Here’s a fun fact – Calories don’t matter! When I discuss food and nutrition topics maybe I assume most people already get this. But, I’ve been reminded lately that this is not the case. So let’s do a quick recap on calories.
Thinking in terms of calories is painting all foods with the same brush; making them all equal, all tied together by this thing called calories. Calories are the energy that the food can provide the body; though commonly they are synonymous with bulk or mass of food (ex. That big hamburger has a lot of calories, and this little side salad has very few.) Either way, this doesn’t distinguish what the food is. Calories don’t tell us what the food is comprised of. They don’t tell us how it was prepared; if all the nutrients were cooked out of it through heavy boiling or microwaving; or if it was blackened and covered in carcinogens. Calories don’t tell us what kind of oil something was fried in. Calories don’t tell us how the meat was fed and treated when it was alive. Calories don’t let us in on the types of fat in the food. And they tell us nothing of what kind of vitamins and minerals (or lack thereof) a food has.
Common Calorie Conundrums
In my daily life, I’ll hear people comparing two snacks of some sort (both of which are unhealthy). One person makes a comment about something someone else is eating. And the person retorts with, “but it’s healthy; it only has 100 calories”, and the other person responds with a surprised, but delighted look as grab their own bag.
Or say there’s a big box of doughnuts for the taking. Someone walks up and hesitantly grabs one, saying to themselves they’ll “only have one” because just one doesn’t have that many calories. They’ll burn it off after work.
Which brings me to another subject – the related delusion that since all foods are apparently equal, each only having different amounts of calories; one must simply work out for varying lengths of time to “burn off those calories”. This of course, is absurd. If you eat the right things you don’t really need to “burn it off”; and if you eat the wrong things, attempting to burn it off isn’t going to do the trick. A workout is not going to undo all the harm of unhealthy foods, regardless of how far you run.
Then there is the “empty calories” idea. This is the belief that the only bad thing about eating sugary foods is that they contain empty calories – or rather don’t have any valuable nutrients and are just a waste of calorie consumption. This is also a fallacy. Sugary foods are not just filler and a waste of space. Sugary foods are simply not good for you, regardless of calories. You shouldn’t forgo the sugar because it is empty calories, but rather because it is an unhealthy, we could even say poisonous, substance. You might order the huge drink from Starbucks and jokingly scold yourself because it has 1000 calories. Well, it isn’t just the 1000 calories that make it so bad for you. Every time you load up on sugar like that it wreaks havoc on your body. The sugar translates very quickly to fat, overloads your liver, contributes to mood issues, gives you a sugar crash, helps cause cavities, feeds cancer, helps to clog your arteries, and so much more.
I hear some people make the argument about how low-calorie foods can add up. They’ll say, “you know, the problem with that low-calorie snack there is you’ll just end up eating a whole bunch of them!” This again disregards what the food is. If they are carrots, celery sticks, or almonds, eat up! The calories don’t matter. What matters is that these foods are healthy for you. If the snack is some kind of packaged, puffed, chip or popcorn or something, loaded with hydrogenated oils, salt, sugar, preservatives, food colorings, etc. – put them down! It does not matter that the package says “Only 100 Calories!” These things are bad for you, no matter the quantity.
Getting out of the Calorie Counting Trap
There is an alternative to worrying over and counting calories; this is to understand what foods are healthy and which aren’t. Here’s the important point. If you want to be healthy, fit, maintain weight, or lose weight – you will be much more successful developing a personalized diet based on foods that are healthy rather than using the calorie counting method. This is important – eating lots of food, or lots of calories doesn’t necessarily make you fat – rather, eating the wrong foods makes you fat. So you could be limiting your calorie intake, but still eating foods you think are healthy (but are not, ex. oatmeal, cereal, “lean” foods, “low fat” foods, “diet” foods, bagels, skim milk, Coke Zero, etc.) and you won’t see the results you want to.
I would completely disregard calories. Do your research and learn what your body needs. Yes, your body needs calories, but most foods obviously have calories. So it is not calories that our bodies necessarily crave. Your body craves fats, proteins, some carbs, various vitamins, minerals, amino acids, etc. This all makes more sense when we understand real nutritional concepts. Wheat is not good for us. Processed milk is not that good for us. Gluten is probably not great for anyone, not just those with Celiac disease. Sugars are terrible for you. Too much salt is dangerous. Eggs are good for you, especially the yolks, and especially from pasture raised chickens. Meat isn’t necessarily all unhealthy – though lots of low-quality meats might not be great. But, a decent amount of grass fed, all-natural meat and poultry are really good for your body. Fat doesn’t make you fat. The wrong fats make you fat! Cholesterol and fat are not the sole causes of heart issues. Cardiovascular issues arise for a variety of reasons including too much sugar, too many cheap, refined carbs, inflammation causing foods, lack of exercise, and other reasons.
So here’s a good example. A common dinner in my house is what many people would call the “big ass salad”. This just consists of grabbing a big mixing bowl and throwing in any and everything that would make sense. Green leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, iceberg, spinach, broccoli, cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, celery, mushrooms, onions, cilantro, any other veggies and herbs; bacon, chicken, avocado, strawberries, apples, oranges, chia seeds, hemp seeds, olive oil, hemp oil, vinegar, lemon juice, seasonings, nuts. This probably has loads of calories, especially from the oils, chicken, bacon, and avocado – but that doesn’t matter. What matters is this salad is full of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy fats, natural proteins, etc. It is all real food; not food-like products.
Of course still use your brain. You wouldn’t want to eat 1000 carrot sticks just because I’m saying calories don’t matter. You still want a balanced diet with appropriate levels of consumption for your body size. And I’m not saying never eat an oreo or a few bits of popcorn. The point is, know the difference between what is healthy and what isn’t, and get out of the calorie counting paradigm.
Here is a list of our health related articles for more specific info on health topics. It is info like this that can help us move away from the mainstream calorie paradigm, and towards real health.
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