Part of my job as Snap Kitchen’s Lead Registered (and Realist) Dietitian is to help demystify nutrition questions, myths, and trends. Something I’m asked about pretty frequently is the importance, or lack thereof, of calories. In the clutter that characterizes today’s conversations about health and wellness, the idea of energy balance (calories in vs. calories out) provides some welcomed clarity. And while the short answer to the subject in question is “yes,” the truer answer is, “yes, but it’s not quite as simple as nutrition labels and most doctors, trainers, or other health care professionals make it out to be.”
Let’s first discuss the subject in its usual context: fat loss. The common calculation of “calories in – calories out” entirely overlooks other factors like digestion, absorption, metabolism, hormonal interplay, the effect of the microbiome, and other individual physiological aspects. It also does nothing to account for how calories in may actually affect calories out, and vice versa. Contrary to widespread understanding, these variables are somewhat dependent on, not totally independent of, one another. Consider how quickly you’re hungry for another meal after eating cereal for breakfast instead of your usual scrambled eggs, or how your appetite increases after a workout. And I’ll be the first to say that the previous sentence, too, is overly simplified! In truth, we all digest, absorb, and metabolize foods differently. (Yes, friend who can eat endlessly without gaining a pound, we’re looking at you here.)
The other side of the calorie coin is the incomplete picture it paints about one’s diet (diet in this context meaning normal food intake). The act of counting calories can tell you to some approximate degree about the quantity of your diet, but it does very little to describe the quality. The oversimplification assumes that 500 calories (about 3.5 cans) of sugary soda = 500 calories (nearly 17 cups) of broccoli, which I think we can all agree is an alternative fact. You see, gulping down a high sugar soda floods your liver with fructose, increases inflammation, and leads to an insulin spiking response that encourages fat storage. And soda is otherwise nutritionally devoid. Broccoli, on the other hand, is loaded with phytonutrients like vitamin K, vitamin C, chromium and folate, plus glucosinolates that offer anti-inflammatory, protective benefits. Plus it’s high volume and nutrient dense, so your calorie or portion control is essentially built in.
So why even bother with calories, then? So glad you asked! Energy balance (and its many factors) does, in the end, affect changes in weight and/or body composition. But because those aforementioned factors are so individual, it will likely take some self-experimentation beyond a BMR calculator, food diary, and nutrition facts panel to figure out what’s best for you. We want to make it as easy for you as possible to make your best choice by fully labeling & sizing our meals (smalls = 200-350 calories; mediums = 300-450 calories; large = 400-700 calories), but your body will tell you what it needs better than any label can.
So with all of that said, I hope you feel some sense of freedom from any prescriptive calorie goal– the semi-arbitrary number that dictates whether you eat the wholesome snack you’re hungry for, or instead force yourself to wait until dinner, stomach grumbling all the while. The amount of food you eat is indeed important, but filling your day with real, nutritious, wholesome foods allows your strong, smart, incredibly adaptive body to function as it should.
Have other questions you’d like me to answer on the blog? Leave them in the comments below!
Claire Siegel, RDN