From a purely physical standpoint, a calorie of sugar is identical to a calorie of protein. Both react in identical ways when exposed to a Bunsen burner flame in a laboratory. And, while it may be true that in a controlled environment, calories are indistinguishable, outside of the lab, calories act very differently when they come into contact with our digestive system.
In November 2014, Nature’s Fare Markets screened the documentary film Fed Up, which discredits the premise that all calories are created equal. According to the experts in the film, our bodies react to different types of calories in vastly different ways. For years, we have been told that if we eat fewer calories than we burn in energy we should be able to maintain a healthy weight. Fed Up looks to debunk that myth by examining how our bodies react to various types of calories.
During the low fat craze of the 1990’s, fat was demonized, and we were encouraged to eat only low fat, or non-fat foods. The trouble was that once all the fat was removed, the resulting product had little to no flavour. Enter sugar. To replace the flavour given by fat, food manufacturers added sugar – and lots of it. Over time, people eating a low fat diet were still plagued by their extra pounds, and as a generation, we began to notice increasing rates of type two diabetes, heart disease, and childhood obesity.
There is great misconception around calories and weight management. While many people believe that fat is what causes obesity, there is strong evidence that shows that fat is actually good for us, and it is sugar that we need to regulate. Fat calories, like those that come from fish oil, avocado, olive oil, and nuts actually helps promote weight loss and reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Dr. David Ludwig, the Director of Obesity at Boston Children’s Hospital, is able to explain this epidemic by breaking down the method that our bodies use to digest certain foods. Foods made up mostly of carbohydrates, like sugars, breads, and starches cause our blood sugar to spike. This is because of the amount of sugar that is released as the food is digested. In contrast, low-glycemic foods have little to no effect on our blood sugar and actually help to regulate our metabolism. Low-glycemic foods include beans, nuts, lean proteins, and non-starchy vegetables.
Fed Up uses powerful imagery to demonstrate how our digestive systems react to different calories. A young boy is shown drinking a large soft drink. The calories in sugary drinks are not accompanied by any sort of fibre so they are digested immediately by our stomach and the resulting onslaught of sugar causes our livers to go into emergency mode. The liver converts sugar to glycogen, which is then stored as energy. However, if there is already enough glycogen present, (which is the case for most people) the liver converts all the remaining sugar to fat.
To help us regulate our food consumption, our bodies produce a hormone called leptin. This hormone tells us when we have had enough to eat. Studies have found that eating too much sugar actually causes our bodies to stop producing leptin, meaning that our natural satiety gauge becomes flawed and we rarely feel satisfied.
It is important to distinguish between certain types of sugars. Glucose is a sugar that is digested and used by our bodies for energy. It is converted to glycogen during digestion and stored for later. It is the sugar in blood sugar, and insulin is produced by our pancreas to help regulate the amount of glucose in our bodies. Fructose is not a preferred energy source for our bodies and can only be digested in the liver. Too much fructose can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and increased belly fat. Additionally, fructose does not stimulate the production of lepitn, so eating foods high in fructose does not produce feelings of satiety. Fructose is present in fruits and vegetables but in this form it is accompanied by fibre, which means that as much as one quarter of the calories are passed through our bodies without being digested. Fibre also prevents the harmful effects of fructose on the liver.
An interesting study of people in 154 countries found that if 150 calories from low-glycemic foods were added to each person’s diet each day there was no increase in overall health problems. However, the study found that if those 150 calories were from soft drinks, the individuals’ risk of diabetes increased by 700%.
Dr. Mark Hymam, a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, as well as a New York Times bestselling author and physician, uses a very interesting comparison to help explain the difference between calories. He considers 750 calories worth of soda and 750 calories worth of broccoli. While the calorie value is the same, it’s clear that there is a difference in the nutrition. Broccoli and other vegetables and fruits are high in fibre, which helps regulate our bodies’ metabolism and ensures that digestion takes place slowly in our gut, rather then quickly in our liver. Furthermore, the fibre in the broccoli fills our stomach and satisfies our appetite, something that the fibreless sugar calories are unable to do. In addition to providing fibre, the calories in broccoli also offer nutrition, like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients. The calories in the soft drink offer no additional nutrition, send our liver and pancreas reeling trying to digest the onslaught of sugar, and contribute to insulin resistance and fatty liver syndrome. Using this comparison, it’s clear to see that not all calories are created equal.