Calories: Are They All the Same?

Here’s a little math that we are all too familiar with – if energy in equals energy out, your body weight will remain stable. Any change to this will lead to a change in the number on your scale.

Even though we know this, our love for curry laksa and kuih-muih far outweighs our inclination to care about calorie-intake. Coupled with a sedentary lifestyle, Malaysians have grown to become the most obese in South East Asia.

Now, with all our excess weight, we’re scampering to get back to our lean, mean selves, and the most commonly used method is to count calories.

But, are all calories equal? Is a calorie from a doughnut the same as a calorie from a slice of papaya? Should we only looks at calories, or should we looks at the nutrients that contribute to these calories as well?

What are Calories? 

  • Calories are a way to measure energy. 
  • Energy expenditure is usually measured in units of kilojoules or kilocalories, often simply abbreviated to ‘calories’.
  • Typical energy expenditure of an adult with low-moderate levels of physical activity is about 2,000 calories.

How You Use Your Calories

You use energy continuously. Even when snoring on your bed, you’re burning calories. The lowest level of energy usage is known as the basal metabolic rate, or BMR. Everyone’s BMR is unique and is influenced by a number of factors, as shown in Table 1 below:


Every individual’s physical activity levels also vary and have an immediate and direct impact on the energy used. The more vigorous the activity, the longer it is continued and the more muscles in the body that are used, the greater the total energy expenditure.

How You Consume Calories

The other side of the energy balance is energy intake and this is wholly determined by the energy consumed from eating. Energy content of foods and diets is also measured in calories or kilojoules. Three types of macronutrients supply calories: proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Alcohol is also a contributor of calories (see Table 2).


The important thing to remember is that a calorie is a calorie regardless of where it comes from, and over-consumption of any food can tip the balance towards large pant sizes at Levi’s.

What’s the Good Stuff in Your Food? 

Most foods are a mix of carbohydrate, fat and protein and also contain water. Many plant foods contain indigestible fibrous parts. The list below is essential to good health, but contain no calories:

  • Water
  • Indigestible dietary fibre
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals

Choose the right foods 

Instead of only looking at the calories, you also have to pay attention to the characteristics of food that can affect your total energy consumption:

1. Energy density

  • Low energy density foods have relatively low calorie content for its weight.
  • Foods with high water content and foods with high non-digestible dietary fibre are bulkier and makes you feel fuller.
  • Fruit, vegetables and whole grains are less energy dense foods.
  • Foods with high fat or sugar content are far more energy dense, and so make the overconsumption of calories from these foods relatively easy.
  • For example, three small boiled wontons contain about 420 calories while just one fried wonton provides the same amount of calories.
  • Similarly, a fresh rambutan has only 2/3 the calories of a rambutan preserved in sugar syrup, but it is equally filling.

2. Appetite influencers


  • Foods that have higher protein content or a high proportion of complex, starchy, carbohydrates are more satiating for longer
  • Foods with higher fat or simple (nonstarch) carbohydrate content are not as satiating.
  • Choosing foods with high protein or complex carbs means you’ll feel full for longer and be less tempted to eat as often.

The “more” factor

  • Sometimes super delicious or desirable foods (like a pretty cupcake) can override your built-in appetite controls.
  • When you don’t have to limit the quantities eaten, like when you’re at a buffet, you’ll most probably eat more than you need.
  • Lack of control of portion size is increasingly recognised as an important contributor of over-consumption.

Calories you need change throughout life 

You’ll need more energy (calories) when:

  • You’re a child rapidly growing
  • You’re a sullen teenager rapidly growing
  • You’re pregnant

When you’re a fully-grown adult, you don’t have any excuse to chow down an extra bowl of noodles, even though your teenage brother can. Unless of course, you’re super active.

If your job requires a lot of physical activity (instead of sitting at a desk), or if you’re always working out, then you’ll need more energy than those who just spend their time moving from office chair to car seat to couch.

If you’re physically active, your body will have a higher BMR, even while you’re resting, which explains why you need more calorie intake.

Muscles burn more energy even when resting 

Physically active develop more muscle tissue, which is more metabolically active than fat tissue. A body which is more muscular will burn more energy at all times than the more ‘fatty’ body, even if it’s the same weight.

Males need more energy than females

Male hormones encourage the development of muscle tissue, hence men have relatively more muscle and less fat than women.  Sorry ladies, but men can eat more calories than you without gaining weight.

Your body needs more than just protein, fats, and carbs

Besides protein, fat and carbohydrate , you body also runs on small amounts of over 40 different minerals and vitamins.

Most of these vitamins and minerals, called micro-nutrients, are present in foods in relatively small amounts. Many foods that are less energy dense are micro-nutrient rich. Include generous quantities of these foods in your regular diet to ensure a diet balanced both in energy, and also overall nutrition. Examples of foods packed with micro-nutrients include:

  • Fruits and veggies (source of B vitamins and vitamin C)
  • Low-fat dairy products (contains same amount of calcium and phosphorus as full fat milk but less calories)
  • Lean meat (loaded with essential minerals like iron and zinc)

Your motto in life = have balance

You know the gist. Calories in = calories out = weight maintenance. But calorie intake isn’t the only measure on health, you need to also focus on nutrients. The key to a healthy diet is to fill your meals with nutrient-rich foods, but don’t deprive yourself of your favourite snacks and treats every now and then. Find healthy foods which you enjoy, which can easily be prepared so you won’t find balanced eating a chore later on.

We believe that to be healthy and happy, there’s no need to go to extremes. If you maintain a balanced diet, exercise frequently, and sleep enough, you’ll naturally get to a healthy weight and feel better about yourself.


How do you maintain a balanced diet? Share your tips with us in the comments below or on our Facebook page!


Edited by: The HealthWorks Team
Adapted from “Are All Calories Equal” by the Asian Food Information Centre

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