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Why Focusing on Calories Misses the Bigger Picture for Your Weight and Health

03/19/2015 10:58 am ET | Updated May 19, 2015

How much you eat matters, but the quality of the food we put into our bodies matters more because it drives our gene function, metabolism, and health.

Rather than subscribing to the antiquated calories in/calories out model for weight loss and good health, focus on powerful, gene-altering, whole, real, fresh food that you cook yourself can rapidly change your biology. You will lose weight by getting your systems in balance, not by starving yourself.

Studies Show Quality Matters More

Let me share a remarkable study that shows how quickly and powerfully the quality of the food you eat affects your genes, independent of calories, carbs, protein, fat, or fiber.

This study divided people with pre-diabetes into two groups. Each group consumed the same amount of calories, with equivalent amounts of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and fiber, for 12 weeks.

The only difference was one group ate whole-kernel rye bread and rye pasta, whereas the other group ate oats, wheat, and potatoes as its carbohydrate source.

After 12 weeks, the researchers performed a subcutaneous fat biopsy, looked at gene expression, and gave participants a glucose challenge to assess how their blood sugar and insulin were affected by these dietary changes.

Remarkably, people in the group that ate rye had smarter, smaller fat cells and were more insulin-sensitive. Information contained in the rye -- a phytonutrient called lignans -- switched on diabesity-reversing genes. These genes were switched on regardless of calories or grams of carbs eaten.

Equally amazing, dozens of genes that had made participants fat and diabetic were turned off, and dozens of genes that would help them become healthy and thin were turned on.

On the other hand, 62 genes that promote diabesity were turned on in the group that ate oats, wheat, and potatoes. That led to increased stress molecules, increased inflammation, and increased oxidative stress or free radicals.

Put another way, it didn't matter how many calories or grams of carbs these groups ate; it was the kind of carbs that was important.

This study, among many similar ones, suggests food is not just calories. Food is information. If you want to turn off the genes that lead to diabesity and turn on the genes that lead to health, focus on the quality and type of food you eat, not necessarily the number of calories you consume or the ratio of protein to fat to carbohydrate in your diet.

Broccoli vs. Soda

To provide a practical illustration that disproves the calorie-is-a-calorie myth, let's look at the hormone effects of 750 calories of soda vs. 750 calories of broccoli.

We all intuitively know that equal caloric amounts of soda and broccoli can't be the same nutritionally. In fact, the food interacts with your biology, a complex adaptive system that instantly transforms every bite.

First, let's look at soda. A 7-Eleven's Double Gulp has 750 calories, which is 100 percent sugar with 186 grams, or 46 teaspoons, of sugar.

Your gut quickly absorbs the fiber-free sugars in the soda as fructose and glucose. The glucose spikes your blood sugar, starting a domino effect of high insulin and a cascade of hormonal responses that kicks bad biochemistry into gear.

The high insulin increases storage of belly fat, increases inflammation, raises triglycerides and lowers HDL, and raises blood pressure.

In men, high insulin lowers testosterone. In women, high insulin and lack of fiber causes an oversupply of estrogens -- often called estrogen dominance, which refers to abnormal recycling of estrogens in the body -- and can contribute to infertility and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Now we have high insulin and sex hormone imbalances.

Insulin's effect on your brain chemistry can increase your appetite. Insulin blocks leptin, your appetite-control hormone. You become more leptin resistant, so the brain never gets the "I'm full" signal. Instead, it thinks you are starving. Your pleasure-based reward center is triggered, driving you to consume more sugar and fueling your addiction.

Fructose makes things worse. It goes right to your liver, where it starts manufacturing fat, which triggers more insulin resistance and causes chronically-elevated blood insulin levels, driving your body to store everything you eat as dangerous belly fat. You also get a fatty liver, which generates more inflammation. Chronic inflammation causes more weight gain and diabesity.

Stress worsens insulin's vicious cycle. When you perceive a lot of stress in your life, you produce excess cortisol, which then makes you crave more sugar. Excess cortisol can slow down thyroid hormone function.

Additionally, soda contains no fiber, vitamins, minerals, or phytonutrients to help you process the calories you are consuming. These are "empty" calories devoid of any nutritional value.  Your body doesn't register soda as food, so you eat more all day long. Plus, your taste buds get hijacked, so anything that is not super-sweet doesn't taste very good to you.

Now let's look at the 750 calories of broccoli. As with soda, these calories are made up primarily (although not entirely) of carbs. Let's clarify just what that means, because the varying characteristics of carbs will factor significantly into the contrast I'm about to illustrate.

Carbs are plant-based compounds comprised of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They come in many varieties, but they are all technically sugars or starches, which convert to sugar in the body.

The important difference is in how they affect your blood sugar. High-fiber, low-sugar carbs such as broccoli are slowly digested and don't lead to blood sugar and insulin spikes, while table sugar and bread are quickly digested carbs that spike your blood sugar.

Therein lies the difference. Slow carbs like broccoli heal rather than harm.

Those 750 calories of broccoli make up 21 cups and contain 67 grams of fiber. The average American consumes only 10 to 15 grams of fiber a day. Remember that fiber helps you get rid of bad estrogens. Broccoli is 23 percent protein, 9 percent fat, and 68 percent carbs (or 510 calories from carbs). The "sugar" in 21 cups of broccoli is the equivalent of only 1.5 teaspoons; the rest of the carbs are the low-glycemic type found in all non-starchy vegetables, which are very slowly absorbed.

However, you wouldn't be able to eat 21 cups of broccoli, because it wouldn't fit in your stomach. Assuming you could, what would happen? A serving that large would contain so much fiber that very few of the calories would actually get absorbed. Those that did would get absorbed very slowly.

There'd be no blood sugar or insulin spike, no fatty liver, and no hormonal chaos. Your stomach would distend (which it doesn't with soda; bloat from carbonation doesn't count!), sending signals to your brain that you were full. There would be no triggering of the addiction reward center in the brain.

You'd also get many extra benefits that optimize metabolism, lower cholesterol, reduce inflammation, and boost detoxification. The phytonutrients in broccoli (glucosinolates) boost your liver's ability to detoxify environmental chemicals, and the flavonoid kaempferol is a powerful anti-inflammatory.

Broccoli also contains high levels of vitamin C and folate, which protect against cancer and heart disease. The glucosinolates and sulphorophanes in broccoli change the expression of your genes to help balance your sex hormones, reducing breast and other cancers.

My point is, all calories are NOT created equal. The same number of calories from different types of food can have very different biological effects. 

10 Strategies to Focus on Quantity, Not Quality

The most important thing you can do to heal your body is focus on food quality. Americans spend less on food than any other country.

Quality matters. It is more important than quantity when it comes to calories. If you focus on quality, not quantity, you will feel satisfied while naturally avoiding cravings and attraction to food that won't nourish you. Here are 10 ways to do that:

  1. Avoid highly processed, factory-manufactured Frankenfoods. Choose fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and lean animal protein such as fish, chicken, and eggs.
  2. Clean up your diet. Look for animal products that are pasture-raised, grass-fed, and antibiotic-, hormone-, and pesticide-free. Go on a low-mercury diet by sticking with small, wild, or sustainably farmed fish.
  3. Go organic. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers poison your metabolism, your thyroid, your sex hormones, and our planet. Buy as much organic food as your budget allows. Refer to the Dirty Dozen list for top offenders and the Clean 15 at ewg.org.
  4. Stay local. Seasonal, local foods you find at farmers' markets or community-supported agriculture projects (CSAs) are healthier, taste better, are typically sustainably grown, and help you recognize the intimate relationship between the ecosystem of your body and the broader ecosystem in which we all live.
  5. Eat a low-glycemic load. Focus on more protein and fats, including nuts (not peanuts), seeds (flax, chia, hemp, sesame, pumpkin), coconut, avocados, sardines, and olive oil.
  6. Eat the right fats. Steer clear of vegetable oils, including soybean oil, which now comprises about 10 percent of our calories. Focus instead on omega-3 fats, nuts, coconut, avocados, and yes, even saturated fat from grass-fed or sustainably raised animals.
  7. Eat mostly plants. Plants should form 75 percent of your diet and your plate. I usually make two to three vegetable dishes per meal.
  8. Avoid dairy. Dairy is great for growing calves into cows, but not for humans. Try organic goat or sheep products, but only as a treat.
  9. Avoid gluten. Most is from Franken Wheat, so look for heirloom wheat (Einkorn). If you are not gluten sensitive, then consider it an occasional treat.
  10. Moderate alcohol and caffeine. Switch from coffee to green tea, and keep your alcohol intake to three glasses a week if you drink. 

Have you revised your thinking about calories and food quality? Share how your perspective has changed below or on my Facebook fan page.

Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, M.D.

Need delicious recipes to get you started with these 10 Strategies?  Then order my new cookbook, The 10-Day Detox Diet Cookbookreleased on March 10. Download my 10-Day Detox Diet starter kit and get cooking!

References

Kallio P, et al. Dietary carbohydrate modification induces alterations in gene expression in abdominal subcutaneous adipose tissue in persons with the metabolic syndrome: the FUNGENUT Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 May; 85( 5): 1417- 27.

Mark Hyman, M.D. believes that we all deserve a life of vitality -- and that we have the potential to create it for ourselves. That's why he is dedicated to tackling the root causes of chronic disease by harnessing the power of Functional Medicine to transform healthcare. He is a practicing family physician, an eight-time #1 New York Times bestselling author, and an internationally recognized leader, speaker, educator, and advocate in his field. He is the Director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. He is also the founder and medical director of The UltraWellness Center, chairman of the board of the Institute for Functional Medicine, a medical editor of The Huffington Post, and has been a regular medical contributor on many television shows including CBS This Morning, the Today Show, CNN, The View, the Katie Couric show and The Dr. Oz Show.