Why Energy is Not Equal

Yesterday I wrote about the energy density of foods, this was specifically how much energy (e.g. calories) each different food has per weight unit (e.g. pound) of that food. This matters because when we eat one of the triggers for us to stop eating is when our stomach is filled with food, and it can singlehandedly explain how it is much easier to put on weight in our current food environment – our processed, animal, and high fat foods particularly are able to fool our body’s more primitive methods of deciding when we’ve had enough to eat.

That’s not all there is to the story though. Something that may surprise you is that the amount of carbohydrate, protein, and fat in a food also makes a big difference to how easy that food is to store as fat if ‘overeaten’. Unless you’re one of those bodybuilding types who fastidiously weighs and measures everything they eat and on top of that gets all of their calculations for energy needs for the day almost perfect, chances are you’ll be consistently eating just a little extra than what’s required even if you’re trying very hard with the standard way of eating. From personal experience and the stories I’ve heard others tell, it’s very difficult and quite unpleasant to be trying to ignore your hunger drive all the time. This is where ‘hangry’ comes from!

Of course people can, and do, lose weight this way. But this approach is very hard to sustain for long (ever heard of ‘yo-yo’ dieting?) and besides which there’s more to life, feeling good, and being healthy than just the numbers on the scale. Wouldn’t it be better to not have to think about this at all, always be energetic and have a more positive mood (no more ‘hanger’ pains) and look and feel better than if you were ‘calorie-’ ‘point-’ or ‘macro-’ counting anyhow?

The answer is of course with a whole plant-based way of eating. And we talked about a big part of how this works last time with energy density. But the other thing that really helps is the fact that this way of eating is high in carbohydrates.

Really?! There’s a popular idea in the dieting/fitness world that ‘carbs turn to fat’. Like any popular idea there’s a grain of truth in this. If we consistently overeat ‘carbs’, especially the processed kind, then the body will eventually turn some of these into fat. But the exact same rule applies for fat and protein too!

What people are often surprised to hear is that it’s rather difficult for your body to make carbohydrates into fat. When you take a step back to think about this it makes a lot of sense. Molecules of carbohydrate and molecules of fat are very different things. Our body is certainly capable of feats of biochemical alchemy in order to turn one into the other. But like any of us it prefers to be ‘efficient’ when it can (ok, so maybe just a little lazy!) and so really the last thing it would like to do is any additional work. It’s happiest keeping the fat as fat and the carbohydrates as carbohydrates, in other words.

Before it starts making fat out of any carbohydrates you eat, the body will try to store them up as quick-release fuel in your muscles and liver called ‘glycogen’. This is why you will have heard of athletes ‘carb loading’ in order to give them extra stamina for an event. If you manage to fill all of these stores up, then it will reluctantly (and rather sulkily) take to the task of making fat out of these excess carbohydrates. Because it has to work hard to do this, there’s energy lost in the process. In fact, you will lose about 25-30% of the energy from the food. So for every 100 excess energy units of carbohydrate eaten, only 70-75 energy units of fat will be stored. The rest will essentially be burned off as body heat. So when you eat foods that are high in carbohydrates there’s a built-in safety valve to keep you from storing them as fat.

How about if you overdo it on foods that are high in fat? Well, you can probably work this one out for yourself: the body naturally prefers to keep molecules of fat as fat and save them in our fat stores. It will only ever use fat as ‘fuel’ to any large extent under very unusual circumstances where it’s essentially in ‘starvation mode’. What may surprise you (and perhaps gross you out a little) is that the body is so efficient at quickly shovelling any excess fat into our fat stores without making big changes, that we could look at our fat stores under a microscope and have a pretty good guess as to what kinds of foods you’d been eating. This is why Dr McDougall says ‘the fat you eat is the fat you wear’.

You’re probably wondering about protein now. It’s even harder to store than carbohydrates. But there are lots of reasons why consuming high amounts of protein is not a good idea. I won’t go into all of the details here (again, check out Dr Garth Davis’ rather brilliant book ‘Proteinaholic’ if you’re interested), but in short eating large amounts of protein will not keep you looking and feeling your best, even if it may seem like it’s working for weight loss. You’re better to have your cake and eat it too by going for the higher carbohydrate option, which you don’t even need to think about since whole foods from plants are naturally about 70-80% carbohydrates anyhow!

Hmm, this has ended up being another really long post, but the message is still the same: you can’t go wrong eating more whole foods from plants! It also seems that people who eat more foods from plants have a higher metabolic rate, which we would also expect to be helpful, but that’s definitely a story for another time.

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