Not All Calories Are Equal

By Joel Wasmann, blogger of By the Handful

Isn’t it just calories in/calories out? Nope!

We have had a complicated, if not downright obsessive relationship with the word calorie for a long time, but not all calories are equal. It seems to be the focus of many diet programs and even the primary concern for increasing one’s health and losing weight as calories are reduced. There is no doubt that a calorie (really just an arbitrary measurement of energy) does affect our metabolism and therefore our body’s ability to maintain, lose or gain weight. If you dramatically reduce or increase your caloric intake for any length of time given the same level of activity, your weight will likely reflect this dietary change. Unfortunately, it is all too common to find people, especially those trying to lose weight, eating foods with less calories and also much less nutrition. This is not a path to long term health.

Introducing: nutrient dense calories.

I would like to introduce a concept that looks at calories a little differently - nutrient dense calories. If we look at foods based on their nutritional profile rather than the calories they contain we have a whole new way to measure them by. Many nutrient dense caloric foods are low calorie and high volume, therefore filling. With this method vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber and healthy fats are key to ingredient and food selection. This concept is honestly not an epiphany but rather maybe a reminder or condensation of information that you might already know.

Thank goodness for veggies!

Let’s talk vegetables first, a category of foods generally low in calories regardless of nutrient density. These foods are high volume, high nutrition and low calorie which means they fill you up, as well as keep you healthy. Some of the most nutrient dense caloric vegetables include the following: kale, garlic, onion, seaweed, broccoli, beets, yams, lentils and avocados.  But not all vegetables are created equal. Some low nutrient dense vegetables are: iceberg lettuce, carrot and celery sticks, corn, and mealy tomatoes.  Nuts and berries carry more calories than veggies but are also nutrient dense.  There are deep reasons why each of these nutrient dense foods is considered to be a powerhouse. In comparison, iceberg lettuce has virtually no nutrition, but kale contains vitamins A & C, calcium, magnesium, protein, fiber, as well as phytonutrients. Not to mention it’s one of the best cancer fighting foods known. Kale is awesome!  Not every food consumed needs to be high nutrient but I try to incorporate as many of them as I can in my diet. A lot of the fruits and vegetables I really like are not quite as nutrient dense as others, such as peas, green beans, bananas, melons, and pineapple.

Nutrient dense meats & fats are important too.

Some of the most nutrient dense meats and fats include: salmon, sardines, liver, grass beef, ghee butter, olive and coconut oil. It’s important not to forget fat which is essential to our health and helps to absorb and utilize nutrition from food, especially vegetables. For example, a kale salad with a dressing made from olive oil and vinegar is a perfect way for your body to absorb the nutrients kale has to offer. Protein can be acquired from plant or animal sources, however for those that include meat in their diet, it is more than just fat and protein. Meat is a valuable source of vitamin b–12, iron, macro and micro nutrients.

Calories from fiber.

Fiber is another important topic to cover. When we eat enough fiber our body regulates our caloric intake, especially fat calories. For this reason it is important not to drink to many of our calories as this does not keep us satiated as much as chewing and digesting our food. For example, fruit juice does not contain all the fiber that eating the actual piece of fruit does. Vegetables at the high end of the fiber spectrum like asparagus, broccoli, leeks, and artichokes are in fact the direct opposite of processed carbohydrate containing foods when it comes to fiber. These long chain carbohydrate (fructan) fibers will help maintain a healthy digestive system as they and are a prebiotic for the healthy bacteria in the colon and help to manage weight.

Lack of proper nutrition = eating more calories.

Empty caloric foods can also be highly processed foods that are high in calories and contain added fat, refined grains, and sugar. Manufacturers have figured out how to make low calorie versions of processed foods, however they are still void of nutrition. Additionally, if it is labeled low-fat or fat-free it probably contains more sugar and low-sugar or sugar-free usually contains unhealthy added fats. These alternatives marketed to be “healthy” actually end up promoting cravings as the body is trying to get the nutrients it needs.

Focus on nourishing, not eliminating.

If we think more about what is going into our body with our food selections rather than what is being eliminated we have a tremendous and empowering building block for the future of our health. The objective hopefully is getting to a point where eating the right foods eliminates the need to even think about or care about calories. I like to look at food choices as what can I eat that will make me healthy, feel good, have more energy, and to satisfy an important dietary need.  It sure is nice to feel good!

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