The dilemma of counting calories

  • Published
  • By Kirsten David
  • Health Promotions Program

Calories are one of the main components we think about when it comes to diet. 

Typically a weight-loss diet would consist of following the traditional “calories in equals calories out,” which means that if we consume less calories than we expend, we will lose weight.  However, there are a couple of issues that make it difficult to count calories as the only way of dieting. 

First, it is hard to know exactly how many calories your body is using each day. Although calculations will give you a number, every day is different, based on fluctuations in activity. 

It is also hard to know exactly how many calories you consume each day. Again, it is something you can estimate, but food labels and portion sizes can be misleading. 

In addition, some foods, such as nuts, are not fully digested, so the number of calories listed may not reflect the actual number of calories utilized by the body.

Many things need to be considered before looking at the calories in a food. It is more important to see where the calories come from and understand what the food or beverage does in your body. 

For example, 250 calories of soda vs. 250 calories of broccoli: They are the same amount of calories but do different things in your body. 

Let’s look at this more closely. The 250 calories is about what you get from a 20-ounce soda. This soda has about 65 grams of sugar, which equates to 16.25 teaspoons. 

Because there is no fiber to help slow down the absorption rate, the sugar is rapidly absorbed into the blood stream. This will spike your blood sugar, which in turn causes your insulin to rise. 

When insulin rises, this increases belly fat storage and inflammation, and can elevate triglycerides, fat cells in your blood, which raises the risk of heart disease.  Insulin also increases appetite because it blocks the appetite-control hormone leptin, possibly causing you to crave more sugar and, over time, creating a “sugar addiction.”  

When your blood sugar fluctuates like this, it will also cause you to feel more tired and you won’t be able to get through your day as efficiently. 

By contrast, 250 calories of broccoli would do something completely different in your body. In that 250 calories are 12 grams of fiber, 13 grams of protein and only 7.5 grams of sugar, which is about 1.5 teaspoons. 

The ratio of fiber to sugar is 8-to-5, which means the high fiber content will cause the broccoli to be more slowly digested, not causing a blood sugar spike.  Therefore, the broccoli would not cause inflammation, belly fat storage or increased triglycerides, and the fiber would fill up your stomach, signaling your brain that you are full. 

Broccoli is also filled with health-benefiting nutrients and vitamins that can help lower cholesterol, reduce inflammation and protect against heart disease. Eating more foods like this will also give you longer-lasting energy to get through your day. 

So, not all calories are created equal. Take time to look at food labels more closely.

Look at sugar and fiber content before glancing at the calories. Make sure it is a lower-sugar food with a good amount of fiber.

A good rule of thumb would be about 5 grams of sugar per serving, and at least 1 gram of fiber for every 10 grams of carbohydrates. The fiber will slow down digestion, make you feel fuller and keep your blood sugar more stable. 

Remember that food isn’t just calories; it contains many ingredients that have set instructions on what to do in our bodies. Understanding those instructions is the first step into having a nutritionally adequate diet for health and longevity.

Kirsten David is the Kirtland Air Force Base dietician. She can be reached at “Healthier Life” appears on the third Thursday of the month.