Food Quality vs. Calorie Quantity

By: Dr. Daniel Turo, DC

We’ve all seen the classic pictures depicting weight loss: a scale with “calories in” on one side and “calories out” on the other side. The idea of the scale is if calories in and calories out are equal, we will maintain our current weight. Calories are certainly an important consideration, especially since most of us are drastically and unknowingly over-consuming calories on a daily basis (although an increase in weight is a good indication you are eating too much). But getting your calories under control is only one part of the equation. Relying on calories alone will only tell you how much you are eating, but what’s even more important is where those calories are coming from.

Certain foods, like those high in added sugars, are responsible for spikes in insulin levels and cravings. Some foods are extremely inflammatory and may be leading to fluid retention and hormone imbalances that are affecting weight. Whereas foods high in fiber and healthy fats will help slow digestion and decrease feelings of hunger, which is beneficial for weight loss. A food log will give the whole picture not just of quantity, but of quality.

Weight loss systems that rely on calorie counting lead us to believe that all calories are created equally, and that simply is not the case. Fat has 9 calories per gram, but a highly processed trans fat is going to be inflammatory and harm the heart, while omega-3 rich fats have anti-inflammatory effects and are great for your heart. Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram, but a sugar-packed cereal is going to spike your blood sugar and affect insulin sensitivity, while a fiber-packed whole grain will have a more stable glucose/insulin response. Protein has 4 calories per gram, but a preservative-packed and highly processed lunch meat will have a toxin-like effect compared to a natural, free-range meat. These things I mentioned may all have the same amount of calories, but “low-calorie” does not make something healthy. You could eat 2000 calories of junk food and candy every day and be well within your daily calorie allotment, but I guarantee you will not be feeling healthy or energized.

Of course, it’s possible to over-consume the healthy stuff as well. Just because something is healthy, doesn’t mean you can eat unlimited amounts of it. Nuts, for example, are packed full of healthy fat, but will also pack on the calories very quickly. Should you choose nuts for a snack instead of potato chips? Of course! But it’s still important to watch serving sizes and consume in moderation.

Weight is a product of lifestyle. If you are eating the right things and moving the right amount, a healthy weight will be achieved and maintained. If you are gaining weight, something is not right. But weight is not the only metric of health. If you are working with a medical professional who is only concerned about weight, they would be perfectly happy if your weight remains stable year to year, indicating you are consuming the “right amount of calories.” However, a health professional who examines a food log would be better able understand how your diet is impacting your health, even if your weight is stable. Things like pain, headaches, low energy levels, poor sleep, and mood instability can all be affected by our food choices, not to mention cardiovascular and metabolic factors like blood pressure, C-reactive protein, and insulin. A lot of weight loss products contain massive amounts of additives and artificial ingredients. A lot of people eat the majority of their meals from things that come out of a wrapper or box. The idea behind these products is to help you control calories, but many products are no more than glorified candy bars. If I eat 1500 calories of candy bars per day, will I lose weight? Probably. But at what cost?

If tracking calories helps you stay on track, that’s great! Just make sure you are being honest. We often under-estimate portion sizes and over-estimate calorie expenditure during exercise. This can lead to a false calorie total for the day. Having “leftover” calories at the end of the day may also lead people to binge late at night, even if they are not hungry. Instead of worrying about every single calorie, a food log can be a more intuitive tool to help stay on track. With a food log, simply jot down what you eat, what time, and approximately how much. Even without knowing how much, it is fairly easy to glance at a food log and see where someone is having an issue. You would easily be able to tell a relatively good day from a bad one, just based on what you ate, not even worrying about how much. I would also recommend noting how you feel each day, particularly in the morning and evenings, and your quality of sleep. It will be no coincidence the days you feel better are the days you eat better. Journaling like this is an easy way to glance back and see patterns. This can help you better eliminate the foods that may be negatively impacting your health.

Food is fuel, and if we are fueling our bodies with garbage, we are going to feel like garbage. Calories may be one component, but they are not the key. Eating clean should always be the goal. This means whole foods, preferably organic, whenever possible. Calorie counters will not be an appropriate tracking metric for this. Food logs will allow you to track the quality of your food choices and see how making these changes ultimately impacts your health.

Looking for more information on optimizing your diet to improve your health? Is Guidance, Support, and Accountability what’s missing from your wellness journey? It’s time you found out! Schedule your Complimentary Salutogenic Consultation to learn more and discuss how we can help pave your way to optimal health. We are here to help you Get Healthy and Stay Healthy for Life!


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