4 Simple Reasons Why All Calories Are Not Created Equal

by Institute for Responsible Nutrition
Share it:
4 Simple Reasons Why All Calories Are Not Created Equal

The food industry vigorously promotes the myth “a calorie is a calorie”, however, based on these four simple facts, we know this is not true:

1. Fiber. You eat 160 calories in almonds, but only absorb 130—because some fiber calories pass through without metabolizing. Vegetables, greens, beans and whole grains are all high in fiber.

2. Protein. It takes twice as much energy to metabolize protein as carbs, so protein spends more calories in processing. And, protein makes you feel full longer.

3. Fat. All fats are 9 calories per gram. But omega-3 fats are heart-healthy and will save your life. Trans-fats will clog your arteries and kill you. Eat more fish, nuts, avocados, olive oil and eggs and avoid most processed foods when possible.

4. Added Sugar. Calories from added sugar are different from other calories, and are jeopardizing health worldwide. And yes that includes honey, syrup and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). Excess added sugar leads to diabetes, heart disease, and fatty liver disease, unrelated to its calories. One simple way to cut back? Avoid processed foods and sodas.

The irrefutable link between diabetes and added sugar
Robert Lustig, MD and colleagues Sanjay Basu, MD, PhD, Paula Yoffe and Nancy Hills asked: “What in the world’s food supply explains diabetes rates, country-by-country, over the last decade?” They melded numerous databases worldwide measuring food availability and diabetes prevalence.

Only changes in sugar availability explained changes in diabetes prevalence worldwide; nothing else mattered. We assessed total calories from protein, fat, fiber, natural sugar (from fruit) and added sugar (from sugar crops, sweeteners and soda).

They found that total caloric availability was unrelated to diabetes prevalence; for every extra 150 calories per day, diabetes prevalence rose by only 0.1 percent. But if those 150 calories were from added sugar, diabetes prevalence rose 11-fold, by 1.1 percent.

Yet the processed food industry is defending itself by saying, “All calories count.” They want you to believe that a calorie is a calorie, and that all calories are created equal. While they may try to sew the seeds of doubt, they cannot refute the science.

In their study, countries where sugar availability fell showed decreases in type 2 diabetes. The UK and Australia have already laid down stricter guidelines for sugar consumption. Americans are growing wary of added sugar and the food industry. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Committee has now put a limit on added sugar at 10% of calories. The cost of inaction is a future where one-in-three Americans have diabetes. Politicians must step up to establish programs that make eating healthy more than a personal goal—it must become a national priority.

For more on why all calories are not created equal, check out Ask The Dietitian: Is a Calorie a Calorie?


  • Mystica

    This blog made everyone dumber.

    When I have some almonds I will hear your stupid voice saying to me “you can have more almonds than this cuz almonds don’t have as many calories as stated, a calorie is not a calorie derp derp”

    And when I have steak or chicken thighs, your voice will be there trying to convince me to overconsume.

    AnD when I have a soda, your voice will be there trying to convince me that I fell off the wagon regardless of my calorie intake that day.

    There should be a tax levied against people like you whoms bread is buttered by spreading confusion.

    • k

      Respectfully disagree. Yes, calorie intake by amt is one part of the formula to becoming healthier. After control is gained, one must be attentive to the composition of kinds of food.

      Once the amt of calories consumed is under your control, consider cutting down on sugary dont be afraid of fat content (avocados) as there is actually a difference between that fat and trans fats ingested.


      • flyingtanuki

        Nope. I eat what I want, thank you.

        • Mary Marie

          lol – why do you read articles like this then? You show your ignorance about foot and about common sense, considering it’s ridiculous to waste time reading articles you have no interest in. A five year old could tell you that.

  • Dave Parry

    Although I would have definitely worded it differently, Mystica does have a point. You are basically saying for every 160 calories of high fibre food I eat I only need to put 130 into myfitnesspal.
    Due to bad wording it also looks like you are stating that any protein you eat actually uses up more calories in digestion so all protein is calorie free.
    The article just needs to be worded better with a lot more information for each point and not just a massive sugar bashing blog.
    To anybody new at calorie counting / trying to loose weight using Myfitnesspal this will be a very confusing article.

  • Michelle Raven Homer-Smith

    I really wish this article specified that Type 2 Diabetes is the one connected to excess sugar intake. To people with Type 1 diabetes, a soda can be a lifesaver. I expect better from the MFP blog.

    • Lindsey

      I was going to say the same thing. There is a huge difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

  • Kate Nkognito

    This article is so misleading it is unbelievable. “You aren’t fat because you ate a large deep dish pizza all by yourself. It’s because the evil food industry invented sugar.” Yup, it couldn’t POSSIBLY have anything to do with personal accountability. And by the way, it is sow seeds, not sew. You just can’t get a needle and thread through those little suckers.

    • k

      True, they understood that we wouldn’t read a dissertation. Accountability yes, but I also agree with the post. Cheers

  • Alan Marcero

    Do you know what the #1 ingredient in Slim Fast powder is? Sugar. Uninformed people trust garbage like Slim Fast to help them lose weight, but all it does is skyrocket blood glucose and insulin, leading to increased energy storage (most likely fat storage), cravings, and lethargy.

    Honestly, I think this is a decent article but it only scratches the surface. “All calories count” is correct, but some count more than others. More often than not, processed carbohydrates (flour and sugar) are the “elephant in the room” when it comes to weight management. When the fiber is removed, the energy is concentrated, making the macro-nutrient that is the easiest to overeat (thanks to insulin) even easier.

  • spacepunk

    I was behind this article 100% until the author added the plea for politician involvement. The last thing we as a society and culture need are more rules and regulations handed down by beurocrats with we-know-what’s-best-for-you complexes. Rather, we need to emphasize personal and individual accountability for the food choices we make, because that is when true lifestyle changes happen. Please leave politics where it (barely) belongs: on Capitol Hill, and out of our pantries.

    • Carneades

      I was behind your comment 100% until ‘until’. ‘Politics should stay on Capitol Hill’?—right, politicians (some of them, anyway, the ones who aren’t bought and paid for by oil or the supplement industry) should stay out of trying to keep the water we drink and the air we breathe safe. Should stop laying down rules for how food is processed and for what ingredients can be used in it. Should stop telling manufacturers they have to tell us what is in the food they are selling us. Should stop saying our kids should get vaccines, because autism. Should stop regulating medicines, and God forbid it should start regulating supplements!

      Do you think that you can really exercise individual responsibility if you have to find out for yourself what exactly is in every single food you consume?—and by the way that would be every time you consume it, because wthout regulation enforced by law there’d be no reason even to hope for standard quantities of anything at all in any product. And that will include the hormones and the antibiotic residues and the pesticides and the herbicides, not to mention all the chemicals, both naturally present and artificially added, in every drop of your tap water. Maybe you have a fully-equipped and -staffed chemical laboratory in your pantry too, but I don’t.

      One early law in Britain said that meat couldn’t be sold by candlelight, because you couldn’t see any rot or maggots in it. Or is that already too much government interference for you? The first analytical chemist to expose the widespread adulteration of food, Frederick Accum, was maliciously prosecuted by the enemies he had made in Britain thanks to his exposure of the revolting and often toxic things manufacturers and retailers were adding to food and drink, or failing to remove from it. Things began to change only with the Acts of Parliament passed from 1860 onward.

      If the government should keep out of anywhere in my home, it’s my bedroom.

  • UltimateRBF

    This is such rubbish. It’s not even worth dissecting. Just complete rubbish.

    Lustig? ? Really?

    • flyingtanuki

      Agreed. MFP is trolling its own users.

  • Since I think a lot of MFP users want simple formulas they can track, my suggestion to keep all this science easy to live by… Get a free glucose meter from Walmart or Amazon (the cheapest accurate one is TRUEResult), look at your number in the morning before eating (fasting glucose), if it is above 85 you are damaging your arteries and brain according to the latest observational science. That means you should cut back on sugar intake, for some people the cuts should be dramatic. Look at labels to see how much sugar is there (or better yet, eat foods that have no labels because they are unprocessed whole foods). Note: Your doc may have said a fasting glucose of 100 is OK, this is outdated info, and most certainly not OK

    • Alan Marcero

      Any suggestions on getting cheap test strips?

      • They are only 17 cents each on Amazon, best deal of any brand, great feedback, they work well and are made by a reputable company. Also note that the free after rebate meter Walmart sells comes with everything you need including 15 test strips, lances, and a lancing device (amazon also sells it for just a few dollars)

        • Alan Marcero

          I’ll look into that, thanks!

    • Paranormal Skeptic

      There is a simple forumla, and one that MyFitnessPal’s app uses:

      If Calories in > Calories out, then you will gain weight.

      If Calories in < Calories out, you will lose weight.
      If Calories in == Calories out, you will maintain weight.

      It has worked, without fail, for the past 3 years for me.

      • This article was not about weight loss, its about health. Normal weight people can get type 2 diabetes too. In fact anyone whose diet keeps their blood sugar elevated is at risk for not just diabetes, but heart disease and dimentia among other common ailments associated with aging.
        Otherwise I agree with you about weight loss. I get frustrated with people who think otherwise, if you want to lose weight, track everything you eat and stop eating when MFP tells you that you’re at your calorie limit! If you can’t do that, consider surgery, but don’t make excuses 😉 That said, there is much more to great health than weight/BMI alone.

  • Like_wow

    It wasn’t the ‘food industry’ but the nutritionist ‘experts’ who maintained all calories were equal. It was the FDA under their influence that propagated the infamous food pyramid and made the wrrecommendations. The Institute For Responsible Nutrition has an agenda- continue our funding! So they make up a crisis and populate it with phony demons.

  • Paranormal Skeptic

    Ug, Lustig is a pretty well known quackery dealer.

  • Exadyne

    1. Fiber is processed different than other carbohydrates and USDA guidelines allow using 2 calories per gram for soluble fiber and 0 calories for insoluble fiber when calculating calorie count on the label. So this is already accounted for in “calories not being calories”.
    2. The metabolism content of protein is already accounted for in the Atwater system used to calculate the energy protein. Protein actually has ~5.7 calories per gram or so worth of energy, but about 30% is need in metabolizing. You can get even higher thermic effects of food (another 20-40%, not double), but only if you’re in the unusual scenario that your body is turning large quantities of protein into glucose.
    3. Well really it is the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 in your diet that seems to be important. I imagine if you turned to getting only omega 3 (difficult to do) you’d start having issues with suppressed immune system from the anti-inflammatory properties, but that’s just me spitballing on the anti-inflammatory effect of omega 3. Regardless, not matter what kind of fat you eat, if you’re reducing calories to lose weight to get out of obesity, the health effect of weight lost is liable to trump the differences in fats, and for losing weight a calorie is a calorie.
    4. The body doesn’t know that a calorie is “added” versus “natural” sugar.
    5. Correlation isn’t causation, nor does this cite the actual statistical significance (p-value) of the values. It doesn’t matter if 150 calories is associated with 11 fold impact if you’re only 10% certain it isn’t random chance that such an association happened. I also doubt they’re holding calories constant when using that 150 calories of added sugar, and I’m pretty sure people who are eating 150 extra calories of added sugar are commonly throwing in added fat calories. So now the 150 calories of added sugar might just be an indicator of people eating 300 extra calories.

    • Victoria Rejuney

      really happy to see all these pro science responses deflecting this bull.

  • Cheryl Chua

    Hello! just wanted to ask for some opinions! is it necessary to count calories in vegetables and fruits? (non starchy ones such as pumpkin, cauliflower, broccoli, apples, prunes, pears etc…)

    • Victoria Rejuney

      Yes. Count all calories, even in vegetables, and especially fruits since they can contain high amounts of sugar.