberries. Super-sweet. But eat those same blueberries after bingeing on soda and they will taste like bland and boring.

Now let’s look at the 750 calories of broccoli. As with the soda, these calories are made up primarily (although not entirely) of carbohydrates—but let’s clarify just what that means, because the varying characteristics of carbs will factor significantly into the contrast I’m about to illustrate.

Carbohydrates are plant-based compounds comprised of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They come in many varieties, but they are all technically sugars or starches, which convert to sugar in the body. The important difference is in how they affect your blood sugar. High-fiber, low-sugar carbohydrates such as broccoli are slowly digested and don’t lead to blood sugar and insulin spikes, while table sugar and bread are quickly digested carbs that spike your blood sugar. Therein lies the difference. Slow carbs like broccoli heal rather than harm.

Those 750 calories of broccoli make up 21 cups and contain 67 grams of fiber (the average American consumes 10 to 15 grams of fiber a day). Broccoli is 23 percent protein, 9 percent fat, and 68 percent carbohydrate, or 510 calories from carbs. The “sugar” in 21 cups of broccoli is the equivalent of only 1.5 teaspoons; the rest of the carbohydrates are the low-glycemic type found in all nonstarchy vegetables, which are very slowly absorbed.

Still, are the 750 calories in broccoli really the same as the 750 calories in soda? Kindergarten class response: “No way!” So why do we all think that’s true, and why has every major governmental and independent organization bought into this nonsense?

Let’s take a closer look at just how different these two sets of calories really are.

First, you wouldn’t be able to eat twenty-one cups of broccoli, because it wouldn’t fit in your stomach. But assuming you could, what would happen? They contain so much fiber that very few of the calories would actually get absorbed. Those that did would get absorbed very slowly. There’d be no blood sugar or insulin spike, no fatty liver, no hormonal chaos. Your stomach would distend (which it doesn’t with soda; bloat from carbonation doesn’t count!), sending signals to your brain that you were full. There would be no triggering of the addiction reward center in the brain. You’d also get many extra benefits that optimize metabolism, lower cholesterol, reduce inflammation, and boost detoxification. The phytonutrients in broccoli (glucosinolates) boost your liver’s ability to detoxify environmental chemicals, and the flavonoid kaempferol is a powerful anti-inflammatory. Broccoli also contains high levels of vitamin C and folate, which protect against cancer and heart disease. The glucosinolates and sulphorophanes in broccoli change the expression of your genes to help balance your sex hormones, reducing breast and other cancers.

What I’m trying to illustrate here (and this is probably the single most important idea in this book) is that all calories are NOT created equal. The same number of calories from different types of food can have very different biological effects.

If you still think a calorie is just a calorie, maybe this study will convince you otherwise. In a study of 154 countries that looked at the correlation of calories, sugar, and diabetes, scientists found that adding 150 calories a day to the diet barely raised the risk of diabetes in the population, but if those 150 calories came from soda, the risk of diabetes went up by 700 percent.

Some calories are addictive, others healing, some fattening, some metabolism-boosting. That’s because food doesn’t just contain calories, it contains information. Every bite of food you eat broadcasts a set of coded instructions to your body—instructions that can create either health or disease.

So what will it be, a Double Gulp or a big bunch of broccoli?

If you’re inspired to detox, to end your food addiction and your sugar and carb cravings and renew and reboot your health, check out my #1 best-selling book The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet! Plus, get these great bonus gifts right away to jump-start your program:

  • In the Kitchen with Dr. Mark Hyman – In this three-part online video series, I teach you how to cook amazingly delicious healing foods quickly.
  • The Missing Ingredient Report – Why we get stuck and how we can sustain our weight loss goals.
  • Dieting 101 Guide – My review of the top 10 weight loss programs, in which I share what works and what doesn’t and WHY?

Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD

Mark Hyman MD is the Medical Director at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, the Founder of The UltraWellness Center, and a ten-time #1 New York Times Bestselling author.

Comments (21)

  • I have bought the Blood sugar solution 10 day detox and also the blood sugar solution cookbook but I would love to get the bonus gifts that are offered here if I can. Trying to get all the information I can. Just started the detox this week. So far I am doing great with it but I had already read Jon Gabriel’s book which has been good. My main goal is to get my blood sugar normal.

  • Hi, thank you for this eye-opening article. I’m a member of our Obesity Prevention Coalition and when I read your article I envisioned a display with the actual amounts of soda and broccoli surrounded by signs with the pros and cons. I googled the ‘double gulp’ and found that they reduced the size to 50oz in 2012. I believe your numbers are based on the original 64oz. Is there any way you could rerun the numbers for the 50oz, or do you know of another 64oz soft drink size?

  • Thank you, Dr. Hyman. I’m having a hard time breaking free of my addictions, especially coffee. How long does it take for my brain to start experiencing pleasure again? I keep going back. I haven’t been able to do 10 complete days yet. My fasting insulin is at 24. By my calculations, about 500% higher than it should be. Articles like this are really helpful. I’ve been mostly vegetarian for at least the last 10 years, and occasionally even raw. I find having to eat animal-derived protein 2x a day too much to handle. I can’t eat Tofu every meal either. People are surprised when I tell them I just found out I am pre-diabetic — they always thought I was the health-nut! I feel bad that I have allowed this to happen to me, and now I am questioning my belief system vis-a-vis what a healthy diet is. I have never been a soda drinker, but I have been doing something wrong, obviously. I find hope in your message, but I haven’t gotten out of the woods yet — not by a long shot.

    Can I eat fruit? Apples?

  • I love your article, not only this one but also others because they are always logical and easy to understand. I really appreciate it.

  • Instead of Broccoli, what if one eats same calories in extra virgin olive oil, or same calories in pure real butter. Would those cause more or less weight gain than the soda? Thanks, Richard

  • Dr. Hyman your system and research are such a blessing. I did the detox and lost 8 lbs in 10 days. I didn’t realize the food/junk I was putting in my system keep me feeling bloated and my skin irritated daily.

    Once starting your plan things reversed. Since then I’ve losted 15 lbs, bought your book and I’m helping family now. I’m graduating soon as a personal trainer and along with massage therapy, I will defiantly be recommending this plan.

    Warmest Graditude,
    Erica Sugarless Thomas.

  • Excellent information put in a way that illustrates perfectly this most important message! Thanks for your clear perspective on calories and carbohydrates! -Dr Plumb

  • Very well illustrated. Gary Taubes addressed this; why counting calories doesn’t work. This is a more complete explanation of why, especially food as communication molecules in our complex biological system.

  • Great insight! Thank you!
    What about in terms of burning calories? Will your body burn the calories from soda and broccoli at the same rate or different rate due to the way your body is processing the foods?

  • So glad that you posted this. People need to hear that Calories Don’t Matter. Gary Taubes, as Tim points out, also discusses this, but the more people who point this out, the better.

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  • Sir Isaac Newton did not originate the Laws of Thermodynamics. His were the Laws of Motion. Come on, sixth-graders know this!

  • Can you give me links to studies (hopefully peer reviewed) that support this? Thank you very much!!

  • Can you please post a link or something to the study you referenced? I always like to read the full studies people reference.

  • Recently switched from 2+liters of Pepsi a day to CranGrape juice. Feeling discouraged because the juice has more calories and more sugar. This article reinforced what my hubby was telling me, the juice is a much better choice, mainly due to lack of caffeine which causes dehydration

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    In 1964, investigators at the Institute for Metabolic Research in Oakland, California tested these ideas in a study involving five obese patients sequestered in a hospital metabolic ward. They gave each patient a liquid diet containing a precise number of calories calculated to induce weight loss. Every few weeks they changed the diets, varying the amounts of the three macronutrients. Patients initially ate a diet with 34 percent of calories from protein, 52 percent from fat, and 14 percent from carbs. Those numbers then changed to 27, 13, and 60 percent, respectively, and finally to 14, 83, and 3 percent, respectively.

    The investigators reported that all patients in the study lost weight at a constant rate regardless of the macronutrient proportions. “It is therefore obvious,” they wrote in the journal Metabolism, “that the significant factor responsible for weight loss is reduction of calories, irrespective of the composition of the diet.” when it comes to fat loss a calorie is a calorie …Obviously soda or sugar is not as good as a calorie as protein lol ….

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  • I debate this subject with several people who believe in order to lose weight, it’s just a matter of the amount of calories consumed. Not the quality of the calories.
    Because of this, and I trust Dr.Hyman’s article, that’s why I’m asking who performed the study to support this article? It’s stated in the article that in 154 countries studied the correlations of calories, sugar, and diabetes. But the countries aren’t named, neither are the scientists who performed the study. Who’s findings is this article based on?