Calories — Are they all the same? Are some better than others?

The answer to both questions is yes.

A calorie in a donut is the same as a calorie in a chicken breast. But, where they differ is not in the calorie. Rather, the difference lies in the nutritional content of the calorie.

homer

A chicken breast that contains 200 calories — wait for it — is the exact same caloric amount as the donut.

But, you get little to no fat in the chicken breast, ~30g protein and no carbs. So, remember, a calorie is a calorie. You can lose weight and eat the typical American diet (which isn’t awesome, FYI) as long as you’re in a caloric deficit.

Now that we understand that one calorie of one thing compared to another is always the same, it comes down to judging the nutrient density of the item. The nutrition density is the profile of nutrients contained in foods. A food that would be considered nutrient dense would have a so called “complete package” of nutrients. However, the complete package for proteins, carbohydrates and fats will all vary.

For a protein, it would be a complete protein (a complete protein provides a complete amino acid profile), with carbohydrates you could look for high fiber content, whole grains and low sugar and with fats you could pick quite a few food items that have a wide range in the nutrient dense fatty foods such as; avocados, salmon (also a solid complete protein) or walnuts — be careful here, though. Nuts are listed in the next part of the discussion: sneaky calories. 

An easy way to quickly and efficiently check if a food is nutrient dense is by taking a quick look at the ingredient list. It may seem counterintuitive, but you want the list to be shorter instead of having 50 different ingredients. A very long list of ingredients typically means the item is highly processed.

With food, less (ingredients) is more.

Let’s talk about “sneaky” calories that may be creeping into your diet that you may not be or are not accounting for at all. You know summer is coming up and you’re probably counting calories to get the beach body you want.

I consider sneaky calories to be foods that say “only 100 calories” then in small font it says “per serving” and it be in a non re-closable bag that makes you think the bag was one serving, liquid calories and condiments (ketchup, salad dressings, BBQ sauce etc). Let’s not forget nut butters, too. I know I don’t eat two real tablespoons.

Let’s talk about serving sizes for a second. Do you know what a serving of peanut butter looks like (two tablespoons)?

pb

Not to mention that two actual tablespoons don’t seem to go very far, you’re using up ~210 calories on them depending on the brand you use!

What about your favorite salad dressing? Keep in mind these calorie counts are for one tablespoon.

dressings

Liquid calories — are you accounting for those?

liquids

What about nuts? We’ve already covered nut butters so we might as well cover whole nuts too.

nuts

The best bet, in my opinion, is to buy the 100 calorie prepackaged nuts. This takes the guesswork out of it and makes it just a little harder to over indulge because you would have to grab another packet to keep eating.

100-cal

Even “healthy” foods can lead to weight gain or at a minimum staying the same weight if the portion sizes are not correctly accounted for. If you throw in some salad dressing and one or two beverages per day that don’t necessarily do anything for you nutritionally but do add calories to your total you can keep sliding backwards.

Test yourself. For 2-3 days by keeping a log of everything you eat. Not just the “main items” that are normally tracked. Track liquid calories, calories from condiments, eat actual serving sizes (or keep eating your usual portion and measure it out) and a crazy one you may not have thought of would be breath mints (or similar) some of these mints can have 4-5 calories/mint. If you’re like me, you never have just one. It’s normally like 10 — or whatever the whole pack contains. Just something so simple and small like that could be 40-50 calories you’re not accounting for day to day. If it goes in your mouth, track it. I think you’ll be surprised by how many calories you consume on a regular basis over what you thought you consumed. A couple mistakes with the items listed above every day can be a 3-400 calorie swing. That will throw a hitch in your weight loss quickly.

Reading (and understanding) food labels isn’t fun. It’s not sexy. But, with the vast amounts of processed foods and larger bulk quantities available it is absolutely necessary.