It's Not the Calories That Matter Most

Building Block #1: Focus on eating nutrient dense foods rather than counting calories.

Calories. Calories. Calories. We are bombarded with calorie propaganda from the moment we wake. When did we forget that eating was supposed to be an enjoyable experience? That it’s nourishment that we’re after – and it can be wonderfully satisfying especially when we gather around a table with family and friends? It might seem easier to blame all of our woes on something as simple as a calorie since it may be a bit easier to control one element without thinking more about the whole. But you may be surprised to learn that one calorie isn’t like the next. It’s actually the ‘density’ of the calorie that can make a tremendous difference in our health and our overall wellbeing.

When it comes to food, you may, like many others, have developed an unfortunate habit of the mental calorie checklist … or perhaps you even have an app on your phone that automates it for you. We tabulate: Breakfast, 300. Lunch, 450. And then you barter with yourself as the day wears on: let’s see … if my afternoon snack is 150, should I instead save those calories for a pre-dinner cocktail? Or maybe I’ll have both and forgoe dinner? And so it goes.

If you’re keeping tabs on calories, you’re not alone — the majority of us have at least dabbled in this time-consuming, inaccurate-at-best pastime. It’s exhausting … and you mean we could be wasting our time? Yikes! That is so not good because there already aren’t enough hours in the day!

Calories in versus calories out has become the mantra by which we strive to predict weight gain and weight loss. But the challenge with this approach is that counting calories typically leads to cutting calories which, at face value, might seem a good thing. In actuality, the combination can be damaging to both your waistline and your health.

OK, so we have your attention, right? When you understand that it is more about physiology than the lowly calorie, it all begins to come into focus. When you dramatically lower caloric intake, your body interprets it as starvation—a stress situation—and a number of things happen. Cortisol production is initiated, which goes to work promoting fat storage, depressing the immune system, and creating fatigue; the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin increases, which makes you want to eat more; and the active thyroid hormone T3 is deactivated, causing the production of Reverse T3, which binds to certain receptor sites and essentially prevents your metabolism from turning on. If that’s not enough of a wake-up call to rethink an approach to diet, consider that when you focus on calories everything becomes about the numbers rather than the nutrition. In the end, you can end up losing out on many key vitamins and minerals.

That packaged, highly processed ‘snack’ that boasts only 100 Calories seems like a great choice from the calorie perspective. And, from a calorie perspective, you might choose that over the apple that comes in at about the same amount of calories. But that apple also delivers Vitamin C, folate, fiber, potassium, Vitamin B6, thiamin, and riboflavin. The ‘choice’ takes on a new meaning! Those processed “empty calorie” foods are a quick burn and have little or nothing to add to nourish our cells. By focusing instead on nutrient-rich vegetables, healthy fats, whole grains and lean proteins, we provide the well-rounded support our bodies need.

It’s time to let nutrients take center stage again rather than calories alone. If we choose foods that give us a more nutrition per calorie that’s when it all starts to come together.   We’ll approach food from a healthier perspective and we’ll begin to enjoy mealtime once again!

So think nutrient density the next time you have a choice. Once we give up all the time we spend calculating calories, there’s time to get creative in the kitchen with meals that really count in the best way!

Here's a recipe to get you started!

Flavorful, Satisfying and Nourshing Split Pea Soup

Annette Shafer
Annette Shafer