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There is more to food than just calories when it comes to obesity, says recent paper

Posted:  Monday, December 01, 2014

While buying foods off a rack, one tends to consider not just the sensory aspects of food but also its calorie content. In a recent paper, American researchers have dispelled the belief that calories should be the only yardstick to judge different foods when it comes to obesity and associated diseases. Instead, they suggest adopting a qualitative focus whilst selecting foods.

Published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, the paper titled “How calorie-focused thinking about obesity and related diseases may mislead and harm public health: An alternative,” suggests that categorising foods based on calories results in a bias towards high-fat foods such as nuts, olive oil, oily fish, etc. which could be protective against obesity. It may also prompt a person to replace these beneficial fats with starchy and sugary foods that are detrimental.

The researchers argue that the ‘a calorie is a calorie’ approach implies that any two different foods having equivalent amounts of potential energy will produce identical biological effects with regard to body weight or body fatness when consumed. This approach is erroneous especially if one compares a calorie’s worth of salmon, olive oil, white rice or vodka and expect them to exert similar negative effects.

Numerous human studies have shown that different foods have different biological effects on physiologic pathways and hormones relevant to perceived satiety, food consumption, weight maintenance, and body composition. Citing the salmon example, they say that salmon, a protein rich food, and olive oil which is purely fat have different effects in comparison to white rice (simple carbohydrates) and vodka (alcohol).

The paper specifically discussed the effects of rapidly absorbed carbohydrates like refined sugars and starches as they cause the blood sugar and insulin to rise and drop rapidly resulting in food cravings. Talking about their paper, the researchers said, “So while some calories send messages to the brain and body that say ‘I’m full and ready to move,’ other calories send messages that say ‘I’m still hungry and just want to lie down on the couch.’ Not all calories are the same, and in order to promote healthy weight and better health, we need to take special note of the calories we are choosing to consume.”

The researchers suggest opting for whole or minimally processed foods, which can guard against obesity-promoting energy imbalance and metabolic dysfunction. It is time to bring in the qualitative focus and go beyond counting calories.

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