The Skinny on Calories

Why not all calories are created equal

Admit it. When you read a nutritional table, it’s probably the first thing you look at. But calories aren’t the only number that counts. The fact is, not all calories are created equal – it all depends on where they come from. A 500-calorie chocolate bar feels worlds apart from a 500-calorie salad…and your body reacts to them in totally different ways, too.

It’s what’s inside that counts

Our bodies process varying foods in different ways. Protein helps build and maintain muscle, fats provide energy and help absorb vitamins, and carbohydrates provide fuel. On the other hand, simple sugars, from processed foods like white flour, give you “empty” calories with little to no added benefit to your body.

How slow can you go?

As a rule of thumb, the slower you digest something…the longer you stay feeling full. The simple carbs in a can of soda or processed white flours are digested at light speed, meaning you get hungry again in no time. Ever “accidentally” eat a whole bag of chips, then find yourself starving again 20 minutes later? You’re not the only one! And now you know why.

If you’re hoping to feel full and satiated between meals, make sure there’s some protein on your plate. Whether it comes from beans, legumes, nuts or animal products, we digest protein much slower than carbs. Talk about a lunch hour MVP.

The slowest to digest? Fats. That’s right…if you’re trying to make it from your lunch hour to dinner time, you should make sure there are some fabulous fats in the mix. Look for foods rich in healthy fats, such as nuts, avocados and fish. Of course, a little goes a long way, as they are extremely calorie-dense. But luckily, they’re also super filling, so it’s hard to overdo it.

In a perfect world, your calories would come from a mix of all these sources – high in protein and fat, and low in simple sugars. But if you’re just looking at your calorie count, you aren’t getting the full picture.

High energy

Another tricky thing about calorie counts? They aren’t exactly accurate. When you factor in the energy we use to digest foods, calorie numbers are actually a lot lower than they seem. For example, a study at the USDA found that when the average person eats almonds, they end up getting just 128 calories per serving – not the 170 calories listed on the label.

And it doesn’t end there. Calorie numbers can vary wildly even within the same type of food, depending on how it’s been grown, when it was harvested and how it was prepared. Generally speaking, the more a food has been processed or cooked, the quicker it is to digest and the higher in calories it is.

Confused yet? It’s definitely not simple. Which is why counting calories is not the secret to a healthy weight or a nutritious diet. The more important thing to look at is where those calories come from. With the right balance of protein, fiber and healthy fats, it’s hard to go wrong.