Why Focusing on Calories Misses the Bigger Picture for Your Weight and Health

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How much you eat matters, but the quality of the food we put into our bodies matters more because it drives our gene function, metabolism, and health.

Rather than subscribing to the antiquated calories in/calories out model for weight loss and good health, focus on powerful, gene-altering, whole, real, fresh food that you cook yourself can rapidly change your biology. You will lose weight by getting your systems in balance, not by starving yourself. 

Studies Show Quality Matters More

Let me share a remarkable study1 that shows how quickly and powerfully the quality of the food you eat affects your genes, independent of calories, carbs, protein, fat, or fiber.

This study divided people with pre-diabetes into two groups. Each group consumed the same amount of calories, with equivalent amounts of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and fiber, for 12 weeks.

The only difference was one group ate whole-kernel rye bread and rye pasta; whereas, the other group ate oats, wheat, and potatoes as its carbohydrate source.

After 12 weeks, the researchers performed a subcutaneous fat biopsy, looked at gene expression, and gave participants a glucose challenge to assess how their blood sugar and insulin were affected by these dietary changes.

Remarkably, people in the group that ate rye had smarter, smaller fat cells and were more insulin-sensitive. Information contained in the rye – a phytonutrient called lignans – switched on diabesity-reversing genes. These genes were switched on regardless of calories or grams of carbs eaten.

Equally amazing, dozens of genes that had made participants fat and diabetic were turned off, and dozens of genes that would help them become healthy and thin were turned on.

On the other hand, 62 genes that promote diabesity were turned on in the group that ate oats, wheat, and potatoes. That led to increased stress molecules, increased inflammation, and increased oxidative stress or free radicals.

Put another way, it didn’t matter how many calories or grams of carbs these groups ate; it was the kind of carbs that was important.

This study, among many similar ones, proves food is not just calories. Food is information. If you want to turn off the genes that lead to diabesity and turn on the genes that lead to health, focus on the quality and type of food you eat, not necessarily the number of calories you consume or the ratio of protein to fat to carbohydrate in your diet. 

Broccoli vs. Soda

To provide a practical illustration that disproves the calorie-is-a-calorie myth, let’s look at the hormone effects of 750 calories of soda versus 750 calories of broccoli.

We all intuitively know that equal caloric amounts of soda and broccoli can’t be the same nutritionally. In fact, the food interacts with your biology, a complex adaptive system that instantly transforms every bite.

First, let’s look at soda. A 7-Eleven’s Double Gulp has 750 calories, which is 100 percent sugar with 186 grams, or 46 teaspoons, of sugar.

Your gut quickly absorbs the fiber-free sugars in the soda as 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, and raises blood pressure.

In men, high insulin lowers testosterone. In women, high insulin and lack of fiber causes an oversupply of estrogens—often called estrogen dominance, which refers to abnormal recycling of estrogens in the body—and contributes to infertility and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).Now we have high insulin and sex hormone imbalances.

Insulin’s effect on your brain chemistry increases your appetite. Insulin blocks leptin, your appetite-control hormone. 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.

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.

Stress worsens insulin’s vicious cycle. When you perceive a lot of stress in your life, you produce excess cortisol, which then makes you crave more sugar. Excess cortisol can slow down thyroid hormone function.

Additionally, 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.  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.

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

Carbs 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 carbs 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 only 10 to 15 grams of fiber a day. Remember that fiber helps you get rid of bad estrogens. Broccoli is 23 percent protein, 9 percent fat, and 68 percent carbs (or 510 calories from carbs). The “sugar” in 21 cups of broccoli is the equivalent of only 1.5 teaspoons; the rest of the carbs are the low-glycemic type found in all non-starchy vegetables, which are very slowly absorbed.

However, you wouldn’t be able to eat 21 cups of broccoli, because it wouldn’t fit in your stomach. Assuming you could, what would happen? A serving that large would 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, and 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.

My point is, all calories are NOT created equal. The same number of calories from different types of food can have very different biological effects. 

10 Strategies to Focus on Quality, not Quantity:

The most important thing you can do to heal your body is focus on food quality. Americans spend less than 10 percent of their income on food, while Europeans spend about 20 percent.

Quality matters. It is more important than quantity when it comes to calories. If you focus on quality, not quantity, you will feel satisfied while naturally avoiding cravings and attraction to food that won’t nourish you. Here are 10 ways to do that:

  1. Avoid highly processed, factory-manufactured Frankenfoods. Choose fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and lean animal protein such as fish, chicken, and eggs.
  2. Clean up your diet. Look for animal products that are pasture-raised, grass-fed, and antibiotic-, hormone-, and pesticide-free. Go on a low-mercury diet by sticking with small, wild, or sustainably farmed fish.
  3. Go organic. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers poison your metabolism, your thyroid, your sex hormones, and our planet. Buy as much organic food as your budget allows. Refer to the Dirty Dozen list for top offenders and the Clean 15 at ewg.org.
  4. Stay local. Seasonal, local foods you find at farmers’ markets or community-supported agriculture projects (CSAs) are healthier, taste better, are typically sustainably grown, and help you recognize the intimate relationship between the ecosystem of your body and the broader ecosystem in which we all live.
  5. Eat a low-glycemic load. Focus on more protein and fats, including nuts (not peanuts), seeds (flax, chia, hemp, sesame, pumpkin), coconut, avocados, sardines, and olive oil.
  6. Eat the right fats. Steer clear of vegetable oils, including soybean oil, which now comprises about 10 percent of our calories. Focus instead on omega 3 fats, nuts, coconut, avocados, and yes, even saturated fat from grass-fed or sustainably raised animals.
  7. Eat mostly plants. Plants should form 75 percent of your diet and your plate. I usually make two to three vegetable dishes per meal.
  8. Avoid dairy. Dairy is great for growing calves into cows, but not for humans. Try organic goat or sheep products, but only as a treat.
  9. Avoid gluten. Most is from Franken Wheat, so look for heirloom wheat (Einkorn). If you are not gluten sensitive, then consider it an occasional treat.
  10. Moderate alcohol and caffeine. Switch from coffee to green tea, and keep your alcohol intake to three glasses a week if you drink. 

Have you revised your thinking about calories and food quality? Share how your perspective has changed below or on my Facebook fan page.

Need delicious recipes to get you started with these 10 Strategies?  Then download the Starter Kit of my newest book, available now at both Amazon and Barnes & Nobles, The 10-Day Detox Diet Cookbook.  In addition to the recipes you will also learn about the secret added ingredient that keeps you hooked on junk food!  Ready to own your own copy of the cookbook? Click here to get yours now.

Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD.

References

1Kallio P, et al. Dietary carbohydrate modification induces alterations in gene expression in abdominal subcutaneous adipose tissue in persons with the metabolic syndrome: the FUNGENUT Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 May; 85( 5): 1417– 27.

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10 Responses to Why Focusing on Calories Misses the Bigger Picture for Your Weight and Health

  1. Dr.Garry Lee February 13, 2015 at 10:02 am #

    The plate should mostly be plant derived. That “meme” is all over the internet. I tried to find evidence to support it and it’s just not there. I think it derives from the food industry. I do eat a lot of veg myself, but I think that this recommendation is bogus.
    The proscription of dairy produce would’ve wiped out the Irish long ago because none of us are lactose intolerant and until the potato arrived milk products and meat were the dominant foodstuffs going back to when the Irish language was first written, about 400 AD. The vocabularly with regards to milk is very extensive and almost unchanged in the period of time and an English visitor of the 16th century reported that the Irish ate at least 20 different milk products. Being wet, like most of Northern Europe, historically grains would’ve been not the main foodstuff. That may account for our high level of Coeliac Disease. I was a histopatholigst and we diagnosed CD in 2.5 percent of routine duodenal biopsies.
    I’ve been on LCHF for 14 months and am maintaining a weight of 182lb (BMI 23) for the last eight months without a problem.
    Despite the minor nits I’ve picked in this, it’s a great article. You always strike me as a pretty scientific chap, apart from the D word!

  2. Profile photo of
    venus1960 February 13, 2015 at 11:33 am #

    Dear Dr Hyman. I’ve just bought you book the blood sugar solution and I’m loving,it, it is opening my eyes to so much that I was never made aware of by my doctor. I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes 7-8 years ago my doctor put me on insulin right away as my blood sugars were so high. I so desperately want to know how I can stop taking insulin and get healthy, what I have read so far in your book scares me for my life. I have had intestinal bypass surgery in 1984 at which point my weight was 355lbs lost 80lbs in the first six months and continued to lose over the next couple of years, I reach 152lbs. My weight stayed down for some time but I had times where I would gain some back I did get up to 200lbs about 8 years ago. Since then I have lost weight I now weigh 165lbs. I try to eat what I thought was a good diet for myself most of the time and other times I would relax and not worry so much and eat what I wanted and control my sugars with large amounts of insulin. I go on lifestyle changes every once in a while where I will eat only vegetables, some fruit and protein but I can’t last very long this way 1-2 months and I’m done. I don’t exercise regularly only when I’m going through my lifestyle change. At this point I feel excited as I’m reading your book but also confused on everything I need to do to get off insulin and what foods to eat that won’t raise my sugar levels, I should also mention that my doses of insulin are as follows I take 13 units of humulin N in the morning and 10 units at night through the day I am on a sliding scale of humalog the amount depends on how many carbs I eat. Thank you so much for the gift you have given all of us that have this disease your knowledge ,understanding, compassion and your books Venus1960

  3. Mari Miller February 16, 2015 at 9:13 pm #

    How many carbs a day if you work out 5 days a week

    • Profile photo of Dr. Hyman Nutrition Staff
      Dr. Hyman Nutrition Staff February 17, 2015 at 11:07 am #

      Hi Mari,
      Your carbohydrate needs will be unique based on the intensity of your exercise and your overall energy needs. Find what works best for you by varying the amount of carbohydrates in your diet including fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains instead of foods high in sugar and flours.
      Wishing you the best of health,
      Dr. Hyman Staff

  4. thank you Iam john February 17, 2015 at 2:04 am #

    thank you i have A diabetes tp 2 very bad feeling pleas tell me some relif

  5. vivky February 19, 2015 at 3:44 am #

    A good collection of important information and nice update. Check the webportal http://www.treatmentguideline.com which has the large number of guidelines for several diseases available internationally.
    There is a Facebook page too which also provides the similar update here is the link of it http://www.facebook.com/pages/treatmentguidelines/601742623291632

  6. Sylvia February 25, 2015 at 5:14 pm #

    Dr Hyman

    I have been diagnose with high cholesterol and pre-diabesity. Where can I purchase the kernel rye bread you mentioned in this article or kernel rye flour to make my own bread and pasta .I have googled kernel rye bread and kernel flour without success. Most rye breads and rye bread recipes I have found on the internet has white flour, sugar or molasses as an ingredient which I am trying to avoid in my food. Also, if you have a recipe for the bread and the pasta that would be helpful.

  7. Lisa March 11, 2015 at 9:39 am #

    Hello, I have the 10 Day Detox Diet Book, Blood Sugar Solution and Blood Sugar Solution Recipe Book. How does the new Recipe Book, just being released, differ from all the books I have? Are they completely different recipes or mostly the same combined in the new edition?

    • Profile photo of Dr. Hyman Nutrition Staff
      Dr. Hyman Nutrition Staff March 11, 2015 at 2:13 pm #

      Hi Lisa,
      The 10-Day Detox Cookbook contains all new recipes that are appropriate for either the 10-Day Detox or Blood Sugar Solution programs. This collection of recipes will provide you with more delicious foods to support your health journey. Enjoy!
      Wishing you the best of health,
      Dr. Hyman Staff

  8. Justin March 19, 2015 at 4:24 pm #

    How did you arrive at “The ‘sugar’ in 21 cups of broccoli is the equivalent of only 1.5 teaspoons”?

    There are 1.5g of sugar per cup of Broccoli according to nutrition data.
    1.5g/cup x 21 cups = 31.5g of sugar.

    31.5 g of sugar / 4 g of sugar per teaspoon = 7.8 teaspoons of sugar

    What am I missing? Thanks for your help!

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