Is a calorie a calorie?

I think it’s safe to assume that many of us; us being fitness professionals and enthusiasts have held our ground somewhere in the argument of which method or nutritional philosophy is optimal for fat loss. Clean eating vs counting macros vs low carb vs keto vs intermittent fasting….Personally, I’ve tried just about everything- I’ve lived and I’ve learned and I think that’s why I have such a solid stance on the matter now. As a personal trainer, and I’m sure lots of PTs will relate, I’m often asked by my clients about which foods they should eat for the “best” results. What should I eat to burn belly fat? What should I eat to get rid of cellulite? If I eat chocolate every day is it really that bad? My answer would now be just about the same for each of these questions, and I’ll tell you why.

I’ve been on board with many diet fads in the past, but the two main approaches I want to talk about are clean eating versus macro tracking aka IIFYM, as having tried both really cleared the air for me more than others. Clean eating: Demonizing basically anything that isn’t a chicken breast or green bean; “Eat clean train dirty” mentality. I used to be one of those. When I first began training ten years ago, eating clean was just what you did if you wanted to reach your goals. There were good foods and bad foods, good carbs and bad carbs, good fats and bad fats… That’s how I looked at food. Good or bad. Although I wouldn’t admit it back then, it was stressful and to be honest I didn’t fully understand why some foods were considered “bad”. All I knew was that I did get pretty lean in my first ever fat loss journey and in turn, attributed my success to tilapia and rice cakes and the whole clean eating gang. 


"To burn belly fat, you need to decrease overall body fat, and you do so by eating in a calorie deficit."


IIFYM: Eat clean’s rebel child. This method essentially boils down to eating whatever your heart desires so long as at the end of the day, you stick to the calorie and macro allowance that’s been recommended for you based on your goals. Whether you get 100g of carbs from a slice of carrot cake or from a few servings of brown rice spread out throughout the day, 100g of carbs is 100g of carbs. If we’re talking nutrient density, of course, the brown rice is the more nutritious option; but the argument here is about carbs. Not fiber, not whole grains. Just carbohydrates. 

Now try telling someone who wholeheartedly believes eating clean is the way to go if you want to get anywhere that they can have a donut for breakfast instead of oats without gaining weight and watch the outrage. I get it. It took me a while, but I get it. How can I have “whatever I want” while staying on track? The answer is portion control, and that’s exactly what my answer would be to the three questions above, more or less. 

To burn belly fat, you need to decrease overall body fat, and you do so by eating in a calorie deficit. 

Cellulite is tricky, but to reduce its appearance you need to decrease overall body fat, and you do so by eating in a calorie deficit. See where I’m going?

Eating chocolate every day is not bad. If you’re eating so much that it puts you in a caloric surplus, you probably won’t see the results you want. If you’re having a controlled serving each day and sticking within your calorie allowance, then you can eat chocolate every day and stay on track.

After my coach started phasing me out of a meal plan and had me begin tracking my food, the freedom was a bit scary at first. To be honest, I was still a bit wary of commonly demonized foods like pasta, bread, cereal, Skippy peanut butter…. In other words “bad” foods. I initially stuck to foods that I know make me feel good and foods that I still labeled “good”, however slowly but surely I started experimenting and adding foods into my diet that I normally wouldn’t have. Although I was skeptical at first, especially because I was convinced clean eating was the only thing that worked for me, I knew that this approach wasn’t sustainable for me long-term. I stopped labeling foods as good and bad and realized that a calorie is a calorie. There are foods that are good for you and there are foods that are not as good for you. On that same note, some foods are incredibly calorically dense and offer little to no satiety for a very small portion, and other foods give you a lot of bang for your buck. Energy balance is what will ultimately be a huge driver of your success with fat loss. 

What it boils down to is finding what works for you. I used to love the structure that a set meal plan provided and eating a smaller variety of foods made it easier for me to stay on track. Times have changed, and I think I would redevelop an unhealthy relationship with food if I were to go back to that lifestyle. Although it took me a while to get on board, I do believe that adopting an inclusive approach with food and not excluding entire foods or food groups is more sustainable in the long-run because it prevents that feeling of deprivation, and is less likely to influence the “forbidden fruit” effect. 


Huda Abushaaban
Personal Trainer / Barry's Bootcamp Dubai Instructor

To read more from Huda or to follow her: / 

Calorie deficitCaloriesEat cleanFat burnMiddle eastNutrition

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published