There are calories – and then there are calories. A calorie is simply a unit of energy. It can come from healthy sources like lean protein and vegetables or from “empty” sources like sugary snacks. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for people to focus on how many calories they’re eating rather than on WHAT they’re eating. This is a bad approach for several reasons.
If you have a significant amount of body fat to lose, you’ll likely reduce your calorie intake, but if you make the wrong food choices, you may be at risk for nutritional imbalances, especially if your calories are coming from junk food. Every calorie counts from a nutritional standpoint when you’re cutting back.
Secondly, calorie quality and the macronutrient ratio of a meal affect hormones like insulin, leptin, and ghrelin that impact fat storage and appetite. Using your allotted calories to snack on high-glycemic carbs creates an environment favorable for fat storage since it elevates insulin levels. Plus, the rapid fluctuations in blood sugar stimulate appetite. That’s why calorie quality counts when you’re trying to get leaner.
The Importance of Calorie Quality
“Nutritarian” is a term coined by Dr. Fuhrman, a physician, nutritional researcher, and author. A nutritarian’s goal is to maximize the amount of nutrition they take in with every calorie to ensure they’re getting enough vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. What’s important to a nutritarian is the number of micronutrients in each calorie they eat. Dr. Fuhrman points out that using this approach for diet planning helps to ward off chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. Makes sense, doesn’t it? If we think more like nutritarians, it’s easier to avoid the pitfalls of eating too much junk food and too many empty calories.
Tips For Improving Calorie Quality
There are some simple changes you can make to boost the quality of the calories you take in. Here are some:
Stop drinking calories. Most of the beverages you sip with the exception of milk and fruit or vegetable juice are low in nutrients and high in calories – and some like soft drinks have no nutritional value. Even fruit juice isn’t a good choice, despite its greater density of micronutrients. The natural sugars in fruit juice are rapidly absorbed and more likely to be stored as fat. A whole piece of fruit that still has its fiber is a better choice. Skip soft drinks and fruit juice, and learn to appreciate the taste of water or sip unsweetened green tea. Green tea is a good source of antioxidants without all the calories.
Choose whole foods rather than processed ones. Processed, packaged foods generally have a low nutritional density. Instead, head for the produce aisle or the freezer case and stock your refrigerator and freezer with fresh or frozen vegetables. Veggies are some of the most nutrient-dense foods due to their high vitamin, mineral and antioxidant content.
Don’t cut back calories too much. If you’re trying to lose weight, focus on changing the composition of what you eat rather than counting calories. If you choose fiber-rich fruits and veggies, lean sources of protein and healthy fats rather than processed foods, you’ll cut calories without making it your focus. When you restrict calories too much in hopes of speeding up the weight loss process, you run the risk of nutritional deficiencies and a slow-down in metabolism.
Think like a nutritarian when choosing foods. If you must eat a potato, choose a sweet potato. Sweet potatoes are rich in natural carotenoids that may lower the risk of heart disease and some types of cancer, something you won’t get from a white potato. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, choose a variety of brightly colored ones to maximize the types of antioxidants you feed your body.
Eliminate sugar. Sugar is a source of empty calories with no nutritional value. The good news? When you choose whole foods, you don’t have to worry about added sugar. If you do buy packaged products, look for ones with the lowest amount of sugar possible. Over time, look for whole food substitutes for packaged foods. For example, if you buy packaged breakfast cereal, replace it with unsweetened rolled oats or quinoa in the morning instead.
The Bottom Line?
Calorie quality counts. When you choose foods based on nutrient density, you’ll lower your risk for health problems, and, in most cases, you’ll end up consuming fewer overall calories because you’ve eliminated junk food and that’s a good thing when it comes to your health – and your waistline.
Fuhrman, Joel (producer) and Fuhrman, Joel (director) (2011) “Eating Like a Nutritarian”
Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 August; 84(2): 274–288.
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