A Calorie is a Calorie, but Food isn’t Food.

Posted May 29, 2012 by Maire in Whimsy / 0 Comments

Honestly, does this look like food to you?

Toaster Schnitzel

I sometimes joke that I’m an “amateur nutritionist”. I haven’t gone to school to attain the college credentials, and I’m still nowhere near my ideal goal weight, but I’ve done a heck of a lot of reading. Reading, watching videos from conferences, documentaries on diet (yes, even the wacky ones), and listening to podcasts.

**Warning: This gets long.***

A few years ago, I learned that I operate optimally on a High-Fat-Low-Carbohydrate (LCHF) Diet.  If you want to read the sane information about it, rather than the anti-Atkins-Southbeach-Dukan propaganda, there’s a nice Swedish Doctor who can explain it in lay terms. At the most basic, while I’m not diabetic, sugar doesn’t like me. Less sugar = Less Maire = more fun. My problem is that I get sidetracked very easily.  No judging here…I’m not about to get up in anyone else’s grill about their lack of motivation in regards to their lifelong goals, so let’s extend the same courtesy to myself, shall we?

At any rate, in trying to keep myself motivated, I do more reading and video watching. I know I have food issues, so I do what I can. I keep hearing one weight loss camp saying “It’s simple. A calorie is a calorie is a calorie. Limit your calories and you’ll do fine!”.  The other camp says “That may have once been true, but modern science proves that a calorie is NOT a calorie.”

Do I, for one minute, believe this?  Of course not.  I don’t believe either statement.  I’m going to tell you why.

The phrase “A calorie is a calorie. Just lower your calories and you’ll do fine” usually comes at me from someone who has been exercising to the point where they require more calories to maintain a stable weight, or someone who wants their cake and cookies and is willing to practically starve to get them.  The worst offenders to this are usually the people who want me to  join them in eating food that is not in the cards for Optimal Care and Feeding of Certain Maires. To them, all I should have to do is run around the block or get on the bike or go to the gym and work it off.  Easy!  Well, it’s easy until I have a gas attack or a headache, and then *everyone* suffers 😉

So how is a calorie NOT a calorie?  Well, not all food is created equal. I’m going to apologize right here for the somewhat lengthy (2 paragraph!) explanation. The commonly ingested “foodlike substances” (as Michael Pollan would say) are high in sugar, high fructose corn syrup, starch, and grains. These are all foods that spike the blood sugar, causing a surge of insulin and an eventual sugar crash. You know how this feels…you eat the food, feel a bit buzzed off dinner, and then half an hour later you’re sifting through the fridge with a case of the munchies, wondering just why you seem to have so many bottles of BBQ sauce. You then invariably wind up finding a bag of chips, mowing down an entire box of crackers (maybe with Peanut Butter if you’re feeling cheeky), or maybe dig into your chocolate stash.

I don’t know about you, but that’s what happens to me, and I’ve seen it happen to a LOT of other people.

The problem is that the insulin released as a result of the blood sugar spike stores any unused energy in your fat cells. The most convenient foods available in this day & age are high in carbohydrates, which break down into sugar in the blood stream. Guess where all that “energy” goes?  Right into the fat cells, courtesy of Mr. Insulin.  If you look at it from that perspective, a calorie ISN’T a calorie. The nature of the calories you are taking in are more readily stored as fat than burnt off, and the nature of the foods being eaten are such that they encourage you to eat more later on when you inevitably get hungry again.

My way of looking at it?  A calorie is a calorie, but food is not food. The definition of a calorie is:


  1. Either of two units of heat energy.
  2. The energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water through 1 °C (now usually defined as 4.1868 joules).

So the definition of a calorie really hasn’t changed. What has?  The amount of calories per “serving” of food.  I put the quotation marks in there because a “serving” isn’t really a serving. Often, if you read the package for any given food, the “serving” size is a fraction of what the container actually holds.  Like 1/3 of a bottle of soda or half a frozen meal. It doesn’t say “Serves more than you think!” on the front…because the portion in the box (or can, or bottle) is what you’ve come to expect as a portion size. A serving of cereal is a bowlful, right?  Only if the bowl is the size of a teacup.

Have you seen those TV ads for liquid detergent?  Ultra-something, usually. Dish soap, laundry soap…it’s all concentrated so that half the cup washes the same amount of clothing, and half a squirt washes your regular load of dishes (I don’t know about you, but I always run out of bubbles long before I run out of pots & pans). In its own way, food has become ultra-concentrated.

Every  meal these days is served with bread, rice, pasta or potatoes. Sometimes with a combination of any of those items. As discussed previously, all those items can (and will!) cause a blood sugar spike. Dessert after a weekday meal is more prevalent – in fact, a lot of folks feel deprived if they don’t have a sweet after dinner. Again – blood sugar. The amount of soda-pop people drink is amazing – I’ve known folks who will polish off multiple bottles of full-sugar carbonated beverages. Juices aren’t much better. You get two or three (likely more than that, actually) times the amount of sugar than just eating an orange or an apple, but without the actual fibre from the fruit to signal that you’ve had enough – at least enough to replace a full meal.

Burgers are usually served with soda and a big serving of fries. Back in the 90’s, I used to annoy the counter staff at the McDonald’s down the street from my college by ordering what was, at that time, a “Happy Meal”: Hamburger, Small Fries, and a small Diet soda.  I was often asked if I wanted to “Supersize”, and because I was a poor art college student, I often said no.  Supersizing would have cut into my cigarette fund (and the one small box of Smarties that I allowed myself every couple of days). Once a week (maybe), I might splurge on a McDonald’s Pepperoni Pizza. I easily ran off my lunch because I could walk home from school ahead of the trolley on most days. I was almost literally half the size I am now.

(As a weird sidebar, I will mention that yes, I was half the size I am now. I would also immediately gain 20 pounds the moment I’d return home to my parents’ place. Literally within a couple of weeks. Explanation? Transit was sketchy so I was driven everywhere, and my parents liked a lot of processed foods for side dishes at the time. I went from walking everywhere and eating the bare minimum to regular meals (and the munchies that followed them) and being driven or picked up in order to “save time”. I will also point out that like most art college students, I wasn’t exactly eating healthy on my own – I ate a LOT of perogies – and the vegetarian roommate that my Mum thought would be a good dietary influence on me wasn’t exactly “orthodox” in her dietary beliefs.)

Nowadays it’s difficult to get the smallest fries in the little paper sleeve. I’m pretty sure that the last time I asked for a small, I was given a “medium” by 1990’s standards (smallest cardboard sleeve). The large is about the same as a 1990’s “Supersize”. Almost everything is bundled so that it’s less expensive if you buy the combo. Sure, it’s cost-effective, but it’s a lot of food. To further discourage you from the small hamburger and tiny fries, they turn that into a “Special Order” and make you wait longer.  It’s not just McDonald’s that does this, though. Most of the local Family Restaurants serve one or two appetizers prior to your entree (ie: Bread sticks or biscuits and soup or salad), but also encourage you to order (or try for free!) an alcoholic beverage and additional appetizer. The main course comes out on a huge plate, and when you’re done, you’ll obviously want one of their “gourmet” desserts (which look like the “gourmet” desserts at the Family Restaurant next door, oddly enough).

So the sizes of your meals have changed, and the side-dishes have changed. Should be easy, right? Get a doggie-bag after only eating half, and hold the pasta (or bread, rice, potatoes, etc).  That should fix it, right?  Well…no.  Because our food now contains additives that raise the calorie count. I’m always a little surprised to find that a “seasoned” chicken breast has extra calories due to the “seasoning”. Oh…and good luck trying to find a “stuffed chicken breast” that doesn’t have some form of breading on it. Add on top of that, because the size of portions has changed, we’re now expected to eat more. Who buys a Delissio (in the US, DiGiorno) pizza and only has one or two slices? Maybe the family smart enough to feed a family of 4 or 5 with it, but most people today can easily scarf down half the pizza on their own.

The shame of it is that this could be easily solved by cooking more and eating out less.  And by “eating out”, I’m including all the convenience foods you pick up at the supermarket on the way home because they were quicker than making it yourself (I will admit, however, that I make an exception to this rule for the generally plain rotisserie-cooked chickens that our Safeway offers up still warm from the ovens). The problem is that we’ve gotten to the point where we don’t cook. Either we can’t cook, or we have less time to do so.  It’s inconvenient.  Once upon a time, one member of the household worked and the other one stayed home. Nowadays, if there is a second person in the household, chances are pretty good they work too.  Most of the folks I know do some kind of shiftwork. In our house, one person is often coming home when the other is just getting geared up to leave. When we used to play a lot of video games (ie: World of Warcraft), this time was even further condensed.  What do you do?  Eat convenient food. If all you need to do is pick it up at a drive-thru, or restaurant, unwrap it and/or nuke it, then eat it…so much the better.

We lived behind a 7-11 and a pizzaria for a couple of years. I think I know of which I speak.

How do we solve this?  Well, I’m trying to cook more, and make better choices when I’m out and about.  By doing this, I find that my portions are just large enough to make me feel like I’ve eaten enough, and I don’t wind up falling into the blood sugar/insulin trap. I find that as the weight comes down, I become more active, so I wind up maybe eating a little more, but moving more as well in proportion. I also don’t wind up with any kind of cravings for sweets. Sometimes I have to remind myself to eat.

Basically…don’t rely on convenience.  Eat whole foods. Learn to cook. Learn to streamline your cooking. Take an afternoon and make lunches for the next week. Plan your dinners. Get a crock pot and learn how to use it (beware anything pre-mixed or pre-bagged, including meat, veggies, and sauce mixes). Try going low carb or paleo, or just cut out sugar. Find something you enjoy that involves moving your body. If you like aerobics or weight lifting, go to the gym. Take a walk. March in place in front of the TV.  Ride a bike.  You don’t have to dress like Lance Armstrong to ride a bicycle.

Chelsea's New Bike

This is Chelsea. She rides a bike and she doesn’t dress like Lance. She bikes practically everywhere, and looks pretty stylin’ doing it too. You could look as cool as Chelsea. She got her spiffy Linus bicycle at BikeBike in Calgary (where we got our Pashleys!)

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