When it comes to food choices, what counts is quality.


Calories are one of the first items listed on the Nutrition Facts label of packaged foods, and many of us approach them like the dietary bogeyman, fearing too many will make us fat.  Americans have such a negative connotation about the word ‘calorie’.  But calories are just a measure of the energy in food.  And here’s a surprise: many nutrition experts aren’t fans (me included) of counting calories.  Many patients try really hard to count and restrict calories, and it doesn’t work.  The reason they can’t lose weight isn’t because you can’t do math.  It just isn’t that simple. So what do you need to know about calories?


Start by letting go of the following myths:

  • Less is More.  It seems counterintuitive, but eating too little actually makes it more difficult to lose weight.   If you restrict too much, your body goes into starvation mode.  As you eat less, your metabolism adjusts to run on fewer calories.  Then there’s the stress that comes with dieting.  Restricting and counting calories boosts levels of cortisol, a stress hormone linked to weight gain.  If you must count calories, limit it to just a week.  This will reveal plenty about the quality and quantity of your diet.
  • It’s just calories in, calories out.  This argument is so simple and appealing.  That’s the beauty of it.  The downside is it is just one piece of the story.  That’s because the way our bodies use calories is complex.  The idea that humans are just buckets that you pour calories into the top and calories come out the bottom isn’t supported by the evidence.  And the evidence is so strong that in most cases total calories isn’t the right focus.  Calorie-counting is a distraction that often leads to poor nutritional choices.  There is an endless list of personal, food industry, and government decisions that are at best useless and at worst harmful because of the focus on total calories.  Examples range from school nutrition programs that favor high-fructose-corn-syrup-laden chocolate skim milk over plain whole milk to food manufacturers who cut out healthful fats to trim calories.  Make smarter choices: A 100-calorie snack pack of cookies offers little in the way of nutrition compared to 100 calories’ worth of nuts, which contain protein, healthy fat, fiber, minerals and vitamins in addition to calories.
  • All calories are created equal.  How your body uses calories depends on the quality of the food around the calorie.  What you eat is way more important than how much you eat for your overall health.  The foods we eat have very different effects on brain reward and cravings, on liver function, on production of fat, on glucose, insulin and other hormonal responses, on our gut microbiomes, and on our fat-cell responses.  Calories are like gas in a car: quality affects performance.  The quality of fuel you put in affects how your body runs.  It really does matter what those calories are, especially for satiety and energy.  Two hundred-fifty calories of fruit and nuts are different from a 250 calorie honey bun.  Fruit and nuts are full of nutrients and satisfying fiber, protein and fat, while the honey bun is a refined starch and trans-fat bomb that will have you prowling for a snack an hour later.  Feed it right, and your body does a good job of managing your appetite and regulating calories without your having to count.   Shifting some calories away from carbohydrates and toward healthful fats and (a little) more protein helps people shed belly fat while maintaining more lean muscle mass than they do on a higher-carbohydrate diet.  Eat fat and protein because you’re much less likely to overeat.  Calories from fat and protein are more satisfying than carbohydrates because you digest them more slowly, which signals your brain to stop eating.  Focus on the quality of what you’re eating and the rest will take care of itself.

Alison Ashton