A Calorie Is Not a Calorie: How Carbs Trigger Overeating

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A Calorie Is Not a Calorie: How Carbs Trigger Overeating
“Calories in and calories out – that’s all that matters to lose weight.”

[P]rocessed carbohydrates that are known to cause abrupt spikes and falls in blood sugar appear to stimulate parts of the brain involved in hunger, craving and reward.
You have surely heard this before and likely followed it religiously. It sounds so simple, so elegant … but it is so wrong. It is increasingly clear that “a calorie is a calorie” is misleading — the evidence points primarily to the carbohydrate content of dietary intake rather than total caloric intake as the primary factor in body mass changes. Art De Vany covers this in-depth in his book The New Evolution Diet as well as in a series of posts on the topic summed up in his conclusion:

Calories measure heat, metabolism produces heat and biomolecules. The human biome contains hundreds of thousands of biomolecules, perhaps more. It is just now being mapped thoroughly. Energy in and out balance only measures the heat, leaving the biomolecules out of the picture. The biomolecules compose the millions of signalling molecules, such as insulin and glucagon, gene effectors, DNA, mitochondria, and all the trillions of cells that a human is made of. ATP is part of the electron flux, which is the most fundamental aspect of physiology. It is how our bodies use electrons that runs the show. … [T]here are many forms of carbohydrates and not all of them are the same even if they have the same energy content. It is the energy AND the biomolecules produced that play out in the complex landscape of human metabolism.

Turning to carbohydrates, a more helpful message than “eat less,” may be “eat less refined carbohydrates and more whole foods,” according to a recent article in the New York Times blog that synthesizes the latest research on the topic. Processed, refined carbs affect the brain in ways that other foods do not, even if their calorie count is the same:

Make the right choices

Sugary foods and drinks, white bread and other processed carbohydrates that are known to cause abrupt spikes and falls in blood sugar appear to stimulate parts of the brain involved in hunger, craving and reward, the new research shows. The findings, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggest that these so-called high-glycemic foods influence the brain in a way that might drive some people to overeat.

The difficult aspect when it comes to making recommendations (or refuting the argument you have no doubt heard from a friend about their uncle who ate bagels and pasta all his life and never gained a pound …)? Not everybody who eats processed carbohydrates develops uncontrollable food cravings. But for the person who has been struggling with weight in our modern food environment and unable to control their cravings, limiting refined carbohydrate may be a logical first step.

Previous research suggests that when blood sugar levels plummet, people have a tendency to seek out foods that can restore it quickly.
The latest study tested subjects with high-glycemic shakes vs. a control group. What they found was that four hours after drinking the high-glycemic shake, blood sugar levels had plummeted into the hypoglycemic range; the subjects reported more hunger; and brain scans showed greater activation in parts of the brain that regulate cravings, reward and addictive behaviors. Although the subject pool was small, every subject showed the same response, and the differences in blood flow to these regions of the brain between the two conditions “was quite substantial,” according to the study’s directors.

Previous research suggests that when blood sugar levels plummet, people have a tendency to seek out foods that can restore it quickly, and this may set up a cycle of overeating driven by high-glycemic foods.

Is “a calorie a calorie”‘ dead as a nutritional guiding principle? Probably not for a long time. But the science is starting to unravel it as a legitimate basis for nutrition and wellness.

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