Is a Calorie a Calorie?

Today’s post is brought to you via Elle Penner, M.P.H., R.D. who is the Registered Dietitian and fitness editor for MyFitnessPal. This story was emailed to me the other day, and I just had to share this with you. You can see the original post here:

As the dietitian for MyFitnessPal, I’m often asked, “Is a calorie a calorie?” Well, according to the laws of thermodymanics, yes, all calories are created equal (at least on paper). But—and this is a big but—the way the body breaks down carbohydrates, protein and fat, the three main sources of calories in our diet (four if you count alcohol), and the effect they have on our bodies differ vastly. There are semester-long courses that explain just how our bodies break down, burn and store each of these four calorie sources differently (I know because I took one in graduate school), but since this is a 750-word blog post and not a 750-page textbook, I’ll try do my best to briefly explain why not all calories are created equal.


In addition to being a potent and flavorful source of energy, fats slow digestion, deliver important fat-soluble vitamins to the body, and provide important building blocks for every one of our cells.

All dietary fats provide about 9 calories per gram but, as you likely already know, some fats are better for our health than others. For example, polyunsaturated omega-3 fats, found in foods like wild salmon and flaxseed, have protective, anti-inflammatory properties, whereas artificial trans fats have been linked to increased inflammation and heart disease.


Protein also keeps us feeling fuller for longer by slowing digestion, but its primary role in the body is to maintain and build new cells. Protein needs are greatest during childhood, adolescence and pregnancy, when the body is growing and adding new tissues. But we now also know that protein is beneficial during weight loss, as it contributes to satiety and offsets the amount of lean muscle that is burned for energy, in addition to fat, during a calorie deficit.

All proteins provide about 4 calories per gram but there are higher quality proteins, which may reduce appetite and optimize muscle repair and recovery (think: fish or eggs), and lower quality proteins (think: hamburger meat) that are loaded with branched-chain amino acids, which have been linked to metabolic disease and insulin resistance. In this case, you get more nutritional bang for your buck if you consume 4 calories of high quality protein.


When it comes to differentiating calories, carbohydrates are by far the most complex (pardon the pun) mostly because our bodies use the different types of carbohydrates (such as fiber, starch and sugar) in very different ways.

Carbohydrates are used by the body as a quick source of energy, particularly for the brain, liver and muscles. All carbohydrates (with the exception of fiber, which our body can’t digest) provide 4 calories per gram. But just as there are healthier fats and higher-quality proteins, there are varying degrees of carbohydrate quality.

Though not a source of calories, fiber is considered a high-quality carbohydrate since it slows digestion (thus making you feel fuller, longer) and can moderate the absorption of other nutrients, like sugar. For this reason, high-quality carbohydrates typically contain fiber and are minimally processed. These include fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Lower-quality carbohydrates almost always lack fiber (with the exception of dairy which contains natural sugars packaged with protein) and add little more than “empty calories” to our diets.

By now it’s probably clear that a calorie from fat is not the same as a calorie from protein or carbohydrate. But let’s take it a step further and compare calories from two different types of sugar: glucose and fructose.

Starchy foods like rice, potatoes and pasta, are predominantly made up of glucose, a simple sugar that that can be burned for energy by every cell in our bodies. It’s stored in our liver and muscles for a quick source of energy during exercise or while we sleep. Unprocessed starchy foods, like brown rice, potatoes with the skin on and 100% whole-wheat pasta, contain the food’s natural fiber as well as some vitamins and minerals.

Unlike glucose, which can be burned for energy by all organs, fructose can really only be broken down in the liver. It’s also the sweetest tasting of the three simple sugars which makes it enjoyable on the tastebuds. In nature, fructose is found in fruits bound tightly to indigestible fiber that, as we already know, reduces and slows its absorption. Unfortunately, the majority of fructose in our diets isn’t from fruits–it’s from calorie-containing sweeteners added to sweetened beverages and the majority of processed foods—including these 10 foods that might surprise you.

Here’s the main difference between these two sugars: While too many calories from glucose can lead to weight gain and accumulation of the less harmful subcutaneous fat, too many calories from fructose (found in calorie-containing sweeteners like sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup etc…) can overwhelm the liver, contributing to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and more.

As you can see, a calorie of carbohydrate is not the same as a calorie from fat or protein, nor are all carbohydrate calories created equal. As a general rule of thumb, I recommend consuming the majority of your calories from minimally or unprocessed whole foods since, ultimately, the quality of what we eat determines the quantity of calories we consume, which impacts not only our weight but also our overall health and well-being.


Here ya’ll go and drop me a line to let me know what you think.


Barbell Finishers 

Finishers are a kick ass way to wrap up a workout. They are short, intense and a great way to kick off a metabolic storm. The beauty of a finisher is you are only limited my your imagination.

You can use bodyweight, barbells, kettlebells, resistance bands, dumbbells, medicine balls or any combination you might have.

Here is a rundown of this mornings finisher which only took 9 minutes to leave most sprawling on the ground when finished.

  • Deadlifts (6 reps)
  • Hang Clean (5 reps)
  • Ft. Squats (4 reps)
  • Push-Press (3 reps)
  • Back Squat (2 reps)
  • Barbell Jerk (1 rep)

Complete as many rounds in 7-9 minutes as you can, and don’t be surprised if you have a hard time standing the next day.

Until next time, kick ass and train hard!


How Much Protein do you Really Need?

Today’s post is brought to you from an article on I recently ran across this website, and found it to be factual, non-biased, and somewhat kick ass and I have come to rely on this site for supplementation advice rather that a guy sitting behind the desk at your local supplement shop.

“How much protein should I eat?”

This is a question I and every fitness professional hear every day. Why is that you think this is? Could it be because step into any supplement shop, and see shelf upon shelf of protein powders for sale? Or could it be since protein has been proven to help aid in muscle recovery and build muscle, any hard training athlete would obviously want to power-down some protein shakes during the day?

Really it doesn’t matter on the “why”, but let’s take a look at what you might actually need instead of what some magazine is telling you.

The site breaks down recommended protein intake based on existing research, and is determined largely on health goals and your activity level:

  • 0.8 g/kg body weight (0.36 g/lb): if your weight is stable and you don’t exercise
  • 1.0-1.5 g/kg (0.45-0.68 g/lb): if your goal is weight loss or you’re moderately active
  • 1.5-2.2 g/kg (0.68-1 g/lb) if your goal is weight loss and you’re physically active
People who are obese should calculate daily protein intake based on goal weight, not existing body weight (in order to not ingest too many calories).

For athletes, one gram of protein per kilogram of body weight a day is sufficient for an athlete. Studies show that there isn’t a significant practical difference between 1.5 to 2.2 g/kg(0.68 – 1g/lb) of daily protein intake. For a 175 lb athlete, this is 119 to 175 grams of protein (the difference being the equivalent of about two chicken breasts). That being said, the research does not show any negative affects with a higher protein intake. Of course if you are being medically treated for liver or kidney damage, then consult with your physician before making any dietary adjustments.

You want to consume a majority of your proteins from lean meats (chicken, lean beef, white fish), but keep in mind many vegetable and starches (beans) do contain protein. Regarding fish, while fish is a wonderful source of quality protein, just remember fatty fish (Alaska Salmon, Tuna, Arctic Char, Mackerel, etc) has quite a bit more calories than their white counterparts, so be sure to keep your caloric levels in check.

If time, or finances, does not allow you the benefit of consuming adequate amounts of lean meats, then supplementing with a quality protein powder is more than sufficient. I wouldn’t get too wrapped up on the debate of whey vs casein vs hemp protein powders.  If it’s a personal choice to use hemp vs whey or casein proteins then ok; I would rather you focus more on the taste and how you feel afterwards.


Bodyweight Challenge!!!

Setting up for Saturday morning workouts, great job everyone!!!!BW Challenge

Have a kick ass weekend everyone!



6 Ways to Sabotage Fat Loss

Let’s be honest, we train with a goal in mind. For some it may be for fat loss, some may want to increase performance, and some may want to compete on the bodybuilding or bikini level. No matter your goal the end result is to be better than when you started right?

That’s a fair statement right?

In my twenty years of being a personal trainer (I started the summer of 1995), I realize we have all adopted some habits that may ultimately slow our progress. Some of these are very apparent, while others are somewhat subtile. Here is a list of 6 habits we can all incorporate and improve on.

1) Not properly warming up or cooling down

In the days of old, the ritual would start by jumping on the treadmill or the elliptical and crank out 3-5 minutes just enough to get the ol’ ticker cranking only to head over and start cranking out the weights. Admit it, you’ve done it… hell I’ve done it.

Sure you increase your circulation and heart rate, and somewhat raised your core temp, but what about your joints and connective tissue? Do you think your knees and hips are prepared properly to step under the squat bar? What about incorporating movements to improve the mobility in your thoracic spine or ankles, or using movements to stabilize the glenohumeral joint for overhead pressing movements? Including mobility prep with your warm-up routine will not only aid in preventing injuries, but will allow you to have a more productive workout.

Too many times I see someone blowing through their mobility movements like it’s a nuisance and it sickens me. I required everyone who trains at Dallas Underground Strength and Fitness to arrive 10-15 minutes before a workout to do their mobility movements before we start our dynamic warm-up program. If a client shows up late, they still must complete their mobility prep before joining their workout.

Listen you would NEVER see a collegiate or professional athlete blowing through their warm-up. I have seen some take 15-20 minutes just for their mobility prep before even starting on their warm-up routine.  If these guys and gals see the importance of this, makes sense for you to pay attention right?

Take 5-10 minutes to use the foam roller and perform movements such as inchworm, clam shells, birdogs, knee tucks, t-rotations, spiderman lunges and I guarantee your workout will be more productive, and you’ll feel much better starting. After your workout, spend quality time with SMR and tissue work with a lacrosse ball and you will jump-start your recovery.

2) More, more, more!!!

This follows the premise of “more is better”. You start training 2-3 days per week, and start seeing progress, so why not kick it up to 4 x week and see even better progress right?. Ok I can follow that. Hell, if 4 days a week works then why not 5, 6, or even 7 days a week? So if I come in 7 days a week, and work my ass off, I’ll be able to step on that stage in no time right?


I have a constant struggle with clients on this one.  I don’t mind if a client comes in 5-6 days per week, but I’ll be damned if they do balls to the walls training every time they come in.  One cannot train at high intensity or high volume day in and day out. If they do, they will ultimately receive a visit from the Injury Joe, Frustration Francie, Burnout Bob… you catch my drift.

If you notice, I did not say they MAY rather I said they WILL ultimately receive a visit from one of these gents. It’s not a question of “if” but “when”.

Solution for this, cut back on your training. Take an extra day off and recover. If you feel you are getting weaker instead of stronger, then eat a little more and get more rest. If you are not getting at least 7 hours of sleep every night, then start with this.

3) Too much Cardio (or not changing it up)

I’ll be the first to say cardio is awesome. I love getting a 10-15 mile bike ride in, and I can’t wait till the spring time so I can start riding my bike to and from DUSF again. I did this in the fall, and felt absolutely AMAZING!  However too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Just like the concept in #2, always increasing up the volume or intensity will start to backfire over time. Why is that you wonder?

That’s an easy answer… the body adapts.

Most of us jump on the treadmill or the elliptical and get about 40 minutes in then call it a day. As your body becomes more efficient, and you will actually burn LESS fat calories during the same 40 minutes. So what do most do? They crank up the speed and/or angle and crank it out for hours upon hours per week!!

To make matters worse, studies have shown electronic monitors on cardio machines overestimate calories / fat grams burned. A 135 lb woman with 21% bodyfat will burn much more calories than a 135 lb woman with 32% bodyfat so simply entering in your weight is inaccurate. Besides, who has 5-6 hours per week to do additional cardio, on top of your regular workouts?

Solution: change it up! Increase duration while slowing speed, or add speed intervals to your mix. Jogging on the treadmill all the time? Jump on the elliptical or get on the bike and go for a ride outside. Go old school and grab a jump rope and start for 1 minute intervals with (1) min rest for a total of 10 rounds. Try a boxing class… you are only limited by your creativity and imagination!

4) Not Eating Enough

I have to admit I NEVER have a problem with my guys on this. This one is directed towards the ladies, and the look of pure horror and fear when I tell a female client they need to increase their calories has become expected over the years. Not to get scienciey, and dazzle you with my physiology training, if you place additional stress on the body (aka exercise) your body NEEDS extra calories to perform properly. If you don’t bring in the right calories (both quality and quantity), your body will adapt by reducing (aka slowing) your metabolic rate to match your intake. Make sure you are eating enough quality lean proteins, green leafy veggies, some fruits, healthy fats and enough starchy carbs to support your activity.

News flash, if you are intensely exercising 3-4 days per week you need to have more carbs than someone who is exercising 1-2 days per week and interested in taking selfies more than lifting heavy stuff.

One last thing on this subject: if your goals is to look like an athlete, then you’d better train and EAT like an athlete. Nothing is Brutal athletic woman pumping up muscles with dumbbellsmore frustrating than to execute a workout only to find out your client is eating about 900 kcal per day, when they should be consuming upwards of 1800 – 2100 kcal per day. When they come in wondering why they aren’t seeing a drop on the scale, and you try to explain the physiology of why this is happening, and the traditional “I’m eating less and exercising more so I should weigh less” debate begins.

After 20 years in this industry I take a tough love approach on this. My response when working with a client is, “well your way isn’t working now is it? It’s my way or the no way.”

5) Not Enough Rest

I advocate everyone gets a minimum of 7 hours of sleep per night. Now I’m not the best example of this one. Up until a year ago 3-4 hours was the norm for me… kinda goes with opening a business, but this has since changed. I hired a few kick ass staff trainers, like Chrissy Disarro, have a few college interns every semester, and a few assistants. These changes have allowed me to attend conferences, and take time off when I need it so we as a company continuously evolve and get better.

I’m also talking about taking a few days off from the gym here and there. Not feeling fully recovered from the last workout?Take the day off! Still feeling that nagging pain in your hip from earlier in the week, hit the foam roller or lacrosse ball and take another day off. Starting to come down with that run down feeling, take a day off.

See a pattern here?

I have to smile when I convince a client to take a few days off after a hard block of training, and their comment is usually, “wow I feel good!”

Take a few days and let those nagging aches and pains settle before hitting another workout.

6) Comparing your program to another

This happened to me just a few days ago. We are running a transformation contest at our gym, and a client approached me asking “why do you have me eating more than…” My answer was simple, one is trying to gain muscular weight while the other is leaning out. One comes in 6 days per week and the other 4-5 days per week (refer back to rule 4).

We have different goals, different patterns, different lifestyles, and we have different physiques to just name a few issues why one program may differ from another. Easy solution, don’t compare your program to the person next to you. Need a change up, talk to your coach or trainer and see what they have in store.

There you have it. These are just very short list of habits I have observed by just people watching over the last 20 years. I am working on my Rules for Fat Loss (I’m up to 27 as of now), and I would like to have this available in the next few months.

Until next time, train hard and eat well peeps!