How to Make Sense of Calories — No Counting Included
Once anyone finds out that I'm a registered dietitian, they start asking me about their favorite foods. Recently, a friend inquired 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. Once upon a time, 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.
What Are Calories, Really?
At its most basic, a calorie is a unit of energy. In terms of nutrition, calories refer to the amount of energy you can get from macronutrients — carbohydrates, fat, protein — and alcohol in a serving of a food or beverage, according to the Food and Drug Administration. But energy isn't just something you immediately get the instant you take a bite of a burger. It's produced as your body breaks down (reads: digests and absorbs) the food, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Each of the aforementioned macronutrients has a certain amount of calories: carbohydrates and protein both provide 4 calories per gram while fat yields 9 calories per gram.
The United States Department of Agriculture's 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that the daily calorie intake for adults ranges from 1,600 to 3,200 calories, with roughly 2,000 calories per day being the general standard for most adults. That said these numbers are estimates, as there are multiple variables (e.g. age, activity level, metabolism, whether or not you're pregnant, etc.) that affect how many calories an individual should consume per day. So, someone such as pre-retirement Michael Phelps should consume far more calories than the average person, who doesn't require as much fuel.
Calories and Overall Health
You might be shocked to learn that if avocados had a food label, the calorie count would read 300 calories, according to the USDA. 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, healthy fats, and antioxidants found in everyone's fave fruit (yes, avos are fruits!). 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." Point being: Calorie count isn't the only indicator of whether a food is nutritious. (Related: A Guide to the Essential Nutrients — and Why Your Body Needs Them)
Calories and Weight
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? The equation for weight loss is a bit more complicated than that. While lifestyle and activity obviously play a role, other diet factors come into play. For instance, fat (such as that 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 with a more nutrient-dense food, such as 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.
When Do Calories Actually Count?
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 incorporating your indulgences in moderation. "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."
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 (e.g. 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, in case you missed it above). 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 people 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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