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A Rose May Be a Rose, But Is a Calorie a Calorie?
No, say weight-loss experts who stress the differing ways the body processes nutrients

(HealthDay News) -- Their holiday indulgences now over, and armed with New Year's resolutions, many people will begin this month to try to shrink their expanded waistlines by counting calories and hitting the gym.

But how should those calories be counted in order to lose weight? Is a calorie of fat the same as a calorie of carbohydrate or protein?

Not necessarily so, according to Weight Watchers, which recently instituted a complete revamp of its legendary "points" system based on the understanding that the body processes different nutrients in different ways.

Weight Watchers' new "PointsPlus" plan takes into account the three types of nutrients that provide the human body with calories -- proteins, carbohydrates and fat -- and the fact that the body treats each of these nutrients differently, said Karen Miller-Kovach, a registered dietitian and chief scientific officer for Weight Watchers International.

"Where the calories are coming from makes a difference, in terms of how hard the body has to work to use those calories, the feelings of fullness and the hunger satiation a person gets," Miller-Kovach said.

The science behind the group's plan is nothing new to dietitians, said Andrea Giancoli, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. It's based on long-standing healthy eating practices.

"Weight Watchers is taking a novel approach at marketing what we already know we should be doing," Giancoli said. "The idea here is to marry lean proteins with high-fiber foods."

For example, the new plan will steer participants toward eating more protein because protein provides the most eating satisfaction for dieters, Miller-Kovach said. On top of that, the body has to work harder to process lean protein into energy so there's less chance that calories from protein will be stored as body fat.

Research seems to back up that goal. "We're learning that protein has a satiating effect," Giancoli said. "That may be why people on high-protein diets don't feel as hungry."

On the other hand, the body doesn't have to work very hard at all to process carbohydrates or fats so more of the calories from these nutrients will probably be stored away, Miller-Kovach said. "When I eat the toast, I find by 10 a.m. I'm really hungry," she said. "If I eat the eggs, I'm not hungry until noon."

Fats in particular are bad because the body does very little to process them and they serve a limited role in good nutrition, compared with protein or carbohydrates, Miller-Kovach and Giancoli said. A gram of fat also contains nine calories, more than twice the four calories contained in a gram of either carbohydrate or protein. That's why the focus for healthy eating is on lean proteins, such as fish and lean cuts of meat, rather than on any high-protein food, regardless of its fat content.

The PointsPlus plan also steers people toward eating more fiber in their diet, in part by changing the rules so that no points are assessed against participants when they eat fresh fruit or most fresh vegetables.

Again, high fiber is something that dietitians stress when advising clients, Giancoli said.

"Fiber helps to fill us up, and it doesn't have any calories, for the most part," she said. "People with high-fiber diets tend to eat better overall and have lower BMIs," or body mass index, which is an indicator of body fatness calculated from a person's weight and height.

Weight Watchers also is trying to help participants follow the new guidelines by providing them with lists of what it calls power foods, which are recommended because they more closely follow the emphasis on protein and high fiber than do some other foods.

Think of two broth-based soups sitting side-by-side on a grocery store shelf. One might be considered a power food, but not the other, perhaps "because one is higher in sodium or saturated fat, or the other is maybe higher in fiber," Miller-Kovach said.

The idea behind Weight Watchers' switch, she said, was to take intelligent and widely accepted healthy eating practices and make them easier for regular folks to grasp and follow.

"While there is a tremendous amount of complexity to nutrition and health and body weight, it is possible to create a simple system so nutrition recommendations can be met," she said. "People just throw up their hands. They just give up and say, 'This isn't worth it; I don't have time for this.' But here, we've done all the homework."

People who've been using the organization's old points system, though, should not try to mix and match concepts from the old and the new, Miller-Kovach said, as that will only hurt their dieting success.

"It is a completely different system," she said. "Let [the old system] go. I know it's hard, but you've got to let it go."

On the Web

To learn more about weight control, check out information from the American Academy of Family Physicians.


SOURCES: Karen Miller-Kovach, M.S., R.D., chief scientific officer, Weight Watchers International; Andrea Giancoli, M.P.H., R.D., spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association


Author: Dennis Thompson

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