By Janet Helm, MS, RD
I predict that 2012 is going to be the year of the calorie. Now that the intense fat phobic era is over and we’ve gotten past the nearly obsessive phase of carb-counting, the spotlight will fall back on calories.
Calories are showing up on all sorts of new places. In 2012, fresh meats will now be required to list calories and other nutrients when mandatory nutrition labeling hits the meat case in March. Throughout the rest of the grocery store, we’re seeing calories called out on the front of package labels. And we’re seeing more calorie counts when we go out to eat. Calories are now highlighted on restaurant menus in chain restaurants (with mixed results, although a new Stanford Graduate School of Business study did find that calorie listings in New York City Starbucks resulted in a 6% reduction in calories per transaction).
It’s good to be aware of calories. But does that mean we need to count calories? Not necessarily. A recent survey conducted by the Dietary Guidelines Alliance, a coalition of organizations, companies and government agencies charged with communicating the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, found that calorie counting is something that most people are reluctant to do. Instead, they believe the type of food eaten is more important than counting calories.
Perhaps they’re on to something. No doubt, our weight is dependent on calories. Yet, it’s the quality of the calories we choose that really matters. Maybe we need to look at calories through a new lens.
This became particularly clear to me after the hullabaloo over the Twinkie guy, AKA Mark Haub, a nutrition professor from Kansas State (my alma mater). Haub wanted to prove the point that pure calorie counting matters most in weight loss, not the nutritional value of the food, so he restricted himself to a diet of one Twinkie, nutty bar, or powdered donuts every three hours.
Sure, a regimen of sugary snack cakes (and restricted calorie intake—he only ate 1800 calories a day, when a man his size normally needs about 2600) did the trick and he lost 27 pounds in 10 weeks, but does this mean the Twinkie diet is worth adopting? Definitely not.
It’s true that calories count; however, it’s how you spend those calories that’s even more important. Remember, skinny doesn’t equal healthy.
This classroom experiment provided a real-life example of energy balance, but losing weight is much more than a simple math equation.
All Calories Are Not Created Equal
Even the old adage that a calorie is a calorie may no longer hold true. Increasingly, researchers are beginning to look at calories in an entirely new way: how hard (or easy) our body needs to work to make the energy available.
Calories from whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, make our bodies do a bit more work when we eat them — which is good for weight management. Some research suggests the calories from fiber-rich whole foods are even “less fattening” than calories from heavily processed foods.
Researchers Sadie Barr and Jonathan Wright from Pomona College looked at two meals with the same number of calories — the only difference was how much the food was processed.
They found that the whole-food meal significantly increased diet-induced thermogenesis — or the number of calories you burn simply by eating — compared to the processed-food meal.
The actual calories burned may be small, but this rise in metabolism from eating and digesting food (the thermal effect of food) is estimated to be about 10 percent of our day’s calorie expenditure.
All of this means that we may be on the cusp of a calorie paradigm shift. One indication of this new way of thinking is the change Weight Watchers made to its program to emphasize that some foods with the same number of calories shouldn’t be treated the same.
Recognizing the differences in how our bodies react to calories — and nudging dieters to eat more whole foods — Weight Watchers revamped its point system last year and made fresh fruits and most vegetables free. In general, foods with fiber and protein were granted fewer points and processed foods were given more points.
Check the Quality of Your Calories
Staying within a certain calorie level is meaningless unless you make the most of those calories by choosing nutrient-rich foods — or foods that provide the most nutrients per calorie.
Most Americans do need to reduce daily calories to achieve a healthy weight, but they also need to increase their intake of a long list of shortfall nutrients, including fiber, potassium, calcium and vitamin D.
We may be hearing more about the importance of calories, but keep in mind that this is just one metric. Don’t let the number overshadow all other attributes of a food. A 100-calorie banana is a much better choice than a 100-calorie bag of chips. Put your energies into eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, along with choosing lean meats and lowfat dairy. Then maybe the calorie thing will take care of itself.