Foods are about so much more than that number on the nutrition panel.

By Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD
September 22, 2017
Photo: Paper Boat Creative/Getty Images

Once anyone finds out that I'm a registered dietitian, they start asking me about their favorite foods. Recently, a friend asked me why her favorite quinoa bowl has more than 1,000 calories. "Isn't quinoa healthy?" she asked. I quickly told her that just because this dish was higher in calories doesn't necessarily mean it's unhealthy. But this exchange got me thinking about how our culture is so obsessed with calories that we often neglect the overall nutritional quality of food. Before obesity became an epidemic, people ate food for the vitamins that would ward off disease or the protein that would maintain their hair and nails. We seem to have forgotten about a lot of really important aspects of the food label in order to focus solely on the top line: calories. Here's why that's not necessarily the healthiest way to choose foods.

Healthy Can Be High In Calories

You might be shocked to learn that if avocados had a food label, the calorie count would read 300 calories. But if you skipped your beloved avocado toast or even avocado pizza (!) because of the calories, you would be missing out on all the folate, fiber, potassium, good fats, and antioxidants. The same is true for many healthy, high-calorie foods, such as walnuts, olive oil, and quinoa.

But if you take calorie count out of the decision-making equation, how can you make an educated food decision? Well, there's a not-so-glamorous term thrown around a lot in the nutrition world that can help: nutrient density. Nutrient-dense foods have more of the good stuff such as vitamins, minerals, protein, healthy fats, and phytochemicals packed into each calorie. For example, 100 calories' worth of sweet potato has more nutrients-vitamins A and C, and fiber-than 100 calories' worth of white bread. "It is possible for two different foods to have the same amount of calories while containing varying amounts of the essential nutrients your body needs to function properly day after day," says Emily Kyle, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N. "If we are focusing solely on calories, we are missing out on the nutrients that matter the most."

Do Calories Matter for Weight Loss?

You've probably heard that in order to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you eat. But if it were as simple as that, couldn't everyone just eat 1,000 calories of ice cream every day and lose weight? We now know that the equation for weight loss is a bit more complicated. While lifestyle and activity obviously play a role, other diet factors come into play. For instance, fat (such as in walnuts) can help keep you full, so you may eat less throughout the day. This may be true in the case of full-fat versus low-fat dairy, too, as research indicates there's a connection between reaching for full-fat, higher-calorie dairy and reduced risk of obesity. Plus, plenty of research has been conducted on how eating a high-protein breakfast helps keep you full throughout the morning, causing you to eat less throughout the day.

However, if your goal is to lose weight, total calories will make a difference. Let's go back to that avocado example again. If a 130-pound woman ate three avocados a day on top of her normal diet, (say, avocado toast in the morning, salad with avocado for lunch, and guac at dinner), she would absolutely gain weight from those 900 extra calories, regardless of the fact that those calories came from nutritious avocados instead of from cookies and ice cream. But if she replaced some of the other 300-calorie food items in her diet (ahem, those cookies and ice cream) with a more nutrient-dense food, like an avocado, it may help keep her full and prevent her from overeating later in the day. The bottom line is that maintaining or losing weight is a balancing act. Calories certainly matter, but the overall nutrient composition of the food matters just as much.

How to Eat for Health, Weight Loss, and More

With all of this conflicting information, it can be difficult to know what's best when you're trying to lose weight, eat healthier, or just be more in tune with what's going to best fuel your body. But it's really about simplifying your diet to choose whole foods and stay away from the junk. "When working with a client to help them choose healthy foods, I always have them start at the source," says Kyle. "How close is this food product to its natural state? Could it be found in the field or farm? The closer a food item is to its natural origins, the more likely it is to be wholesome and nutrient dense."

When Do Calories Actually Count?

With all this said, calories are on the food label (and depending on where you live, on your menus, too) for a reason. They shouldn't be the only thing you pay attention to, but they definitely matter a lot in specific situations. Here are just a few:

  • You're a hardcore athlete: This may seem like common sense, but professional athletes and people gearing up for intense events (like a triathlon) will burn more calories during training than they would normally. If you're training for a marathon and running 10+ miles per day, you're burning off a ton of calories, but also losing precious nutrition such as potassium and carbohydrates. Replacing those calories and refueling your body is crucial not only for health but for athletic performance. A sports nutritionist or certified coach should be able to help guide you to the proper calorie count for peak results.
  • You're counting macros: If you're among the growing number of people who adhere to the diet idea of IIFYM, or "if it fits your macros," you're probably already paying super-close attention to your food and calorie count. Specifically, you're looking at the balance of carbs, fats, and protein in your diet, and it's crucial to know how many calories are in a gram of each (4, 9, and 4 respectively, if you're wondering). How many daily calories you eat will determine the quantity of each macronutrient. It's important to keep these numbers in mind if you want to see those gains in the gym and on the scale. (Counting your macros is used as a technique for both muscle building and toning, as well as for weight loss.) Consult a sports dietitian to build the right macro plan that works for you.
  • You're pregnant: Pregnant women may think in terms of eating for two. Yes, they need to supply nutrients to the baby in their belly, but they don't often need to eat that much more, and certainly not double. Many pregnant women work with their ob-gyn to increase calories enough to provide necessary nutrients to their baby, but not so much that they are at risk for issues such as gestational diabetes and hypertension.

The Bottom Line On Calories

Get more acquainted with your diet and look beyond calories. What other nutrients does that food supply? While calories definitely matter, they aren't the only essential element for choosing foods. Replacing high-calorie junk foods with more nutrient-dense whole foods may help you lose weight. But whether you're losing weight or not, nutrient-dense whole foods are sure to help you get and stay healthier. Remember that in some instances, such as if you're running a marathon or carrying a child, calories absolutely matter. But even in these circumstances, the nutrients inside your food are just as significant as the calories.

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