A Calorie is a Calorie…Or is It?

When people talk to me about my weight loss, they almost always say “It must have been hard work.” My answer to that is that no, surprisingly it actually hasn’t been. And to be honest, that has always bothered me a bit. Why has it always been such hard work, in fact impossible work, for me before now, but this time hasn’t really been hard at all? I attributed it to finding an exercise I enjoy, since that was the main change I saw, but it never felt like the whole story. Especially since, as I said in a recent post, exercise alone doesn’t help you lose weight. It’s all about the food, so why have I been able to get a handle on that this time? What’s different?

I’ve recently been reading the book Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease by Robert Lustig. Now, there’s a lot of debate about things he says, and I’m not a doctor or a scientist, and I only have my sample size of one, but I see a lot of sense in a lot of what he says. I strongly recommend the book. Also, there’s a very good YouTube series from him and others called The Skinny on Obesity put out by the University of California San Francisco.

There’s this mantra when you first start logging your food: “A calorie is a calorie.” Meaning, eat what you like, but log it, and burn it off. Especially on an app like MyFitnessPal, the goal is to make the calories in be less than the calories out so you continue to lose weight. Dr. Lustig actually says that a calorie is not a calorie, and that calories from sugar (specifically fructose) are more readily made into fat. He also says that because of the way our hormones react to sugar, it is very addictive, and makes it so we think we are still hungry, so we eat more and more. It makes us tired, so we don’t want to move and exercise as much. He blames the obesity in our society, in the world, on processed foods with added sugar. Something his critics often miss is that he also says the sugar in natural foods is okay, because the fiber in these foods slows our absorption of the fructose (however fruit juice is not, since all the fiber is taken out). He also discusses in his book how exercise can help with our bodies’ reaction to fructose. I’m not even going to pretend that I can explain the science behind it all. Read the book, watch the videos.

I don’t know whether or not all of what he says is true, but here’s what I do know. Quite some time ago I read Michael Pollan’s books, and also got into the eating local movement, and started changing the way our family eats. I cut out more and more of the processed foods, and started adding more vegetables. I still bought what I considered “treats” though, cookies, crackers that kind of thing. Our meals consisted of almost entirely whole foods, but I was still having far more “treats” than I should have been. When I started logging my food, I saw how many calories were in those snacks, and saw how much more volume I could get for many less calories if I ate whole foods, like fruit and vegetables. So I slowly started replacing those foods too. For months now, I have been eating very few processed foods, and almost zero foods with added sugar. I still have a teaspoon of sugar in my coffee, and a bit of honey in my tea occasionally. I will sometimes have some dark chocolate at night as a treat. That’s it. The funny thing is, I didn’t do it on purpose, I didn’t think “I have to get rid of sugar from my diet.” It just happened that way.

So, is that why this time is different? Is that why I don’t get cravings anymore? Is that why my willpower has been awesome, and I haven’t had a single cheat day in the 11 months I’ve been changing my lifestyle? Is it why a bite of cake now tastes disgustingly sweet, and a slightly tart apple tastes like perfection? I don’t have any proof, but it feels right. I think I was addicted to sugar, even though I didn’t drink soda ever or eat candy often. Sugar is in everything, it’s in flavored yogurt, crackers, breakfast cereal, jelly, “healthy” low-fat versions of everyday foods, everything. To be honest, the possibility that this is the reason for my success gives me a lot of hope. I’ve heard all the statistics about people gaining the weight back after losing. Perhaps all I will have to do is continue to avoid foods with added sugar, a prospect that no longer sounds difficult at all.

So, here’s my advice to you, if you care to take it. Try weaning yourself from foods with added sugar. Read the labels, there are many names for sugars and often a food company will use many different kinds so that the sugar doesn’t show up as the first item on the ingredient list. If you get a craving for something sweet, eat a piece of fruit. As I always say, add a bunch more vegetables. If you have to have something with some sugar (like breakfast cereal) try to find one with a lot of fiber too. Try it for a few months and see how you feel. And let me know, I’d honestly be curious to know if it works for you too.

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One response to “A Calorie is a Calorie…Or is It?

  1. Nice post Ruth. Personally I was surprised to find how difficult it is to find sliced whole wheat bread that doesn’t include sugar or honey. That was quite an eye-opener.

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