Four Reasons a Calorie Is Not a Calorie


“Attacking the obesity epidemic will involve giving up many old ideas that have not been productive. ‘A calorie is a calorie’ might be a good place to start.” – R.D. Feinman, State University of New York

Beyond battling our basic biology, calorie balancing is bound to fail us because a calorie is not a calorie. The difference in calorie quality is really important. That’s because the quality of the calories we eat influences our hormones. Those in turn determine our set-point. We can control our weight, just not the way you have been led to believe.

The Calories In – Calories Out theory of weight control depends on the assumption that our bodies work like balance scales. Balance scales do not measure quality. On a balance scale, a pound of feathers weighs the same as a pound of lead. Quality is irrelevant. So on a balance scale, 300 calories of vegetables is the same as 300 calories of pasta. The only problem is that the body is not a balance scale.

Let’s look at the issue another way. Breathing in smoke-filled air for thirty years does something different to our respiratory system than breathing in the same quantity of fresh air. In the same fashion, putting 2,000 calories of low-quality food into our fat metabolism system does something different than putting in the same quantity of high-quality food. Quality counts. Our bodies do not work like balance scales.

The quality of calories depends on four fascinating factors:

  1. Satiety – How quickly calories fill us up and how long they keep us full
  2. Aggression – How likely calories are to be stored as body fat
  3. Nutrition – How many nutrients—aka protein, vitamins, minerals, etc.—calories provide
  4. Efficiency – How many calories can be stored as body fat

The more Satisfying, unAggressive, Nutritious, and inEfficienct a calorie is, the higher its quality. The more SANE it is. The more body-fat-burning hormones it triggers. The more it unclogs our metabolism and prevents overeating.

The more unSatisfying, Aggressive, not Nutritious, and Efficient a calorie is, the lower its quality. The more inSANE it is. The more body-fat-storing hormones it triggers. The more it clogs our metabolism and encourages overeating.

The more we understand the four calorie-quality factors, the more clearly we will see how eating more high-quality SANE food is the only practical way to burn body fat long term. When you stay full of SANE food, you will not have any room for clog-causing inSANE calories. When we are totally full from a super-sized SANE supper, skipping the sundae after isn’t a burden. It’s a blessing in disguise. By staying full of SANE calories, we clear our clog, drop our set-point, and enable our fat metabolism system to burn body fat for us automatically.

“…for the vast majority of people, being overweight is not caused by how much they eat but by what they eat. The idea that people get heavy because they consume a high volume of food is a myth. Eating large amounts of the right food is your key to success…” – Joel Fuhrman, Doctor and Author

Sound too good to be true? More supporting science coming-up shortly.


  1. Feinman RD, Fine EJ. “A calorie is a calorie” violates the second law of thermodynamics. Nutr J. 2004 Jul 28;3:9.
  2. Fuhrman, Joel. Eat to Live: The Revolutionary Formula for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss. London: Little, Brown and Company, 2005. Print.
  3. Ludwig DS. The glycemic index: physiological mechanisms relating to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. JAMA. 2002 May 8;287(18):2414-23. Review. PubMed PMID: 11988062.    &    Miller WC. Diet composition, energy intake, and nutritional status in relation to obesity in men and women. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1991 Mar;23(3):280-4. Review.  PubMed PMID: 2020264.
  4. Manninen AH. Is a calorie really a calorie? Metabolic advantage of low-carbohydrate diets. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2004 Dec 31;1(2):21-6. PubMed PMID: 18500946; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2129158.
  5. Powell JJ, Tucker L, Seafooder AG, Wilcox K. The effects of different percentages of dietary fat intake, exercise, and calorie restriction on body composition and body weight in obese females. Am J Health Promot. 1994 Jul-Aug;8(6):442-8. PubMed PMID: 10161100.     &     Kekwick A, Pawan GL. Calorie intake in relation to body-weight changes in the obese. Lancet. 1956 Jul 28;271(6935):155-61. PubMed PMID: 13347103.
12 replies
  1. JoAnn
    JoAnn says:

    Just repeating the Feinman and Fuhrman quotes as a daily mantra would be a start. We can’t get this information out to the public often enough.

  2. Kristen
    Kristen says:

    Very well said. I whole heartily agree that a calorie just isn’t a calorie. If we want to feel good and look good then we have to eat well. I’m definitely intrigued. I just ordered the book from Amazon. Although I have to say I’m not sure I could give up my whole grains. I’m very active and find that foods made with whole grains give me the most amount of energy and keep me feeling fuller for longer. If I have a kale and whey protein smoothie for breakfast I’m hungry again in an hour. And I also feel weak throughout the day. But if I have oatmeal with whey protein added, and some fruit, I’m good for a few hours. I look forward to reading the science behind all of this and will keep an open mind when it comes to the topic of whole grains. :)

    • Phil
      Phil says:


      You should read, Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis.

      Here’s just one example of why we should be worried about wheat (in any form)…

      “The gliadin protein of wheat has been modified by geneticists through their work to increase yield. This work, performed mostly in the 1970s, yielded a form of gliadin that is several amino acids different, but increased the appetite-stimulating properties of wheat. Modern wheat, a high-yield, semi-dwarf strain (not the 4 1/2-foot tall “amber waves of grain” everyone thinks of) is now, in effect, an appetite-stimulant that increases calorie intake 400 calories per day. This form of gliadin is also the likely explanation for the surge in behavioral struggles in children with autism and ADHD.”

      Here’s a podcast by Dr. Davis you may find interesting

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