Which one really matters more?
A calorie is a calorie, right?! Wrong. In the world of nutrition we have come to accept that not all calories are created equal. So, let’s break down why that is and talk about the best sources of calories.
Basically, when talking about quality of calories, the thing that matters most is nutrient content. The more naturally occurring nutrients, the better something is for you. Take a simple cup of strawberries for example. That’s about 50 calories. There are so many nutrients packed into those strawberries that your body can readily use, that will interact with other nutrients in your body, and that will provide you with fuel and fiber. Now, let’s take 2.5 strawberry candies as another example. Sure, they’ll give you about 50 calories as well, but the nutritional value? Pretty much 0. There are no quality nutrients to be found that your body happily wants to use. The other factors to consider in the candies are the artificial ingredients, colors, and flavors and the quality of fuel they provide. There is no beneficial impact of artificial ingredients on your system, and the fuel provided by the candies will last little to no time at all. To summarize: You’re better off with the strawberries, and you get to eat more of them, so that’s just an added bonus.
Yes, calories are important to understand, but no, I don’t think you need to count them. Counting calories is a tedious process and one that can start to drive you crazy. Also, I think there can be some negative feedback involved when you look at a handful of nuts and get scared by the number of calories you’re about to consume- even though they are super nutritious.
To get a rough idea of where you stand calorically on a given day, here’s what I recommend. Use an app like My Fitness Pal for a week, plug in all of your meals, snacks and beverages and log your workouts. See how many calories you net each day to get an idea of what your daily routine costs you in the calorie department. Then, adjust accordingly to end up in the healthy range you need to be. Once you have found your sweet spot, you’ll know what it feels like to eat that amount each day, so just go with it. Chances are, you’ll be in a healthy range and you won’t have to worry about counting anymore. Maybe some days you’ll have a little bit more, and other days a little bit less, but that’s ok. That way, you can start to focus on the quality of what your eating rather than the quantity.
Eat enough, but not too much.
So helpful, right?! But seriously, you want to make sure you eat enough to fuel your body and keep your metabolism fired up, but you don’t want to overdo it and consume more calories than you can burn. The number of calories that is right for you depends on a number of factors- age, height, gender, activity level, goals, your metabolism, and the list goes on- so it is hard to give a specific amount of food that is right for everyone. My advice: listen to your body. Eat until you are satisfied, but not overly full. If you are still hungry after your meal, have a healthy snack, and then add more protein, veggies, or fat to your meal the next time around.
Real food is always the answer.
When thinking about consuming quality calories, always look for real food. Here are a few ways to spot if something is real: you could find it naturally occurring in nature, it came from the ground or it had a mother, it was alive at one point, it has no ingredient list, it would go bad if you let it sit out for a few days. That’s the real stuff. Here are a few ways to spot something that may not be real: it comes in a prepackaged box or bag, you would never find it growing in nature, it can sit on your shelf for weeks/months/years and never go bad, it has a long ingredient list, it has been processed, artificial ingredients, colors, and/or preservatives have been added to maintain freshness. That’s the stuff to avoid.
Focus on filling your belly and fueling your body with quality calories, and you will find yourself worrying much less about the quantity of calories you are consuming each day. What a relief.