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A calorie is a calorie, goes the popular mantra. But now doctors and dieticians might have to eat those words.
Researchers have found that not all calories are created equal and that the types of calories you eat, particularly after losing weight, can have a profound effect on how efficiently your body burns calories and keeps off unwanted pounds.
The ideal diet that promotes a fast metabolism — that is, your body's ability to quickly burn off calories — as well as promotes long-term health in terms of disease-free organs appears to be (surprise!) fresh vegetables and whole grains or any foods that reduce the surge of blood sugar after a meal.
The study, led by researchers at Boston Children's Hospital, is detailed in the June 27 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Blame it on evolution
Anyone who has struggled to lose weight knows that the harder part is keeping off that weight. One of the reasons is that, after weight loss, the rate at which people burn calories decreases, reflecting a slower metabolism.
Blame it on evolution: Your body doesn't want to lose weight, so it becomes efficient at doing more with fewer calories when faced with times of famine, which in these modern times is called a diet. As a result, some dieters find themselves packing on pounds even while on a calorie-restricted diet because their metabolism has become slower.
Cara Ebbeling of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children's Hospital, first author on the study, and her colleagues have found that what you eat can significantly affect your metabolism rate. A diet full of processed foods and simple carbohydrates, which have a high glycemic index, eventually will lead to a slower metabolism. [7 Diet Tricks That Really Work]
This index, a scale from 0 to 100, is a measure of how quickly a carbohydrate is digested and released into the bloodstream as glucose. So, 200 calories of corn flakes (93 on the glycemic index), or a diet filled with such processed foods, can continuously spike the blood with glucose and trigger a cascade of events that ultimately lead to more weight gain compared to 200 calories of hummus (6 on the glycemic index).
Not necessarily fat vs. carb
Specifically, Ebbeling's group studied three dietary paradigms: an Atkins' low-carb diet (60 percent of calories from fat, 10 percent from carbs); a mixed diet with foods generally low on the glycemic index (40 percent of calories from fat, 40 percent from carbs); and a low-fat diet with a mix of carbohydrates generally high on the glycemic index (20 percent of calories from fat, 60 percent from carbs).
Patients, who had recently lost weight, were placed on each of these diets for four weeks. They lived in the care of the researchers, who controlled meals and measured various aspects of their metabolism and blood profiles.
In terms of metabolism, the Atkins-like diet was the winner, said the study's senior author, David Ludwig, director of the obesity center. While on the low-carb diet, patients burned 300 more calories each day during normal activities compared to the time spent on the low-fat diet. Three hundred calories is about the amount of energy burned in an hour of moderate exercise, which the low-carb dieters are getting for free, Ludwig said.