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In doing comparison photos on our social media of calorie and nutrient-dense foods vs takeout and stereotypical ‘junk’ food we’ve had a lot of questions surrounding whether a calorie is just a calorie? Whether 2500 calories of lean meat, vegetables and nuts is the same as consuming 2500 of cake and chocolate bars?

So is it?

A calorie, in the simplest definition, is a unit of energy. If you really want to get your lab coats and Bunsen burners out it means: 1 food calorie equals 1 kilocalorie, which is the amount of energy needed to raise 1 gram of water from 15 to 16 °C. So, in this sense, just like a pound is a pound and a kilogram is a kilogram, a calorie is a calorie.

An incredible transformation by our 39-year-old Equalution client Kristie! 
This was achieved through a flexible diet approach allowing her to enjoy her favourite foods such as ice cream and chocolate, among lean meats and vegetables.


So perhaps a better phrase to ‘Is a calorie just a calorie?’ is Do different types of calories affect our body differently?

  • Is 1000 calories of lollies exactly the same as 1000 calories of chicken and vegetables?

  • Does your body process the above two examples of food differently, or is it as simple as calories in vs calories out?

  • Does the food you eat impact your health outside of the context of just weight loss?

The short answer is to a certain extent yes a calorie is just a calorie but in some contexts no it’s not, there is more to it. Food quality to a certain extent has an impact HOWEVER, if you’re consuming lesser calories than expenditure it WILL result weight loss. So food quality and quantity very much go hand in hand, what you eat is important but also how much is equally as important too.

On that note you can’t outrun your spoon, if you’re training 5 days a week - if your diet isn’t right you simply won’t see results. On the flip side if your calorie intake is spot on in a deficit and you’re training and losing weight each week but are eating no nutrient-dense foods or meeting your protein requirement you’re going to not only feel like rubbish but lose weight, not fat, unfavourably physically.

Notice we said weight loss not fat loss? This is where the main aesthetic difference lies...

When it comes to JUST weight loss so not focusing on muscle vs. fat ratio, body composition and how you look, health, performance, or energy levels, eating fewer calories than you burn every day will be the driver for this goal. Simply eat less than you burn: you will lose weight.

Though going off how you look, how you feel, whether or not you’re healthy, and performing with high energy day to day life and exercise you will need to focus on the types of food you eat and FOOD QUALITY.  

woman eating chocolate

So what is a focus on food quality beneficial for? 

1. Energy: Nutrient-dense foods and a good split of protein, carbs and fat (NOTE: there is no one right split for everyone) ensures that you’re adequately fuelled for day to day life without feeling fatigued and lethargic from poor food choice.

2. Body composition: Think of eating less than you burn as level 1 - level 2 and taking it up a notch and focusing on the Tetris of nutrition in meeting macronutrient requirements. Meeting your macronutrients so the required number of protein, fats and carbs for your body affects the amount of muscle you retain while losing body fat. This is the significant difference between FAT LOSS vs. WEIGHT LOSS, so fat loss is meeting an optimal macronutrient split while in a calorie deficit and retaining muscle while losing body fat whereas weight loss will come from a calorie deficit which is either aggressive or is too low in protein, high in carbs or fat etc and will result in weight loss on the scales from muscle, water and perhaps some fat but won’t be as favourable aesthetically and likely in how you feel too.

3. Satiety: There’s no question around whether some foods of greater nutrient density will be far more filling than something say processed, high sugar and less quantity - needless to say that if you chose to have lollies over a banana you might be more inclined to go back for more lollies and thus go over your calories or take from the density of another meal in your day. Higher protein meals will also keep you fuller for longer and the high fibre content in a lot of fruits and vegetables are the reason as to why they too are also quite filling.

4. Mental health and your relationship with food: Overall the foods you choose to eat can impact on your mental health and relationship with food. There is often nothing better than a nutritious meal particularly to begin the day as a means to ‘feel good’ in the mind in consideration of doing your body wonders as well as suppress binge urges and cravings. If you have a bad relationship with food and/or tendency to binge and lose control you wouldn’t want to select an empty and not filling meal given it’s likely to make you feel an urge to binge, have cravings and subsequently slip.

5. Health: Nutrient-dense foods provide adequate micronutrients for overall better health and functionality. Vitamin deficiencies can lead to health complications and repercussion on your wellbeing and can lead to other issues.

When people say when counting your macros you compromise health to fit in as much ‘junk’ as possible? INCORRECT. This couldn’t be further from the truth, tracking macros is actually a comprehensive, elite level of fat loss that is effective for both results, your relationship with food and crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s of your overall health. If your numbers are right you WILL see results and benefit from the ability to be able to have your cake and eat it too.

NOTE: There’s not A BEST DIET for everyone! Some people like eating ‘clean’ as preference, for others this is a cycle that can last two weeks and then result in a two week binge and yo-yo. The bottom line is though - don’t ignore numbers or be lead to believe that nutrient dense foods counteract their calorie value. Everyone has a calorie intake that is lesser than their expenditure and the foods you choose to meet this number will affect the end result physically, mentally and internally too. Think of it like this…

Your calorie allowance is money in the bank. You have to budget with that money throughout the course of the day in order to meet your goals. Say you have $2100 in the bank, the equivalent of 2100 calories, you could choose to buy 1 Gucci handbag with that amount of money and be left without a sweater, shoes, and pants OR you can hit up Target and dress yourself from head to toe and still have some change for accessories.

woman laughing eating salad

This is what it’s like flexible dieting. Some days you can compromise with having a delicious Gucci handbag and still stay within budget but sadly be undressed for the day, other days you can spend wisely and diligently and meet all your targets and get the most for your buck, while you can buy Gucci handbags every day, you shouldn’t because the compromise can add up and leave you unfilled over time. The compromise here in not allocating money in the bank to the ‘essentials’ is your overall health, energy levels, satiety, body composition and relationship with food.

Our recommendation

We always advise an 80/20 approach when it comes to balance in your diet. Flexible dieting in its optimum practice follows an 80/20 rule; 80% wholesome and nutritious food and 20% fun and flexibility. Of course, its human nature that naturally some days will be better than others but the underlying gain of following an 80/20 approach is that for the most part you will be satisfying your body with it’s requirements for optimum functionality as well as satisfying your mind with food for your soul that will allow for long term sustainability and a healthy relationship with food. Know your intake needs and be flexible in how you meet these. In practising a sustainable method of dieting you will be able to stick to it and maintain consistency over a period of time which is the crux of how to achieve results. In this comes the reduction of blowout days, write-offs etc which can hinder the progress you make.

If you’re sick and tired of the same old vicious cycle, not seeing results, want to eat what you want sustainably, AND don’t know where to start in eating according to your goal intake requirements… Take the first step in seeking professional assistance and we can show you the ways of dieting to your body’s needs in an approach that best suits you and your lifestyle. Contact us today!