Mayo Clinic Q&A: Are all calories created equal?

DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I’ve heard that a calorie is a calorie when it comes to weight loss, but is that true? With the amount of diets out there (keto, intermittent fasting, Mediterranean), Im completely overwhelmed with what Im meant to be doing.

ANSWER: Yes and no. (Isnt that always the answer to nutrition inquiries?) While a calorie may be a calorie when it comes to the mathematical equation of weight loss, theres more to it. Calories are a unit of energy. The total calories provided by a food or drink depend on the number of grams of carbohydrates, protein, fat and/or alcohol content. The number of calories, however, doesn’t predict how good you’ll feel afterward.

For example, a 200-calorie snack of an apple with peanut butter will help you feel fuller and more satisfied than a 200-calorie snack of chips. The difference is not only in the composition of the food but also in the amount of food. A snack of apples and peanut butter will provide fiber, fat, water and some protein. Most of these features are lacking when it comes to chips.

Also think about how much an apple snack will further stretch the stomach due to its larger size, sending that fullness signal to the brain. 200 calories worth of chips will also digest and leave the stomach faster than an apple because there isn’t as much breakdown that needs to happen.

We also cannot discuss this topic without referring to health outcomes. It is well known that the composition of a diet, or dietary pattern, is significant. A plant-based diet that contains whole grains, fruits, vegetables, unsaturated fats and lean proteins provides the body with balanced nutrition that can reduce the risk of chronic conditions.

There are many ways to do this healthily. Diet styles such as the Mediterranean, DASH and Mayo Clinic Diet are examples of eating patterns that focus on high nutrient density and have been shown to promote positive health outcomes. This can also be done through a well-planned vegetarian diet. It’s important to consider your dietary preferences and health concerns or goals.

So what about weight loss? Here’s where calories matter. For example, even the Mediterranean diet does not guarantee weight loss if there is no calorie deficit. Olive oil and nuts are great sources of healthy fats, but when eaten without total calorie intake in mind, they can, technically, cause weight gain. Using the eating style that works best for you, consider working toward a 250-750 calorie per day deficit. It could be swapping out your mid-afternoon snack for a piece of fruit or skipping your usual sugary coffee or alcoholic drink.

The body needs to burn more than it consumes to produce weight loss. While exercise is always recommended, it’s important to note that exercise alone is unlikely to get most people into roughly a 500-calorie deficit. Most of us will be most successful in losing weight through dietary changes.

Most diets work because adapting your baseline eating habits to fit a specific diets protocol will likely cause you to burn fewer calories. Good news, right? Probably. It will only benefit someone who can stick to said diet for a long time. Diets that endorse or require drastic and unrealistic changes (like the cabbage soup diet) are not sustainable. And when a diet is not sustainable, weight loss will not be either.

So, start here:

1. Choose a healthful diet that fits your personal food and health preferences.

2. Work toward a gradual calorie deficit, ideally limiting excess (more than you need) and empty (non-nutritious) calories.

3. Remember that a slow, steady and sustainable approach will most likely help you achieve a healthy weight. Tara Schmidt, Registered Dietitian, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota

(The Mayo Clinic Q & A is an educational resource and does not replace routine medical care. Email a question to MayoClinicQ& For more information, visit

2023 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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