A Calorie Is Not a Calorie

Appeared in Brownsville Herarld and Valley Morning Star on April 7, 2013

By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett

I’m a person who likes things to be fair. I care deeply about social justice and equal access. But I am learning from recent research that when it comes to calories, they should not all be treated equally!

If you need to lose weight, energy balance and calorie budgeting are great places to start. After all, many people completely miss the energy balance boat by working out like maniacs at the gym and then overeating, or the opposite, skipping meals and going on crazy diets that are unsustainable. These extremes are common. Better if we focus on balancing our energy intake (the calories we consume in everything we eat and drink) with our energy output, the calories we burn through exercise, daily movement and just being alive (breathing, heart beating, etc.).  Picture a scale with calories consumed on one side and calories burned on the other—in perfect balance—or tipped to the calorie burning side if you need to shed a few pounds.

I have been content with this visual image, and I still think it is useful, yet new research is showing that we can’t just lump all of our calories together. For one thing, protein, fiber, fat (good fat and bad fat are different too) and sugar take different amounts of energy to burn, and are absorbed differently. And sugar, the big offender, is made of glucose and fructose. It’s a complicated mess that gives me nightmares of high school chemistry, but there is enough data that proves, that calories from high fiber vegetables should not be counted the same as calories from pan dulce.  It’s common sense, yet with our focus on calorie counting and energy balance, it is easy to get off track a bit and feel okay with consuming all of your daily allowable calories from soda and fast food, as long as you stay under your “limit”.

The practical take-away from this is that research shows people tend to eat the same amount or volume of food each day.  It is the amount of food in your stomach that determines how full you feel.  This means that, when trying to maintain a healthy weight, if you rely on eating less, you may be left feeling hungry.  This will make it harder to stick to your calorie goals. And it may make it harder for you to maintain your weight.

Research also shows that the best way to control the calories that you eat is by eating more foods low in calories and fewer high calorie foods. That way, you feel full and satisfied but without the excess calories. We need to focus on eating nutrient dense foods. This makes sense given the purpose of eating (to give our body the energy and nutrients to live and move). We can more efficiently fuel our bodies, and not do them harm, when most of our calories come from natural, unprocessed foods that are high in vitamins, nutrients and low in bad calories (sugar, bad fats, etc.).

Of course in addition to fueling our amazing bodies, food serves the purpose of providing us with texture, taste, smell, and enjoyment. So here are some tips to increase the volume (nutrient density) of food you eat while maximizing flavor without the empty calories.

Add Vegetables:

Begin your meals with a salad or broth soup with lots of vegetables

Add bell peppers and sautéed onion to your fresh greens

Add grated carrot and lemon juice to sliced mushrooms

Try a hot salad: Steamed broccoli and bell pepper flavored with lemon juice and black pepper

Use tomato-based sauces instead of cream-based sauces and add a variety of vegetables such as carrots, mushrooms, bell peppers, spinach, broccoli

Add frozen vegetables to your meal

Make your chili with less meat, more beans and add carrots, spinach or winter squash

Keep precut vegetables in your refrigerator and use to snack on (consider a low-fat or non-fat dip to add flavor).

Add Fruits:  Fruit makes a great snack.  Nice and sweet without the calories of candy, cookies or most other snacks … but full of fiber, vitamins and minerals!

Keep fruit cups at your desk at work for a great mid-morning snack.

Try berries and low calorie Jell-O for dessert.

Keep frozen fruit in your freezer (either buy in season and freeze or buy already). Blend the frozen fruit with some yogurt for a great smoothie. Puree fruit in blender and mix with seltzer or club soda for a refreshing summer drink

Add fruit to your breakfast cereal or oatmeal; this is a great way to sweeten your cereal!

Add apple sauce to meatloaf or use apple sauce instead of sour cream on a baked potato

Substitute applesauce or pureed prunes to baked goods like muffins, reducing the amount of oil.

Add water:  Water has no calories, so adding it to your dishes will help you feel full and not consume as many calories.

Dilute fruit juice with water (½ and ½) or soda water

So while most of us could eat less in general, we also need to focus on what we eat. After all, a calorie from cake is not a calorie from a carrot, and Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!)