It's not as simple as "a calorie equals a calorie." Why? Because two different types of foods can have completely different effects on your body, even if they have identical calorie contents. The best example of this is to compare carbohydrates (like in bread) and protein (nuts). Your body uses twice as many calories digesting and metabolising protein as it does carbohydrates and sugars. The result? Half the amount of calories are left to be potentially stored as fat!2. Zero or low-calorie does not equate to weight loss.
In fact, studies have shown that regular consumption of "calorie-free" artificial sweeteners can actually contribute to weight gain. According to a study published in the journal Obesity in 2008, individuals who regularly consume artificial sweeteners in so-called "diet" drinks and other low-calorie products are more likely to gain weight. Why? Because gram for gram, these sweeteners can be up to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar, driving sweet cravings that can lead you to eat more.3. Counting calories doesn't take hunger into account.
Different foods have different effects on satiety (how full you feel!). It's also easier to overeat some foods than others. This is yet another reason why there is more to diet than calorie counting. For example, 500 calories of ice cream is pretty easy to eat, and because of the disruptive effect it has on your blood sugar, it is likely to leave you wanting, and eventually eating more.
Compare this to 500 calories of broccoli (a small mountain of the stuff!), or even 500 calories of eggs (approximately 7 eggs), both which you would really struggle to eat in one sitting!4. Counting calories also doesn't consider nutritional content.
By choosing foods based on their calorie content alone, you are not taking account of their nutrient density. Yes, a can of diet soda has virtually zero calories, but what's it giving you in terms of nutrients? Nothing. By following a low-calorie diet, you are likely to be missing out on some very nutrient-rich foods including nuts, seeds, avocado, and oily fish. These foods may be relatively high in calories, but they are packed with important vitamins and minerals. They are also an important source of omega 3 fats, which if weight loss is what you are focused on, actually help the body to burn fat (yes, you need to eat fat to burn fat!).
Rather than thinking about calories as something you should try to count or cut down on, instead consider how you can get better bang for your buck. Consuming 300 calories of a mid-afternoon milk chocolate bar will give you an initial sugar (and energy) hit, but is likely to leave you feeling lethargic and hungry again about an hour later. Switch this for a 300-calorie handful of protein-rich nuts, and you'll be getting a source of more sustained energy, which helps you stay fuller for longer. You'll also get a great intake of healthy fats, magnesium, zinc, and vitamin E, amongt other nutrients. I know which one I'd rather put in my body.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.