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Is a Calorie a Calorie? This question was posed not long ago in a column in the New York Times and it is well worth asking. The answer from the nutrition establishment, with some notable exceptions, long has been to paraphrase the Second Law of Thermodynamics (conservation of energy) and then, with great gravitas, explain that calories are calories and that reducing their intake while increasing their expenditure leads to weight loss. It is as simple as that.

Most dieters know better from personal experience. It may be the case that all calories are equal if a dieter is confined to a metabolic ward and allowed only 1,000 calories per day — and even this is debatable —but outside such circumstances, calories can behave quite differently in the body depending on both their source and how sources are combined.

My introduction to the topic was in the form of research for two books that I wrote on dieting, weight loss and other health issues. Anti-Fat Nutrients (4th edition reissued 2010) and User’s Guide to Weight-Loss Supplements. This research uncovered a number of factors that led me to conclude —to paraphrase a famous book —that while it might be true that all calories are equal, some calories are more equal than others. For instance, even low levels of glucose and fructose consumed with fats greatly augment the amount of fat (as triacylglycerol, the systematic chemical name for triglyceride *) found in the blood after meals. Worse yet, especially given that corn-derived sugars are now found abundantly everywhere in the American diet, consuming fructose, even compared with the sugar glucose, reduces the ability to metabolize fat for energy by 39 percent in those who are overweight and obese. Similarly, the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets so often extolled for weight loss purposes can reduce HDL cholesterol and increase serum triglycerides in those who are overweight. Under conditions of caloric restriction, higher protein diets usually perform better.

The health and weight-conscious should not be fooled by the notion that substituting artificial sweeteners allows for satisfaction without guilt. In 2010, Yale held a symposium entitled, “Gain weight by ‘going diet?’ Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings.” The take home message was that the ingestion of artificial sweeteners is not benign — it is not a path to a “free lunch” when it comes to calorie control and weight loss.

Along with food combining, the timing of food consumption can be quite important. The old advice applies; never skip breakfast. Your first meal tends to set the tone for the rest of the day, both in terms of the body’s willingness to expend energy and whether stored carbohydrates or stored fats will be the preferred energy source for the rest of the day. The next meal, in terms of importance, is lunch.

Studies typically find that those individuals who usually consume at least one half of our total daily calories in our first two meals stay slimmer and trimmer. Skipping breakfast triggers the “starvation response,” slows your metabolism and may contribute to calories being stored as fat. Substituting a cup of coffee and a sweet roll for breakfast is almost as bad as not eating. Eat early to keep your energy levels up during the day. On the other end of the day, try to not eat within three hours of bedtime inasmuch as calories consumed late in the day are more likely to be stored as fat. Eating very late in the day also makes it more difficult to wake up in the morning.

Water is another old standby for weight control, and for many reasons. Sometimes we eat when, in fact, we are hungry. Similarly, if the body senses the threat of dehydration, it may hold onto a certain amount of excess water. However, at least in middle aged and older adults, there may be a more direct link between drinking more water and weight loss and weight maintenance. Drinking two cups of water just before a meal can lead to the consumption of between 75 and 90 calories less at that meal. The benefits can be considerable. In one trial in which subjects were on an energy restricted diet, including water in the diet regimen led to the loss of an additional five pounds over the course of 12 weeks.

Energy-containing beverages are not good substitutes for water. Americans already consume 250 or more calories daily from such beverages, with the drawback that the body does not recognize calories from beverages in the same way that it recognizes calories from solid food; hence it is easy to add large numbers of calories to the diet without realizing it. In contrast to these calorie-laden beverages, consuming a bowl of soup before meals (there should be vegetables and/or some other solids in the soup, not merely clear broth) can have the opposite effect and can reduce calorie intake at meals by approximately 20 percent.

Now let’s review of some of the basic principles of food combining for weight loss and health. The following points are based on the discussion found in Anti-fat Nutrients.

Food Coupling Chart



Fat-Burning Couplings

Fat-Storing Couplings

protein (4-6oz) + green veggies

protein + carbohydrates

(limit starchy veg. to 1/2 cup)

*carbohydrates + **all veggies

fats + carbohydrates

*starches + **all veggies

fats + starches

*carbohydrates + ***fruits

proteins/fats + fruits

*Complex carbohydrates and starches: whole grains, whole-wheat pastas and breads, beans and legumes, potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams

**Includes starchy and high-carbohydrate vegetables: corn, beets, green peas, lima beans, snow peas and winter squashes.

***Exclude melons: Melons should be eaten alone.

#1 Break the fat storage cycle by making the right food choices and by practicing proper “food coupling.”
Fat is a concentrated source of calories with about twice as many calories per gram (9 per gram) as are found in either carbohydrates or proteins. Don’t forget that alcohol also is a potent source of calories (7 per gram). Fat-heavy meals lack bulk, so they make it easy to consume hundreds of calories without feeling full. Worse, when fat is eaten at the same time as simple carbohydrates, both the fat and the carbohydrates are pushed into storage. This is to say that stored fat increases, blood fat levels soar and the body’s basic blood sugar control mechanism is damaged. The “bad” coupling of fats with carbohydrates slows down your metabolism and causes you to gain weight.

To avoid weight gain, avoid all sugars and simple carbohydrates and especially avoid fat/carbohydrate couplings such as are found in fried foods, cakes and cookies, sweet rolls, candy bars and so on. Sugars and refined carbohydrates increase the absorption of fats from meals while reducing the oxidation of fats for energy. The evidence against coupling refined carbohydrates and fats is clear and unambiguous. Avoid all fruit juices since these are concentrated sources of sugar. Limit whole fruits to two servings per day. Emphasize whole grains, legumes, lean proteins and lightly cooked fresh vegetables.

Protein/carbohydrate couplings also should be kept to a minimum. Most protein foods contain fat (e.g., most meats, eggs, milk). Moreover, research indicates that protein/carbohydrate combinations may reduce the body’s ability to release growth hormone (GH), a major fat-burning hormone, because of the additive effect that many proteins have on the amount of insulin released in response to carbohydrates. Indeed, wisely or not, some athletes attempt to maximize insulin spikes by mixing high glycemic carbohydrates with micronized protein sources.

The Mediterranean diet so beneficial for health combines only moderate amounts of protein with carbohydrates and lots of vegetables. Protein is much better represented in the traditional Okinawan diet, but largely from fish and combined with a very vegetable-heavy cuisine with only a moderate consumption of carbohydrates.

#2 Turn on your metabolism naturally with the proper food choices. Burn stored fat for energy and for body heat.
Some foods burn “hotter” than do others, i.e., they cause your body to expend more calories for heat, encourage activity and are not as readily stored. Proteins and complex carbohydrates are “hot” burners. They are not easily stored as fat and they tell your body it has plenty of fuel, so it is all right to go ahead and spend energy. This is part of the “thermic” or heat-producing effect of eating a meal, and it “turns on” your metabolism. Therefore, couple lean proteins (fish, skinless chicken, lean beef or lamb, tofu) with a variety of non-starchy vegetables for especially energizing meals. If a meal contains no concentrated carbohydrates (no breads, grains, potatoes, etc.), you need not be particularly concerned about its fat content: couple complex carbohydrates with vegetables (and a small amount of lean protein) for satisfying and more bulky meals.

#3 Exercise to increase your metabolic efficiency and to train your body to burn stored fat for energy.
Exercise burns calories, but the greatest benefit comes after the exercise has ended. If you walk briskly for a mere 30 minutes per day, you will increase your calorie burning for the entire 24 hour period. Adding a moderate amount of upper body exercise or weight lifting will improve your energy expenditure even more by adding calorie-burning lean muscle tissue to your body.

For weight loss, plan on walking briskly for at least 30 minutes every day. This is best done either before or after breakfast. A walk early in the day while the body’s temperature is still rising will invigorate you for the rest of the day. A second choice as a time for a walk is either before or after your last meal of the day. Walking before meals can improve the clearance of blood fats from these meals. Walking after meals is a particularly good practice for diabetics and for those genetically prone to developing diabetes.

#4 Add fiber to your diet, especially in the form of lightly cooked green vegetables. Avoid refined and processed foods whenever possible.
Fiber slows down food consumption so your body has a chance to signal that you have eaten enough. It adds bulk to the meal to give you a feeling of satisfaction at having eaten. It slows the increase in the blood sugar level that follows any meal. Fiber carries waste products from the body and, especially if it comes from lightly cooked vegetables, it supplies important minerals and antioxidants. Try to vary your fiber sources. Avoid too much scratchy wheat bran, but add grains such as oats and barley and starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes and yams (without added butter and sugar) to your menu. Try to eliminate refined and processed foods from your diet. Eliminate all canned and frozen foods — these often contain hidden fats and sugars. Processed potatoes, such as fries and chips, are the worst offenders in this regard and are strongly linked to weight gain.

Putting It Together for Weight Loss

  • Avoid foods that combine fats with simple carbohydrates
  • Couple proteins with vegetables
  • Couple complex carbohydrates and starches with vegetables

Dieters should not be rigid in their approach to food. However, give the food coupling chart a try for faster weight loss. For weight maintenance, the advice in the chart can be relaxed and used more as a guide to how the body reacts to various types of food couplings.

*Note: Triacylglycerol (as in triacylglycerol-rich lipoproteins) is a blood fat component related to triglycerides. Triacylglycerols tend to be elevated in the blood after meals, are especially high in diabetics and those with Metabolic Syndrome/Syndrome X, and are probably more contributory to atherosclerosis than all the usually monitored blood fractions of LDL cholesterol taken together.

Dallas Clouatre, PhD

Dallas Clouatre, Ph.D. earned his A.B. from Stanford and his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. A Fellow of the American College of Nutrition, he is a prominent industry consultant in the US, Europe, and Asia, and is a sought-after speaker and spokesperson. He is the author of numerous books. Recent publications include "Tocotrienols in Vitamin E: Hype or Science?" and "Vitamin E – Natural vs. Synthetic" in Tocotrienols: Vitamin E Beyond Tocopherols (2008), "Grape Seed Extract" in the Encyclopedia Of Dietary Supplements (2005), "Kava Kava: Examining New Reports of Toxicity" in Toxicology Letters (2004) and Anti-Fat Nutrients (4th edition).