Why Calorie Counting & “Diet” Foods Aren’t Ideal

The breakfast I’m enjoying as I write this has around 250 calories.

This could mean that I’m eating a poptart and some orange juice, 1 serving of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, a donut, or a bowl of oatmeal made with milk.

Calories don’t mean anything.

“250 calories” does not thoroughly explain how my body will respond to the food I’m giving it, yet for so many people, calories are the focus.

Calories are simply a measure of energy, and when we’re talking about food, they represent the amount of energy stored in a food.  Calorie counting as a meal plan suggests that all calories are equal, but our bodies do not at all think that. Our bodies are much more concerned about the nutrients and carb/protein/fat ratios in food, so perhaps we should be, too. It just makes sense to fuel our bodies with attention to how they react to fuel, don’t you think?

Most sources say that our bodies require around 25% of our calories to come from fat, 45% from carbohydrates, and 30% from protein (or close to these ranges). But that’s still “calories from,” as opposed to “grams of”. That’s almost like saying, “to build this house, I need 500 pounds of wood, 30 pounds of nails, and 3 pounds of hammers.” Yes, those items can be measured by their weight, but that’s not really how their measurements are best understood.  I suppose it’s easier to talk about calories since we’re all used to it, but I just think that talking about calories is keeping us from understanding food. 

How to calories synch up with fat, protein, and carbohydrates? 1 gram of fat provides 9 calories of energy, 1 gram of protein provides 4 calories of energy, and 1 gram of carbohydrates provides 4 calories of energy. If you’d like to learn more about why we require protein, fat, and carbs to live, check out this post. 

Since fat contributes 9 calories per gram, it’s tempting for food manufacturers to cut it out when they’re trying to create lower calorie food. But we need fat.

Calories are the focus in terms of how healthy foods are marketed — food companies play to those who count calories, and, from a advertising standpoint, that makes total sense — most people don’t know about calorie source ratios, but they’re used to hearing about the number of calories. Vicious cycle ensues.

Take Yoplait, for example. Their ads are all about decadence with so few calories–they market themselves as health-conscious and dieter-friendly (“why, yes, I always have boston creme pie in my fridge!–and I’ve lost weight!”). So let’s take a look at the calorie sources of standard yoplait-light yogurt (or really any light yogurt), and see if it’s offering our bodies what they need to be healthy.

Here’s a chart of calorie-sources, looking at 8 oz servings of 3 different types of yogurt (keep in mind that most individual packs of yogurt are sold in 6 oz servings, which is a lot of what allows for 100 calorie yogurt). The plain yogurt numbers are from caloriecount.com, if you’re curious, and the yoplait ones are from the yoplait site.ImageFirst off, notice that the calorie counts for all of these yogurts are pretty comparable for 8 oz servings. For the calorie-conscious, all of these would be just about the same food. But which one holds best to the ideal fat:carb:protein percentages (around 25%:45%:35%)? The Low-fat Plain Yogurt (with the highest number of calories) is just about right on the money, while the “diet friendly” yoplait isn’t even close. The whole milk yogurt, while it has fewer calories than the low-fat yogurt, has a higher percentage of fat than we need, but if the rest of the meal plan compensates for that, it could be a good choice.

Nobody is in charge of the advertising plans for Low-fat Plain Yogurt, though, so folks who go to the grocery store with intentions to buy healthy things grab the Yoplait. Score 1 for the food manufacturer!

We need to eat fat to live. We don’t need to eat processed sugars to live. But fat is perceived negatively on a nutrition label. It’s easy to disguise added sugar on a nutrition label, since carbohydrates can come from either complex, fibrous grainy things or from simple sugars.  For these reasons, among many others, “diet” and “low calorie” foods are often fat free and sugar dense, thus ultimately not quality additions to one’s meal plan.

We unknowingly are eating nonsensical ratios of fats, carbs, and proteins, ultimately not giving our bodies what they need to be healthy — it’s easy to fall into the low calorie = healthy trap. Simple calorie counting and low-fat/diet food doesn’t really have a place in a healthful diet because neither of these things consider or account for the needs of our bodies. This is a hard focus to change. I just think we should know how to make our bodies work. And I don’t think it should be so hard to figure it out.

I do hope that this post has not offended anyone who has found success through calorie counting — I know there are plenty of programs that detail calorie counting in a well-thought-out way, and I simply want everyone to find ways to eat healthfully, longterm.


2 Comments to “Why Calorie Counting & “Diet” Foods Aren’t Ideal”

  1. As you know, I’m nuitrionally ignorant, so this post really clarified a lot of issues for me. Thanks a lot!!!! (And I promise I”ll stop Gchatting you with dumb questions).

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