I’m sure you’ve heard the golden rule of weight loss. The golden rule states that calories in vs calories out is what determines changes in body weight or body stores. This rule is what allowed the Kansas State nutrition professor to famously lose weight on a Twinkie diet, and it’s the basis of the flexible dieting and IIFYM (if it fits your macros) camps.
Before I go any further, I think it’s important I mention that I’m a proponent of a flexible dieting approach and tracking dietary intake in general. What gets measured gets managed, right? And as a coach, I’m a nerd for objective data and tracking metrics of any kind.
Aside from objective data, my belief in the golden rule is because it remains true, above all else. A balanced energy equation (calories in – calories out = changes in body stores) is the ultimate determinant of fat loss or muscle gain success. Whether you’re tracking, eating a paleo diet, Atkins, low-carb, Zone, RD-recommended, or any other diet, the golden rule lies at the core of your success or lack thereof.
The problem with this line of thinking, and I’m as guilty as anyone, is that all food is created equally. While some get shredded eating nothing but Twinkies or ice cream, the fact of the matter is that food quality and what your macronutrient ratios and calories are comprised of seems to matter. 100 grams of carbs from vegetables will have a different effect on the body than 100 grams of carbs from ice cream.
Okay, let’s get into it. This article will cover a few reasons and examples of how simply hitting macro or calorie goals may not be optimal, and the things you can do to improve your results while eating the same calories/macros (or maybe more).
One Macronutrient to Rule Them All
What if I told you that eating burned calories? It may sound too good to be true, but eating does burn calories due to the thermic of food. The thermic effect of food (TEF) or the thermic effect of eating (TEE) is the energy cost (calories burned) during digestion and absorption of a meal/food. Unfortunately, the energy cost is only a fraction of the total calorie intake and never outweighs the calories consumed. Darn.
The good news is that one particular macronutrient (protein, carbs, fat) has a much higher TEF than its counterparts. At the top of our TEF scale, with a 30% energy cost, lies our macro superstar – protein. When consumed, protein burns 20-30% of its calories during digestion and absorption. That means for 100 calories of protein (25 grams), you may burn 20-30 calories effortlessly.
Your carbohydrate and fat intake aren’t completely void of TEF effects. They have a 5-10% and 3-5% energy cost, respectively. This being said, the overall calorie load for fat and the limited usefulness of carbs outside of performance make them less than ideal sources for increasing dietary-induced thermogenesis. That’s not to say we should avoid either of these nutrients, rather protein should be emphasized when fat loss or optimal body composition is the goal.
You’ll see more below on the impact increased protein can have on calories burned, but the biggest takeaway for protein is that you probably need more of it. Studies have shown .8-1.2 grams per pound of body weight per day to be optimal for body composition without any negative effects.
Those numbers would equate to a protein range of 148-222 grams/day for a 185-pound person. I coach my athletes to aim for the higher end on training days and relax a bit on non-training days. Either way, hovering in the one gram per pound of body weight is a good idea.
What About Processed vs Unprocessed Foods?
Okay, now that we’ve covered the role of macronutrient ratios in post-meal energy expenditure, let’s look at food quality. Keep in mind, the basic energy balance equation will determine changes in body weight, and things like macronutrient ratio manipulation and food quality are ways to optimize your results or tip the scales in your favor. Continue reading to learn more about how food quality may allow you to burn an additional 9,000 calories in a month’s time by doing nothing other than making better food choices (eating the same macros/calories).
A recent study compared the calories burned after a meal of whole grain bread and unprocessed cheese to that of white bread and a processed cheese product. Researchers found the unprocessed meal group burned nearly double the calories after eating their cheese sandwich. It’s worth mentioning that the unprocessed group had a 5% higher protein composition in their meal, but that wouldn’t account for double the energy expenditure. What’s more, this study used whole grain bread and cheese. Can you imagine the results if they’d compared a meal with vegetables, lean meat, and unprocessed dairy?
If you read through my archives, I’d be guilty of saying that it’s difficult to rev your metabolism. I’ll stand by that statement since most of the time it’s attached to supplements or scam tactics. That said, it does appear that someone consuming a diet high in processed foods could significantly increase their dietary-induced thermogenesis or thermic effects from eating to significant levels by incorporating more whole, unprocessed foods.
Is It Possible to Burn an Extra 9,000 Calories Each Month?
Let’s put it all together and see what it might look like on a larger scale. Below you’ll find two daily intakes side by side. Both daily intakes equate to 2,000 calories and have the same fat intake. Now, real life will never be this black and white. Very few people will be able to (or want to) eat a 100% unprocessed diet. The example is fascinating, still.
On the left, we have a high-processed food, higher carb, lower fiber, and low-protein intake.
On the right, we have an unprocessed, higher protein, higher fiber, lower carb intake.
As you can see, the manipulation of protein from left to right burned twice the calories from the thermic effects of protein (30%).
Additionally, since fiber makes up carb intake but doesn’t have 4 calories/gram (let’s say it has 2 calories/gram here) like other carbohydrates, we “saved” an additional 40 calories from increasing fiber intake.
While most of the processed diet’s fat came from trace amounts in the processed foods and were hydrogenated/saturated/trans fats, we see a small increase calorie burn from making better fat choices. Furthering the example, studies have shown that we may absorb 100% of calories from peanut butter, but only 80% of calories from whole peanuts.
And finally, the additional 5% bonus for an overall unprocessed diet adds an additional 100 calories burned through dietary-induced thermogenesis. It’s likely this a conservative number based on the 46% increase researchers saw in the study mentioned above, but I digress. This brings our total calories burned during digestion and absorption of our unprocessed diet to 480, or 300 calories more than in our processed diet example.
That’s significant, even on a daily basis, but what’s more impressive is when we extrapolate this data out to a week or month’s time. In one week, that’s an additional 2,100 calories burned through dietary-induced thermogenesis. In one month, we’re looking at a 9,000 calorie difference between a processed and unprocessed diet.
For the sake of comparison, exercising for 30 minutes every single day might burn 3,000-4,000 calories over the course of a month.
How Does This Work?
Let’s use cooking as an example. Other than making foods like raw meat safe to eat, cooking makes foods more mouth-friendly and palatable by breaking down cell walls and other components of food. Take beans (not canned), for instance, which are nearly indestructible before soaking AND cooking. The process of soaking and cooking beans slowly breaks each bean down to a chewable consistency. If you ate a raw bean whole, your body would have to do that work. Otherwise, it would pass completely undigested and unabsorbed, similar to some sources of fiber. (Similarly, cooking meat denatures the protein inside, making it easier to digest.)
While cooking is more of a natural example, the processing of foods is the same concept. Removing the germ and bran from grains in the process of making refined grains for white bread is work that your body could’ve been doing and burning calories from. Nuts would be another great example. Like I briefly mentioned above, studies have shown that calories from ground nuts (nut butter) can be nearly 100% absorbed. Calories from a whole nut, on the other hand, may only be 75% percent absorbed, like researchers found in this study on almonds.
To put it simply, processed foods are in the easiest possible form to digest and absorb. And the easier it is for your body to digest and absorb a food, the fewer calories you’ll burn in the process.
Micronutrients and Other Tiny Things
Did you know that every popular, effective supplement contains ingredients that are found naturally in food? Vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, polyphenols, essential fatty acids, and all the other tiny compounds that play a role in thousands of metabolic processes are found in plants, animals, herbs, and other natural foods. If you’re supplementing for a 1% benefit, you may reap the same reward from including these types of tiny nutrients into your diet. And you may get an even bigger effect from the tiny nutrients we don’t know enough about yet. Nutritional science is a very young science, and we’re learning more every day.
And aside from body composition, micronutrients and these tiny compounds are vital for maintaining overall health and physiology. Their roles in cancer prevention, free-radical reduction, anti-inflammation, gut health, neurological processes, and even psychological well-being are not to be forgotten.
It’s safe to say the golden rule is a bit more complex than simply calories in vs calories out. There’s a lot that goes into your overall energy balance (just check out the graphic below). We’ve covered some above, but I want to leave you with a few practical, actionable items.
- Eat more protein. Ideally, you remove carbohydrates or fat from your diet and replace with protein. Most people should pull away from carbs first. I coach my clients to maintain a 30% fat minimum. Meaning, 30% of their overall calorie intake comes from fat. This ensures optimal hormone function, among many other physiological processes. As a reminder, eat one gram of protein for every pound you weigh. And it’s worth mentioning, if most of your protein comes from shakes or liquids, incorporate more whole food sources.
- Pay attention to food quality and how many processed foods you’re eating compared to unprocessed. Make the easy changes first. (I.e. swapping white rice for brown rice, white bread for whole grain, fries for baked potato, starchy carbs for colorful veggies, diet soda for water, etc.)
- Despite the golden rule, it’s not necessary to track calories. Making better food choices and improving your nutrition, independent of body composition, will improve your health. The only caveat would be if you began eating more healthy, unprocessed foods on top of what you’re currently eating. Remember, any health benefits or calories burned from quality food won’t outweigh the total calorie load.
- Take all of this with a grain of salt. If you hit your calorie/macro goals, you will see results, no questions asked. This article is meant to highlight the importance of food quality and the differences it could make in the energy balance equation. I just like to know what’s optimal and if a strategy could be improved. In this case, being able to eat more food or the same amount of food while losing fat or maintaining a level of fitness is worth exploring.
- Don’t think food quality has anything to do with buying organic. The data doesn’t show any significant differences between organic and regular whole foods.
- We didn’t touch on exercise or training but an obvious way to increase the calories out side of the equation is through exercise. An easy place to start are the “sneaky” calorie burners (NEAT) like standing while you work or watch tv, stretching during commercials, walking more, cleaning or working around the house. Research has shown that for every hour you’re standing, you may burn 10 calories more than sitting. That may seem insignificant but if you think about adding in a few hours a day in small increments, you’d burn a few hundred extra calories every week. Those add up!
What This Means for Me, The Simplifier
I’m guilty of oversimplifying food and nutrition. Most of my recipes and food advice is to keep things simple and focus on your calorie/macro balance first. Some even include processed foods. Will I be changing my recommendations and recipes moving forward? Probably not, and that’s because it’s all important. Your overall energy balance is important, making better food choices is important, eating less processed food is important, and there are a hundred other things I could list here. That’s why my free eBook is titled Nutrition Made Easy, it’s a starting point. Because the most important thing is that you start.
My hope and goal with simplification is that it will serve as a gateway for some to develop more nutrition know-how. Going from zero cooking to a whole food, unprocessed diet overnight is doomed to fail. It’s important to be aware of what’s optimal like you’ve read in this article, but you’ll have to work towards it depending on where you’re at right now. Remember, the best diet or nutrition strategy is the one you can stick to. Be realistic, keep it as simple as you need, and gradually improve. You’ve got an entire life of eating and drinking ahead of you!
Sources & Research Credit: Brian St. Pierre and Precision Nutrition on Metabolic Damage and Scientific American