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New Study: A Calorie Is Not Just a Calorie


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Link to Lifehacker Article

[h=1]A Calorie Is Not Just a Calorie, Study Shows[/h]There is plenty of argument over whether all calories are equal, thanks to a singular experiment where one man lost 27 pounds on a twinkie diet. In a more comprehensive look at the effects of diets and types of calories, the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center examined three common types. The results were highly varied, suggesting that not all calories are created equal.

Of the three diets—standard low fat, ultra low carb, and low glycemic—the amount of calories

The results were impressive. Those on the "Atkins" diet burned 350 calories more per day - the equivalent of an hour of moderate exercise - than those on the standard low-fat diet. Those on the low-glycemic diet burned 150 calories more, roughly equivalent to an hour of light exercise.

While the ultra low carb, Atkins-like diet had the greatest initial effect, it also had the lowest, long-term retention rate. On top of that, it increased the risk of heart problems. Although the low glycemic index diet didn't offer the same calorie-burning advantages, there were no adverse effects and it was easier to maintain over time. The key point of interest here, however, is that despite the same calorie intake, more calories were burned by altering the types of foods those calories came from. Reducing carbohydrates—especially of the processed variety—had a distinct effect on fat retention, metabolism, and overall health. While no single study is definitive proof of the inequality of calories, it suggests some good advice when considering your next diet: avoid processed foods, eat healthy, and be patient.

For more details, be sure to read the entire article over at the New York Times.

New York Times Article

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I read this the other day, something similar popped up in "Why We Get Fat" and other literature.

Tim Ferris in his 4 Hour Body book cited an identical study, where they gave 1,000 calories a day in the form of sugary snacks (carbs), nuts (fats), and meat (protein) to 3 female subjects with nearly the same body composition. The subjects eating protein and nuts lost 1-2 lbs per week, while the subject who ate the sugary snacks gained 1.5 lbs per week.

Same exact calories per subject, completely different results. Regardless of the results of all these studies, the science seems perfectly logical to me.

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I have to show this to a friend of mine. We got in to a huge argument a month ago over how a calorie is not always a calorie. She insists that 400 calories of Doritos is just the same as 400 calories of vegetables and meat, liking it to the whole pound of feathers/pound of bricks riddle.

Thanks for sharing the article!

Actually, you can throw that riddle back at him. The original riddle was a pound of feathers or a pound of gold. Precious metals are measured in troy pounds, so a pound of feathers is heavier than a pound of gold.

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That would likely earn me a roll of her eyes and a huff about how I need to get out more lol It would be worth it, though =D

Yea, but I think it would be a good way to point out that things aren't always straight up comparisons. It still comes down to Calories in vs. Calories out, it's just that junk food negatively affects Calories out.

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Interesting stuff that's right up my alley as a medical researcher! A couple of points to consider for anyone who reads the article:

1. The sample size (27 participants) is VERY small. They may not accurately represent the general population, either behaviourly or metabolically.

2. The study period (4 weeks) is VERY short. Metabolic changes, weight changes, body composition changes (i.e., body fat levels), water retention (particularly among females, although males are also affected) can take way longer than 4 weeks to manifest.

Not saying the info is should be dismissed! But...take it, as always, with a grain of salt.

Here's the link to the original study as published in the Journal of the American Medical Association - http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1199154

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I read the whole thing, apart from the limitations listed above (very small sample size, short) it does appear to be a somewhat decent study....

However note, that it actually had nothing to do with weight loss, it was instead a study for weight maintenance following loss. It also did not look at body composition changes over time.

But I do have a problem wrapping my head around the fundamental thing they appear to be trying to say. They are basically saying that an inch is longer than 2.54 centimeters and longer than 0.000126 furlongs. The circular logic inherant in their argument is that the calorie count reported for various foods is wrong (using calories burned to say this number of calories taken in from this type of food is different than this many calories taken in from this type of food)..

The other issue is that their logic also requires the premise that eating more food is better than eating less food. Changes in metabolic rate are not really a positive or negative. There is something inherently wrong with saying eat this way and your metabolism will change so you can eat even more and not get fat. I don't see this as a solution to the "problem". As a person who has both been on the losing end of things and gaining end of things (purposely), seeing things from both sides of the coin, that sort of thinking is a very unhealthy relationship with food.

Do note that outliers by and large are what generated their results. If you instead use dataset mode instead of median, a comparison of Low GI to standard low fat diet is instead in favor of the standard low fat diet. You always have to be wary of outliers when making comparisons based on mean, especially over small datasets. Low carb still "wins", however as they caution it isn't really a realistic maintenance diet (which was the focus of the study), and don't really go into how a fairly radically different fuel burn mix would affect the outcome; any diet comparison that compares low carb to others will always skew into low carb's favor over the short term due to the much lower glycogen maintenance level when on a low carb diet, and though it has fairly large scale effects, glycogen is not a factor in body composition. Low carb diets in general are the worst possible option when the goal is body composition change (becoming less fat) instead of "weight loss".

People also have to remember than the population studied was obese/recently formerly obese. The % diabetic or prediabetic was significantly enriched vs. the whole of the population. This enrichment will tend to produce outliers and data skew. Their data was extrapolated to say a calories is not a calorie, however they only applied it to a distinct subset of people, a subset that contains a high fraction of people who are known to have a metabolic disease related to a particular nutriet; proving that low carb or low GI diets are superior to low fat diets among diabetics/prediabetics is not groundbreaking or even anything more than "no duh", the extrapolation from that subset to say that a calorie is not a calorie among all people is just plain shitty science (I can't recall if the paper did reach that conclusion or it is was only contained in the article about it); it is akin to testing semi trucks with various fuels and using the data to say that all vehicles run better on diesel. If someone tried to tell you that you'd think they were an idiot, yet that is no different than the link between the headline and the science studied here.

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I read the whole thing, apart from the limitations listed above (very small sample size, short) it does appear to be a somewhat decent study....

However note, that it actually had nothing to do with weight loss, it was instead a study for weight maintenance following loss. It also did not look at body composition changes over time.

But I do have a problem wrapping my head around the fundamental thing they appear to be trying to say. They are basically saying that an inch is longer than 2.54 centimeters and longer than 0.000126 furlongs. The circular logic inherant in their argument is that the calorie count reported for various foods is wrong (using calories burned to say this number of calories taken in from this type of food is different than this many calories taken in from this type of food)..

"1 calorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1 degree centigrade" - right?

So what if different "foods" require more (or less) energy to burn off? That's the point. What if the calories we use are actually wrong?

The other issue is that their logic also requires the premise that eating more food is better than eating less food. Changes in metabolic rate are not really a positive or negative. There is something inherently wrong with saying eat this way and your metabolism will change so you can eat even more and not get fat. I don't see this as a solution to the "problem". As a person who has both been on the losing end of things and gaining end of things (purposely), seeing things from both sides of the coin, that sort of thinking is a very unhealthy relationship with food.

Don't think I have a problem with what you're saying here.

Do note that outliers by and large are what generated their results. If you instead use dataset mode instead of median, a comparison of Low GI to standard low fat diet is instead in favor of the standard low fat diet. You always have to be wary of outliers when making comparisons based on mean, especially over small datasets. Low carb still "wins", however as they caution it isn't really a realistic maintenance diet (which was the focus of the study), and don't really go into how a fairly radically different fuel burn mix would affect the outcome; any diet comparison that compares low carb to others will always skew into low carb's favor over the short term due to the much lower glycogen maintenance level when on a low carb diet, and though it has fairly large scale effects, glycogen is not a factor in body composition. Low carb diets in general are the worst possible option when the goal is body composition change (becoming less fat) instead of "weight loss".

I couldn't disagree more and don't think there is much to support that statement.

People also have to remember than the population studied was obese/recently formerly obese. The % diabetic or prediabetic was significantly enriched vs. the whole of the population. This enrichment will tend to produce outliers and data skew. Their data was extrapolated to say a calories is not a calorie, however they only applied it to a distinct subset of people, a subset that contains a high fraction of people who are known to have a metabolic disease related to a particular nutriet; proving that low carb or low GI diets are superior to low fat diets among diabetics/prediabetics is not groundbreaking or even anything more than "no duh", the extrapolation from that subset to say that a calorie is not a calorie among all people is just plain shitty science (I can't recall if the paper did reach that conclusion or it is was only contained in the article about it); it is akin to testing semi trucks with various fuels and using the data to say that all vehicles run better on diesel. If someone tried to tell you that you'd think they were an idiot, yet that is no different than the link between the headline and the science studied here.

There are tons of other studies related to this about this very same thing that lead to the same conclusion. Some even 40 years old. You make some good points, but I wouldn't just dismiss the study completely. I know we heven't really agreed with this in the past, but it does seem like you often show up just to dismiss them pretty quickly. ;)

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People also have to remember than the population studied was obese/recently formerly obese. The % diabetic or prediabetic was significantly enriched vs. the whole of the population. This enrichment will tend to produce outliers and data skew. Their data was extrapolated to say a calories is not a calorie, however they only applied it to a distinct subset of people, a subset that contains a high fraction of people who are known to have a metabolic disease related to a particular nutriet; proving that low carb or low GI diets are superior to low fat diets among diabetics/prediabetics is not groundbreaking or even anything more than "no duh", the extrapolation from that subset to say that a calorie is not a calorie among all people is just plain shitty science (I can't recall if the paper did reach that conclusion or it is was only contained in the article about it); it is akin to testing semi trucks with various fuels and using the data to say that all vehicles run better on diesel. If someone tried to tell you that you'd think they were an idiot, yet that is no different than the link between the headline and the science studied here.

While I disagree with most of the rest of your analysis, I think this part is very relevant. It's fair to say that the study group is not necessarily reflective of the overall population - and certainly there's plenty of evidence of low-carb diets yielding good results for people who are overweight and/or insulin resistant. I don't think this study should be interpreted too broadly, but I think that the baseline statement that "all calories are not created equal" definitely applies.

Thermodynamics isn't being violated here, it's just that textbook values for calories don't accurately account for the body's efficiency in extracting energy from some foods, nor for the fact that biochemical effects of different macronutrient intakes may have subtle effects on metabolic rate etc. Not "eat all you want and you'll never gain wait" level effects, but subtle effects that may* have implications for longer-term weight maintenance.

*I say may, because while the results of this study were interesting, some aspects were far from conclusive(or more precisely, did not do enough to pinpoint precise, root causes), and further follow-up is really needed.

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There are tons of other studies related to this about this very same thing that lead to the same conclusion. Some even 40 years old. You make some good points, but I wouldn't just dismiss the study completely. I know we heven't really agreed with this in the past, but it does seem like you often show up just to dismiss them pretty quickly. ;)

A crapton of funding and effort has been put in the last 30-40 years or so...

Noone has been able to conclusively disprove that a calorie is a calorie, and many, many, many, many studies have confirmed it. You at best get hints that it is possible, but that is about it. That a calorie isn't a calorie is the Higgs Boson of nutritional science. A lot of people really, really, really want to believe in it for some reason. Most are like this, extrapolations off a very small subset that really don't apply very much to the central treasure being hunted. Heck the Higgs is far more proven than the fact that a calorie isn't a calorie.

Do you really think this study is the smoking gun that proves what a huge number of people have spent a long time and a lot of effort trying to prove?

For real, some people need to turn on their critical thinking switches every now and then and turn off their confirmation bias.

For a group of supposed nerds, I am disappoint.

As far as that low carb is the worst option for body recomp, I'm not even going to bother with that one. It is basic physiology.

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A crapton of funding and effort has been put in the last 30-40 years or so...

Noone has been able to conclusively disprove that a calorie is a calorie, and many, many, many, many studies have confirmed it. You at best get hints that it is possible, but that is about it. That a calorie isn't a calorie is the Higgs Boson of nutritional science. A lot of people really, really, really want to believe in it for some reason. Most are like this, extrapolations off a very small subset that really don't apply very much to the central treasure being hunted. Heck the Higgs is far more proven than the fact that a calorie isn't a calorie.

Do you really think this study is the smoking gun that proves what a huge number of people have spent a long time and a lot of effort trying to prove?

For real, some people need to turn on their critical thinking switches every now and then and turn off their confirmation bias.

For a group of supposed nerds, I am disappoint.

As far as that low carb is the worst option for body recomp, I'm not even going to bother with that one. It is basic physiology.

Of course, my confirmation bias does go rampant on this stuff, but it doesn't mean it's not true. No, I don't think this single study is the smoking gun, but I do think the combination of them all is. And I assume by "some people" you mean me, otherwise you wouldn't have said it... so that's laughable. Good thing I have thick skin. :)

And just because I am a nerd doesn't mean I need to agree with you. I'm sorry you're dissapointed. ;)

As far as low carb being the worst option for body recomp, I don't even understand how you're dismissing it completely. You can't just slap the term, "it's basic physiology" on it and it becomes automatically true. There is plenty of information, science, and success stories relating to body recomposition on low carb. Your body doesn't even need carbs to survive, but it does need fat. So I don't possibly understand how your statement could be true. I could use myself as a great example. Last year I lost 30 pounds while on low carb and retained the same muscle strength (in some areas more) I had before. It was easy, fast, and healthy. I'm not convinced this is the worst way to do it. :)

I'm okay with agreeing to disagree with you, though. Are you okay doing the same?

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1) a calorie is a calorie. Yes I agree.

2) Is the study flawed? There are limitations but there are other studies that show similar affect that don't focus on diabetics. This type of research has been going on since post World War I. Lots of data out there.

2) How a calorie is processed in the body varies widely. The body does not metabolize all energy equally or produce the same metabolic response of the different types of calories.

3) As for confirmation bias you are no less susceptible than the rest of us.

4) Why is low carb the worst option?

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Noone has been able to conclusively disprove that a calorie is a calorie, and many, many, many, many studies have confirmed it. You at best get hints that it is possible, but that is about it. That a calorie isn't a calorie is the Higgs Boson of nutritional science. A lot of people really, really, really want to believe in it for some reason. Most are like this, extrapolations off a very small subset that really don't apply very much to the central treasure being hunted. Heck the Higgs is far more proven than the fact that a calorie isn't a calorie.

There's plenty of evidence/studies out there that have proven that the "textbook" calorie values for certain nutrients are inaccurate as pertains to functional energy storage by the body - most prominently protein and alcohol, whose functional caloric content(as translates to energy storage in the body) has been shown to be lower than the label/textbook caloric value due to inefficiencies/thermogenic effects when the body extracts energy.

It's not that the 1st law of thermodynamics is incorrect, it's that C=4/P=4/F=9cal/g are approximations - pretty good ones in most cases, but they don't account for variations in food absorption and inefficiencies in certain metabolic pathways.

Beyond that, I don't think caloric content can be looked at in isolation when it comes to weight maintenance regardless. It's really energy intake relative to satiety that governs long-term maintenance - and this is much more significant than small differences in BMR in many cases. If satiety is way off, weight maintenance becomes a chore, and likely unsustainable in the long term due to the long, slow drain on willpower for many people.

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A crapton of funding and effort has been put in the last 30-40 years or so...

Noone has been able to conclusively disprove that a calorie is a calorie, and many, many, many, many studies have confirmed it. You at best get hints that it is possible, but that is about it. That a calorie isn't a calorie is the Higgs Boson of nutritional science. A lot of people really, really, really want to believe in it for some reason. Most are like this, extrapolations off a very small subset that really don't apply very much to the central treasure being hunted. Heck the Higgs is far more proven than the fact that a calorie isn't a calorie.

Do you really think this study is the smoking gun that proves what a huge number of people have spent a long time and a lot of effort trying to prove?

For real, some people need to turn on their critical thinking switches every now and then and turn off their confirmation bias.

For a group of supposed nerds, I am disappoint.

As far as that low carb is the worst option for body recomp, I'm not even going to bother with that one. It is basic physiology.

I would like to use an apple as an example of why foods can provide fewer Calories than what they actually contain. In order to test the caloric content of food, they burn it and determine the energy output of the burn. This assumes that all of the item will be absorbed by the person. First of all, an apple has fiber in it. That fiber has a caloric value. Fiber cannot be absorbed and used for energy. Second, an apple has a 3:1 ratio of fructose to glucose for it's sugar supply. Glucose is actively absorbed while Fructose is passively absorbed. Your body can only absorb fructose at a certain rate. Anything beyond that rate continues on to the colon where it is fermented which can cause gas. So, now you have fiber and fructose in an apple that aren't being absorbed by the body. Anything with sucrose or HFCS has nearly a 1:1 ratio of Fructose and Glucose. The fructose is more easily absorbed when consumed in a 1:1 ratio with glucose. So, basically eating a 100 Calorie apple and eating a 100 Calorie Snack Pack are not going to lead to the absorption of the same number of Calories.

Second, once that fructose is absorbed, it has to be converted from fructose to glucose in the liver. That takes energy. The same thing can be said for protein that ends up being used as energy. It takes energy to break apart a molecule. The reason that amino acids can be used as energy is because they contain a structure for energy storage as part of the molecule. Breaking that apart from the amine group takes energy before you can even begin to use the energy stored within it. It's horribly inneficient and that's why it's the last option for energy in the body. So, the idea that our body might get the energy from the nutrients that is estimated by burning the food, but it also has to use more energy to process those nutrients to the point that it's going to be able to be utilized by the body.

I have other issues with some of the things that you say, but I'm not as certain that I am not misunderstanding you or of how to communicate them, so I won't get into them. Bottom line, when I see a study like this, I don't take it as gospel. I doubt many on this site would. However, I look at it as anecdotal evidence in support of a theory as to how the body processes various nutrients.

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Anything beyond that rate continues on to the colon where it is fermented which can cause gas. So, now you have fiber and fructose in an apple that aren't being absorbed by the body. Anything with sucrose or HFCS has nearly a 1:1 ratio of Fructose and Glucose. The fructose is more easily absorbed when consumed in a 1:1 ratio with glucose. So, basically eating a 100 Calorie apple and eating a 100 Calorie Snack Pack are not going to lead to the absorption of the same number of Calories.

Actually - the nutrient absorption effect reminds me of another, perfect example of how textbook calorie values can be incorrect. Some types of fiber don't just "pass through", so to speak - they actually get fermented to butyric acid(a short chain fatty acid) in the digestive tract - which can be used by the body for energy.

There are studies out there that have found, or strongly suggest:

1. butyric acid is utilized by the human body for energy(both the digestive tract itself and the rest of the body) - resulting in the zero-calorie energy level for fiber to be potentially incorrect

2. butyric acid affects certain metabolic pathways(i.e. metabolism is not totally static with respect to inputs)

(3. Not related to this discussion per se, but interesting nonetheless) butyric acid has anti-cancer properties in the colon(and perhaps elsewhere), and this fermentation mechanism and the metabolism of the resulting butryric acid may be the actual driving mechanism behind some of fiber's purported protective effects.

None of this says that low-carb(or any other particular diet, for that matter) is a panacea for weight loss - simply that the text book values that most of the world accepts for the energy content of various macronutrients are decent approximations, rather than exact values that can be applied without deviation in every scenario. Calories in-Calories out still applies, it's just that the calculation for each is sometimes oversimplified(and hence sometimes a little bit off).

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Bottom line, when I see a study like this, I don't take it as gospel. I doubt many on this site would. However, I look at it as anecdotal evidence in support of a theory as to how the body processes various nutrients.

This...

Calories in-Calories out still applies, it's just that the calculation for each is sometimes oversimplified(and hence sometimes a little bit off).

...and this both pretty much sum up how I feel about this study, as well (also, a correction from my original post - there were 21 participants, not 27).

I think the real challenge is determining the "calories out" aspect of the equation. "Calories in" should be, in my opinion, considered a constant. That is, the caloric value of a given food is what it is. The way we process that food is a function of "calories out", and can vary greatly depending on the individual and the type of food being processed. I've never liked that the "calories in" side of the equation undergoes manipulation depending on how well we can absorb that particular food...

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One thing that we really have to keep in mind with these studies is the condition of the test subjects. Very overfat people react differently to well-conditioned people, seniors react differently to teens, athletes react differently to couch potatoes. The classic error in this context is to take an "I lost 8 lbs in 2 weeks!" crash diet on a fat 250lb guy and expect the same result on a 100lb skinny girl.

I wonder if we can calculate a "meta" calories value that applies to their impact?

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Actually - the nutrient absorption effect reminds me of another, perfect example of how textbook calorie values can be incorrect. Some types of fiber don't just "pass through", so to speak - they actually get fermented to butyric acid(a short chain fatty acid) in the digestive tract - which can be used by the body for energy.

There are studies out there that have found, or strongly suggest:

1. butyric acid is utilized by the human body for energy(both the digestive tract itself and the rest of the body) - resulting in the zero-calorie energy level for fiber to be potentially incorrect

2. butyric acid affects certain metabolic pathways(i.e. metabolism is not totally static with respect to inputs)

(3. Not related to this discussion per se, but interesting nonetheless) butyric acid has anti-cancer properties in the colon(and perhaps elsewhere), and this fermentation mechanism and the metabolism of the resulting butryric acid may be the actual driving mechanism behind some of fiber's purported protective effects.

None of this says that low-carb(or any other particular diet, for that matter) is a panacea for weight loss - simply that the text book values that most of the world accepts for the energy content of various macronutrients are decent approximations, rather than exact values that can be applied without deviation in every scenario. Calories in-Calories out still applies, it's just that the calculation for each is sometimes oversimplified(and hence sometimes a little bit off).

That's great, but all you are saying is that the calorie counts on some foods should be changed, because they are incorrect.

This is not what the headline implies at all.

Were you to correct the calorie counts for biological availability, such that 100 calories of substance X = 100 calories of substance Y, at that point there is no longer any reason to consider source (protein excluded, assuming all micronutriet needs are met as well), whether it is 100 calories of carrots or 100 calories of candy wouldn't matter in the slightest.

That calorie counts are wrong because of bioavailability is not what this is getting at at all; the headline is making the point that all else being equal, some calories are intrinsically "better" than others. And science has never proven that to be the case, despite the vast majority of the population believing it to be so (that group has and has always had much better talking points, and there is a lot of money to be made off people who believe that). Those that actually believe in a strict a calorie is a calorie model are a very, very, very small minority of people (I do believe that I'm the only person on NF that does, however as you get away from people trying to lose weight to people who have a great deal of control over their physique, the % of people who are strict calorie is a calorie believers rises sharply). Health food/healthier food is a myth.

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Health food/healthier food is a myth.

If healthy food is myth, then why am I able to manage my Crohn's disease strictly by diet?

Surely the fact that I'm eating a certain way to manage a disease could be deemed as eating healthy food.

Surely eating French fries and hamburgers every day with an 80oz soda is not healthy.

How in the world is "health food" a myth? Did I misunderstand you?

Should I input my "for a group of nerds in disappoint" now?

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If healthy food is myth, then why am I able to manage my Crohn's disease strictly by diet?

Surely the fact that I'm eating a certain way to manage a disease could be deemed as eating healthy food.

Surely eating French fries and hamburgers every day with an 80oz soda is not healthy.

How in the world is "health food" a myth? Did I misunderstand you?

Should I input my "for a group of nerds in disappoint" now?

Umm, it is because you are allergic to particular foods. This doesn't apply to the general population who doesn't share your allergy.

As long you meet you micronutriet and protein goals, the form of your fuel calories is irrelevent, provided the fuel intake is controlled. The calories in a sweet potato are not superior in any way to the calories in a piece of chocolate cake, the notion that a sweet potato is somehow better for you is flat out false. Now if you have a metabolic disease or allergy, the story may be different.

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As long you meet you micronutriet and protein goals, the form of your fuel calories is irrelevent, provided the fuel intake is controlled. The calories in a sweet potato are not superior in any way to the calories in a piece of chocolate cake, the notion that a sweet potato is somehow better for you is flat out false.

Hey Waldo,

Are you looking at this in the context of weight loss/gain only? That is, from the perspective of viewing food in its capacity to provide fuel only?

If that's the case, then I mostly concur...but if you are looking at the food/body interactions more holistically, then some foods are, of course, better/worse than others.

Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk

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Umm, it is because you are allergic to particular foods. This doesn't apply to the general population who doesn't share your allergy.

As long you meet you micronutriet and protein goals, the form of your fuel calories is irrelevent, provided the fuel intake is controlled. The calories in a sweet potato are not superior in any way to the calories in a piece of chocolate cake, the notion that a sweet potato is somehow better for you is flat out false. Now if you have a metabolic disease or allergy, the story may be different.

I am not convinced, in the least, that this is true.

Food is what that CAUSES these diseases and metabolic conditions.

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