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Calorie Confusion

May 23, 2012

I pass this church on my way to and from my office, and I always notice the catchy sayings on its marquee. Someone obviously puts quite a bit of thought into them. As a nutrition educator, I was particularly engaged by this one. It’s very hard to get people to understand calories, which this marquee makes abundantly clear.

What’s wrong with the saying? Basically, it follows the common misconception that calories are your enemy. Women, in particular, have been taught to think this.

A calorie is simply a unit of energy. YOU NEED CALORIES! Yes, based on your weight and level of physical activity, you need a certain number of calories each day to fuel all your bodily processes. For example, if I did nothing but lie in bed all day, I would still need about 1,100 calories to support my bodily functions, including breathing, digestion and elimination. Because I do more than lie in bed – I actually work and take walks and do some gardening and go up and down stairs – and because I want to maintain my current weight, I need between 1,700 and 1,800 calories each and every day. If I wanted to lose weight, I would shave some calories off each day. Conventional wisdom tells us that by reducing your caloric intake by 500 calories a day – or doing a combo of reducing calories and increasing activity – you can safely lose 1 pound a week.

But that’s not the end of the story on calories. Weight management is not just a simple matter of “calories in, calories out,” although many traditional nutritionists will tell you it is. You need to pay attention to the quality of the calories you’re eating.

Empty calories are found in foods such as processed and fast foods, sodas, baked goods and snacks. They do nothing for your body, and they bring with them the baggage of added sodium and sugar, which can do severe damage to your health. Empty calories do not support weight management over the long term.

Nutrient-dense calories are found in whole foods such as fruits and vegetables, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and lean meat. These calories fuel your body and do not contribute to creating disease. If you stick mostly with whole foods, you will lose weight naturally and keep it off. I found that by adjusting my diet over the past four months so that I am eating whole foods almost exclusively, I lost 5 pounds – and I didn’t even mean to! How great would it be if you never had to “go on a diet” again?

So, with all respect, the church’s sign doesn’t make sense. Food that has no calories doesn’t fuel your body, so it’s as if they’re really saying food for the soul has no value.

A better sign would read “Food for the soul is nutrient-dense,” which would mean it’s packed with the good stuff!

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