Step by Step Guide To a Lean and Muscular Physique: Are All Calories Created Equal?


If you read the first installment of this series (Read Here), I would hope that you have determined a specific goal and that you have taken your baseline measurements (body fat, weight, pictures). The next step is building your plan. I will start from the top (calories) and work down.

Let me start by saying that there is no perfect program or diet. All things work but nothing works forever. It doesn’t matter what anyone else does or how so and so made progress, you have to find what works best for YOU and YOUR life.

*If you could care less about the intricacies of calories and your metabolism, skip to the bottom for the caloric guidelines*

The Energy Balance

If you have ever tried to change your nutrition habits before, I’m sure you have heard about calories in vs. calories out. This is referred to as the energy balance. Put simply, the energy balance = energy (calories) in – energy (calories) out.

Energy in would be what you eat for the day, whereas energy out represents how many calories you burn per day. Energy out can also be used to describe your metabolic rate or metabolism. Calories out takes into consideration resting metabolic rate, the thermic effect of food, thermic effect of activity, and non-activity thermogenesis. If you are consistently eating more energy than you are burning, that will result in weight gain. If you eat less energy than you expend, the net result is a loss in body mass.

However, please understand that this is a gross oversimplification of our metabolism. This does not account for different macronutrients effects on hormones, satiety, or changes in lean mass vs. fat mass and its effect on your overall metabolism.

Calories in vs. Calories out is a “big rock” so to speak. You cannot escape its importance but it’s not the only thing to consider. For 99% of people, however, the energy balance is where they need to focus to start moving in the right direction. If we follow the obesity trend in America, we can watch the rates of obesity rise as our caloric intake has risen and our activity has decreased. This leads to a very ugly energy balance that is not so balanced.

Are All Calories Created Equal?

If you come across anyone’s work with an extremist point of view, “only calories matter”, “carbohydrates make you fat”, “only macronutrient levels matter”; then run.  It’s this sort of close mindedness and plain ignorance that adds to the general lack of knowledge and contradictions in the fitness industry.  Calories absolutely matter, but so do many other facets of nutrition.

Let’s get one thing clear; a calorie is just a unit of measurement.  So yes, technically, a calorie is a calorie.  Just like an inch is an inch and a foot is a foot.  However, this does not account for the role different foods have on the body. The human body is an extremely complex biological organism that cannot be looked at in a vacuum.

Let’s just refer to calories as the energy provided to the body by our food. This energy can be used for a bunch of things; build tissue, repair tissue, get converted to fat/glycogen, or build hormones/enzymes. So you see, your calories can end up going a lot of different directions once you eat them.

A burger and bun from McDonald’s will elicit a different hormonal response than a Bison Burger on an Ezekiel Roll, most everyone agrees there.  Now, I am in no way saying that you cannot follow a flexible diet and lose weight or improve body composition.  You certainly can.  I am now speaking to the “smaller rocks” in the overall equation. Food choices, macronutrient ratios, and nutrient timing have their place.

Eating for “health” (a subjective term), is not always the same as eating to “get ripped”.  But this is nothing new; a “cheat meal” so to speak will not totally derail and ruin your diet.  Just like one “diet meal” won’t give you abs. Moderation and consistency are key.

Getting back on track, let’s say you just woke up. You drink a protein shake and maybe have some fruit.  This is after an overnight “fast” so to speak and your glycogen levels will be relatively depleted.  The fructose from your fruit will likely end up in the liver where it will be converted to glycogen while it waits patiently for future instructions.

What happens if this is later in the day, after a couple big meals, and your liver has all the glycogen it needs? The tasty ingested fructose will be converted to fat or possibly remain in the blood stream. The calories of your fruit didn’t change but the fate of the ingested energy did change. Nutrient timing has an effect and the time and type of food are undoubtedly important. When you start to think about developing a diet for yourself make sure you ask:

  • What is your ability to digest certain foods?
  • What is your ability to absorb nutrients?
  • What is your nutrient repartitioning or current metabolic state?
  • What is your current goal?

These things all matter when trying to find your best diet.

Real World Examples

Example 1: Most fitness enthusiasts understand the importance of protein in their diet.  Of the 3 macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates), protein has the highest Thermic Effect of Food (TEF).  This is defined as “the increase in metabolic rate after ingestion of a meal [1]”.

Any time you eat, your metabolism increases, this is called post-prandial (after eating) thermogenesis. However, eating more frequently WILL NOT increase your metabolism [5][6]. It is the caloric load or total calories consumed that matters, NOT meal frequency. The larger the meal, the larger and longer lasting the boost in metabolic rate. Smaller meals, therefore, lead to smaller, shorter boosts in metabolism. So at the end of the day, if total calories are the same, larger less frequent meals will provide the same thermic effect as smaller, more frequent feedings.


Digestion is an energy intensive process as the body works to absorb and process food.  Protein has the highest TEF of which 30% of the calories are lost due to heat, which is why protein is the most “thermogenic” of the 3 macronutrients.  Carbohydrates roughly (4-6%) and fats (3%), have a much lower thermic effect of food.

So a very basic example of 1,000 calories from protein yields roughly 700 calories (300kcal being burned), whereas those 1,000 calories from carbohydrates yield roughly 950 calories (only 50kcal being burned).  So you can see how swapping protein for fats/carbs will result in more energy being burned during digestion, absorption, and utilization of these nutrients.  The macronutrients are not created equal and since that is where we derive our calories; calories aren’t quite created equal.

Example 2: The typical American diet is made up of around 50-60% of carbohydrates. So after the typical American has their cereal, orange juice and bread breakfast, followed by a sub at lunch, they generally have a snack before dinner.  This typical American also spends the majority of their time at a desk with the activity level of a snail.  Let’s say their snack consists of some sort of starch.  After ingestion, glucose (sugar) will be present in the bloodstream. The body will try to avoid high blood glucose because it can be toxic if levels get too high.

Assuming the muscles and liver are not already full of glycogen, insulin will help push the excess glucose into those. How much glycogen one can store is highly specific to the individual, their muscle mass, and their level of training.  I’d venture to say that most people overestimate the storage capacity and activity level so they can justify eating more carbohydrates.

If your glycogen storage is full, your body will attempt to burn off this extra glucose.  Your cells will switch over to burning glucose as opposed to fat. This can be an issue for those with impaired metabolic flexibility, which is your ability to switch between fuel sources.  If you are unable to burn this energy, the surplus will be converted into fat.

If this glucose stays floating around the blood stream it could potentially form AGEs or Advanced glycation end-products which are implicated in diabetes [2].  So as you can see, your current metabolic state plays a huge role in the fate of your “calories” as well. Those with insulin resistance or impaired metabolic flexibility will exhibit poor glycemic control, lower post-prandial thermogenesis, and cravings which make dieting even more difficult.

Example 3: The thermic effect of food and different macronutrients play a role in satiety, or the feeling of fullness after a meal.  As stated in this research review, “Foods, and more specifically macronutrients, with the same caloric content, exert different effects on satiation and satiety independent of their caloric value [3]”. This is important because hunger certainly effects how much you eat and what you choose to eat. Protein has the strongest effect on regulating hunger whereas carbohydrates and fats tend to vary.

Think of a little tub of your favorite Ben and Jerry’s, they each roughly have around 1,000-1,200 calories. I don’t know about you but I could probably eat 4 of them in one sitting. What if you tried to eat that much chicken? That’s roughly 27-30oz of chicken, you probably normally eat a pretty decent sized 3-6oz chicken.

I’m willing to bet 6 big chicken breasts in one sitting may be more difficult to eat than 1 tub of your favorite ice cream. It’s also important to realize that taste is the main driver in the ingestion of food, once again making food choices important. So you see how again a macronutrient can influence what happens during and after a meal.  If you don’t feel satiated you will crave more food which often leads to overeating. Why is this?

Put simply, there’s no simple answer.  The relationship between the brain and energy regulation or food, is still under investigation. Obesity research is focusing more and more on the psychology of overeating. There’s a lot at play here and I delve much deeper into it in this article (Read Here).

There is an interplay between various hormones in the body that help communicate when you’re hungry and when you’re full. Things like insulin, leptin, ghrelin, neuropeptide-Y, peptide YY, all exhibit their own effects on the body. Again, certain foods will elicit different responses from these hormones.

For example, leptin (secreted from fat cells) signals to your brain that you are full and have enough stored energy. Ghrelin signals to your brain, through the hypothalamus, that you are hungry. Under normal conditions when you eat or when insulin is stimulated, ghrelin (hunger hormone) will decrease and leptin should increase, meaning your hunger decreases and you feel full. If your body’s response to these hormones is desensitized or impaired (leptin resistance, insulin resistance), you can see how it can wreak havoc on your plans to diet.

Through comparing recent literature, some studies suggest that low-glycemic index carbohydrates are more filling than high-glycemic index carbohydrates [4].  Let’s also address the rebound spike from a higher glycemic index carbohydrate.  A high-GI carbohydrate will cause a large spike in insulin which will clear blood glucose but drop us below baseline thus requiring a glucagon spike. Glucagon will put some glucose back into the blood which then results in another insulin spike. Nice huh? Two insulin spikes for the price of one! There is also a fair amount of research that suggest that a lower GI diet can help reduce LDL, total cholesterol and c-reactive protein levels as well [7].

I am in no way, shape, or form saying that high GI carbohydrates will make you fat. I simply want to make you aware of some of the physiologic changes and hormonal responses that can occur when you consume certain foods. If you are someone with great discipline who handles hunger well this won’t be as much as an issue for you. This is why dieting is highly specific to the individual.

I pose this question to you – knowing that the composition of food can influence how it gets used, knowing that the combination of certain foods can influence its fate (like adding fiber to carbohydrates), and knowing that this energy can interact uniquely with your individual metabolism; do you believe that all of your calories are the same? I hope not.

So are all calories created equal? Both sides of the argument are right, in their own respect.  It’s often difficult to stay within your caloric boundaries when you are eating high calorie, less filling foods. You may also be putting yourself in a tough position because of the different macro-nutrients abilities to regulate hunger and influence hormone levels.

It’s hard to reach a substantial amount of protein, fiber, veggies, and healthy fats if you are choosing poptarts and french fries throughout the day.  Take home message? The majority of your foods should consist of nutrient dense, natural whole food choices (chicken, steak, rice, vegetables, etc). However, you can still find places for your favorite, less “healthy foods” by timing them appropriately, staying within your caloric guidelines, and practicing moderation.

Transforming Your Body

Balance between Energy intake and Energy expenditure

By now, you should understand the importance of total caloric intake. If you want to change your body, you must learn to control appetite. Appetite can change depending on the frequency in which you are eating as well as the type of foods you eat. Over time, reducing your calories will result in a reduction in appetite. Replacing highly processed carbohydrates with lower glycemic index carbohydrates, lean protein sources or healthy fats, will positively impact your satiety. Take home message, if you want to lose weight – lower calories, make better food choices, and increase protein intake. If you want to learn more about tips to control appetite read this article (5 Tips To Control Appetite).

Setting Your Calories

              Finding where to set your calories can be difficult. The Harris-Benedict equation is likely the formula that most use to find their maintenance calories. While it uses important factors like age, weight, and gender; it’s not perfect.  For example, lean body mass plays a huge role in determining metabolic rate and this equation does not use that as a factor. Again, it takes more of the “big rocks” into equation.

Here are some basic estimations to finding your baseline:

*Please note that these are recommendations based off someone who is active and healthy*


Maintenance calories

Men – Bodyweight x 14-16

Women – Bodyweight x 13-15


Calories to Gain Weight/Muscle

Men – Bodyweight x 16-18

Women – Bodyweight x 15-17


Calories to Lose Weight/Fat

Men – Body weight x 10-13

Women – Body weight x 9-12

*The higher your lean body mass, the higher your beginning number should be*


My estimates may seem higher than most coaches you see online. There’s a reason for this. I prefer to keep calories AS HIGH as possible while still making progress. I do this so that workouts stay productive, strength remains, and the dieter has room to progress throughout the course of the diet. I choose the persons starting point based off their pictures, body fat, age, gender, weight, goals, and activity level.

As I mentioned, these are estimates and can be used to START your diet. As you continue, you will absolutely need to make changes as your body adapts to the program. These numbers are approximations and you may need to go above or below them depending on your progress and individuality. If you aren’t active at all, you may need to go below bodyweight x 10 to drop fat.

A healthy pace for losing weight is 1-2lbs per week. However, weight loss is not linear so expect ups and downs. If you lose 4 lbs one week and 0 the next, that is still a 2lb average over those two weeks. Do not get discouraged by weeks where weight remains unchanged. Your weight can fluctuate on an hourly basis.

In the next installment of this series I will discuss macronutrients, nutrient timing, and how to set your intake of protein/fat/carbohydrates appropriate to your goal.



[1] “Measuring the Thermic Effect of Food”.

[2]   “Advanced Glycation End-Products: A review”.

[3] “Clarifying Concepts about Macronutrients Effects on Satiation and Satiety”.

[4] “High-Fructose corn syrup, energy intake, and appetite regulation”.

[5] “Compared with nibbling, neither gorging nor a morning fast affect short-term energy balance in obese patients in a chamber calorimeter”.

[6] “Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet”.

[7] “Association between dietary fiber and serum C-reactive protein”.

[8] “No difference in body weight decrease between a low-glycemic-index and a high-glycemic-index diet but reduced LDL cholesterol after 10-wek ad libitum intake of the low-glycemic-index diet”.

3 Responses to “Step by Step Guide To a Lean and Muscular Physique: Are All Calories Created Equal?”

  1. Nick

    These past 2 articles by you have been good reads. Are you planning to do a training article to go with the nutrition articles?

    • Fred Duncan

      Nick, Thanks for reading. I will discuss training in one of the installments. Admittedly, I am writing these as I go. I’m trying to finish my book, coach my athletes/clients, and provide useful articles all at the same time, so I don’t have an exact timeline yet.



  1.  Guide To A Lean and Muscular Physique: Setting Your Macronutrients | Fred Duncan

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