By: David Younkins, Certified Health Coach on July 21st, 2022
Why Not All Calories Are Created Equal
We hear a lot about calories. How many calories are in this food or that food? That's not worth the calories. Or that's going to put some extra calories on your day.
And it's important to think about that. Calories are not irrelevant. They're very important. In fact, I have my clients track them sometimes, just to monitor how many calories they're getting on a given day, relative to how much exercise they're doing.
It can be helpful. It often helps us discover the best foods just by tracking those calories so we find out the foods that are lower in calories and better for us. There is nothing wrong with that.
But I want to propose today that all calories are not created equal. Watch the video below or read on for a recap.
(Note: For the purposes of this topic, it will be helpful to follow along in the video.)
It may be helpful not to just think about calories alone. We often hear phrases like, "Weight loss is as simple as calories in calories out. It's that easy."
Well, maybe on a bank balance it is, but when it comes to human behavior, it's a little more complicated.
I've joked with my clients before that saying that is kind of like saying that plane crashes can be reduced to lift up versus gravity down, right? As long as you make sure the lift exceeds the gravity, you won't crash, right? Simple. Gimme a pilot's license, right?
No, it's a lot more complicated to keep a plane in the air than just the balance between up and down, right, and similarly, it's a lot more difficult to have an ideal diet and eat well for health than just tracking the number of calories that you're taking in.
Also, we don't eat calories. We eat food. Understanding which foods are best for you is a little more helpful.
New Calorie Math
I'd like to propose a different kind of math today. We're not going to do a lot of math. I was never that great at it, anyway.
Instead of just thinking of calories in versus calories out, let's think about some other variables that are important when it comes to food, and I want to propose a new mathematical kind of formula for you. It's not very complicated.
We're not even going to get deep into numbers here as far as actually calculating stuff. I just want you to think about this conceptually when it comes to evaluating food.
Looking at the nutrition label is important, of course, and you can still look at the calories. If you look at this as a fraction with calories on the bottom, that's the denominator, right? So the calories are still going to be taken into account, but what's on top of that?
What makes the number higher are the nutrients. Nutrients are things like calcium, magnesium, vitamins, and things that you know are good for your body. It's the information that we're programming our cells with, not just the fuel that we're putting in our tanks, right?
We're not going to get too in-depth today on exact amounts, so just tally up the nutrients in your mind. Are there a lot of nutrients in this? You might even subtract off of that what I'm calling noxious, which are damaging things.
Nutrients - Noxious
It helps to remember to have the same letter. So it's nutrients minus noxious, right. Anything that could be harmful to you, something like maybe sugar. Sugar doesn't really do much for you from a health standpoint. You can create sugar out of pretty much anything in your body, so protein and carbohydrate and fat and that type of thing.
Sugar is not necessarily something you have to take in, and it often harms you. That might be an option that you might subtract off of this to decrease the value of this food or something that's specific to you.
Maybe your doctor has told you to reduce saturated fat or watch your cholesterol. That might be something you'd subtract off the top, and so if you can think of that numerically, on top, the higher the number, the more nutrients it has and the less harmful stuff it has in it over top of the calories.
So it's like nutrients over calories, right? How much is this food worth, nutrient-wise, relative to the calories?
If something's got low calories and lots of nutrients, it's going to be a good food.
If something's got not many nutrients and lots of calories relative to that, that's not as good of a food choice.
A Quick Exercise in Nutrient Ratios
Let's do a real quick exercise with this. We all like ice cream once in a while. You're not a bad person for eating some ice cream, but let's just look at this equation, so to speak, or this formula.
What are the nutrients? Let's just tally 'em up. You got some water in ice cream. This isn't poison, necessarily. You got some calcium in there, vitamin A, not very much though. The percentages are pretty low. You have potassium a little bit, so maybe three, four good things in there overall.
There may be some harmful things, too, the noxious, right? So sugars, 28 grams, in one cup. This is one cup of ice cream. Most times, I try to keep people's sugars below 20 at the highest on a given day. At 28, you've already got more than your daily intake, and glycemic index, and that's just a measure of how fast your blood sugar goes up.
It's relatively high on the glycemic index, which means it makes your blood sugar go up pretty quickly.
It's also got some saturated fat. You don't always have to monitor that. You can have a balance, but some people, especially if you have heart disease or a history of that, your doctor may want you to watch that. So that's kind of an iffy one.
But if you're to do that sort of math in your head, we've got three or four helpful things and about two or three harmful things, so maybe one or two total on top there, and then the calories are 270 calories in a cup.
Now, let's apply this same thinking to the same calories. If you're thinking, "Calories in, calories out," let's get the same approximate calories of spinach, all right? This is kind of an obvious one, spinach versus ice cream, but I just want to show you how this works.
Now to get the same number of calories of spinach, first of all, I'm going to be eating seven cups of spinach. That's a lot of spinach. It's even hard to eat that much probably without getting full or just getting tired of it.
Right there, you've got a difference in volume but look at the nutrients in spinach. You've got water and fiber, and this is assuming seven grams of fiber. Vitamin A, over 1000% of the daily value of vitamin A, right? Vitamin C over 100%. Calcium over 100%. Iron potassium, over 100%, right?
Calcium's good for bones, muscle contraction, all that type of stuff. Iron is good for carrying oxygen through the blood. Potassium is good for nerve conduction, avoiding cramping, vitamin A, beta carotene.
Lutein is great for eye health, healing, so all these things that are good for your body in there. That is maybe 10 nutrients on the top of this formula, maybe one noxious thing, one thing that could be harmful to some people.
If you have a history of kidney stones, specifically oxalate-based kidney stones, you may want to reduce and not have seven cups of spinach. You may want to watch your intake there, and reduce that a little bit, but that could be a potential noxious.
Even if we assume that, you still got eight or nine on top there, and then same number of calories? Right there, you've got a higher nutrient ratio in that food.
You still can count calories if you want. You can still take those into account but just broadening our thinking a little bit to include information about food, nutrients, things that affect our genes and our health, and everything else. Including that in your thinking will be hugely helpful for you.
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