Are all calories the same? Technically, a calorie is a unit of energy required to raise 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius. Therefore, a calorie is a standard unit of measurement, which makes all calories equal. While this is true in a laboratory, it isn’t true in our bodies. You see, food scientists measure calories by burning food and seeing how much energy is released. 1 calorie of soda releases the exact amount of energy as 1 calorie of broccoli when burned over a Bunsen Burner in an isolated lab setting. But isolated laboratory settings do not apply in complex, living, adaptive systems.
To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at how 750 calories of soda and 750 calories of broccoli enter your body’s energy systems. 750 calories is roughly the amount you get from an extra large soda found at your favorite fast food chain. These calories come from the 186 grams of sugar or 46 teaspoons found within. Your digestive track quickly absorbs the fiber-free sugars in the soda, which is mostly comprised of fructose with some glucose. The glucose spikes your blood sugar immediately, releasing insulin and a cascade of hormonal reactions resulting in detrimental biochemical changes. The insulin spike increases belly fat, increases inflammation, raises triglycerides, and lowers HDL (the good cholesterol), raises blood pressure, lowers testosterone in men, and contributes to infertility in women. It then blocks your appetite control hormone called leptin, which throws off your brain chemistry. You stop getting the “I’m full” response from your brain and you over-eat. Your pleasure centers in your brain develop a dependency on glucose, which triggers future cravings. And this is just the glucose part of it.
The fructose makes things worse. The energy in fructose can’t be used in your blood so it has to go to the liver, where it’s converted to belly fat. This begins to cause insulin resistance, which makes your body now require more insulin to do its job and therefore magnifies the problems associated with high insulin listed in the above paragraph. You now become a belly fat and inflammation producing machine. On top of that, fructose doesn’t send a signal to your brain that you’ve just consumed a load of calories, so your appetite suppression hormone never gets released. That’s why you can drink a giant soda and still have your burger and fries.
So what about the broccoli? Well for starters, 750 calories of broccoli is about 21 cups of it. I’d like to see someone try to eat that much in one sitting. Second of all, in all of that broccoli there is only 1.5 teaspoons of sugar. But aren’t all plants made up of primarily carbohydrates that break down into sugar in your body? That’s pretty much true, although broccoli is about 25% protein. The difference is that plants like broccoli are high fiber, low sugar carbohydrates. Most of the plant starch is indigestible and the starch that is takes awhile to break down, so you get a very slow release of sugar and therefore never get an insulin spike or any of that other biochemical chaos. Also, broccoli has healthy vitamins and minerals.
So are all calories the same? Not if you plan on eating them.