If I told you that you could choose between a handful of carrot sticks and two non-fat chocolate chip cookies, that each has the same number of calories and would have the exact same impact on your waistline, which would you choose?
C’mon, be honest. We’d all pick the cookies.
And if we listened to a lot of the messages out there about weight, then that would be the logical choice. After all, isn’t it all about calories-in calories-out, regardless of where those calories came from?
The problem is, calories are just one itty bitty part of the story.
Here’s the deal. A calorie is not just a calorie. It’s what your body does with that calorie that counts, and what determines this factor is the quality of the food.
Consider your afternoon snack. You have two options: a carrot, or a bag of potato chips.
Let’s say you pick the carrot. When you’ve finished with it – a lower calorie, higher quality snack – you’re probably done with carrot. Unless you’ve got a “thing” for carrots you likely won’t want to eat another, and another, and another. You’re satisfied and go on with your afternoon.
Now let’s say you pick the potato chips. When you’ve finished a single serving (and who eats just a single serving?) of this higher calorie, lower quality snack, are you done? Probably not. My guess is you blow through several servings, and then with your salt fix satisfied you start craving something sweet to balance it out.
But wait a second…
If it’s about the amount of calories and not the quality of the food, shouldn’t you be stuffed full after the higher calorie chips? Shouldn’t you be hungry and craving more after the carrot? It doesn’t work that way. The carrot – whole, unrefined – is giving your body real nutrients.
The potato chips – refined and highly processed – are just teasing your taste buds without any real nutrition.
Do they have calories? Heck yeah. But do they actually feed and nourish you? Not at all. In fact, they’re often loaded with chemicals called excitotoxins that can further stimulate your appetite.
Don’t just take my word for it. A recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that “focusing on overall dietary quality—such as eating less refined sugars and refined grains and more minimally processed foods—is probably more important to long-term health than monitoring total calorie or fat intake or other nutritional markers.” (Daniel Fromson, The Atlantic, 10 Foods That Drive Weight Gain and Loss Identified by Harvard)
Quality is top of my list of reasons for not paying attention to calories, but here are some other important pieces to the puzzle:
- We all know that our bodies use some calories as energy and stores others as fat. But here’s the important thing – it’s not JUST about the volume of those calories. A lot of it is about how the body is using them. Lower-calorie foods that spike blood sugar levels and cause a surge in insulin store more fat than higher-calorie foods that allow for a slower energy release and do not spike insulin.
- High-quality, nutrient dense foods that are higher-calorie actually satisfy you for longer, so you eat less overall. Lower-calorie foods that spike blood sugar levels create blood sugar crashes, which cause powerful cravings and inspire binging.
- The digestion of fat triggers our satiation mechanism. This is why fat-free foods are so unsatisfying and we tend to eat more and more of them, looking for that feeling of fullness. We’ll talk more about the benefits of including fat in our diet in next week’s post.
- Our state of mind affects how our bodies use the food we eat. Regardless of how many calories you consume, being in a stress-state (sympathetic nervous system dominance) compromises digestion and inspires our body to store fat; being in a relaxed state (parasympathetic nervous system dominance) allows our body to digest fully and mobilize stored weight.
As we saw in the example of the carrot vs. potato chips, food is about more than just energy potential (or, calories). It’s also about nourishment, building and healing the body, and providing nutrients for all the vital functions that keep us alive and thriving. When we reduce our food to calories, we are discrediting all of its other critically important roles.
By Margaret Floyd, NTP HHC CHFS