Calories: Health Beyond Numbers


If you're a part of the adult (or even teenage) population in North America, we can almost guarantee that you've heard these words: 

"Actually, do you have low calorie ice cream? I'm eating healthy this month..."

And how many times have you thought that such a magical product sounds too good to be true. How is it possible that ice cream can be healthy? Herein lies the problem in reasoning that so many of us suffer from. The concept of equating a low calorie count to a healthy diet is not only incorrect, but dangerously misleading.

Over the last decade, we have been increasingly bombarded with new health and food products and, in the recent years, we have jumped on this trend to "market" the specific caloric values of the foods we consume. From flashy marketing on packaged products to fast food menus, calories have become the centre of attention with regards to labeling. By giving so much importance to the caloric value of food, we have indirectly pushed people to assume that all calories are the same. With high hopes, we expect that by simply showing the calorie counts, it will promote healthier choices. Sadly, both of these concepts were debunked by experts years ago. 



Let us be straightforward and honest: yes, calories do matter, but it should never be the "go to" or the only factor for why you choose to eat one food. Food is more than just calories! Our bodies need specific micronutrients and macronutrients, to be "healthy" and fully functional. 

Micronutrients: nutrients that are required in very little amounts, and they are essentially vitamins and minerals. All the vitamins and minerals have different roles which are vital for your health. 

Macronutrients: nutrients that are required in larger amounts because they provide energy. Hence why a "calorie" is a unit of energy. 

8 Dorito chips (100 calories) or 25 medium strawberries (100 calories)  Source: Tiny and Full

8 Dorito chips (100 calories) or 25 medium strawberries (100 calories)

Source: Tiny and Full

So, our bodies get energy from carbohydrates, fats, and proteins; and each of these macronutrients is broken down differently, affects our bodies differently, and provide different amounts of energy. For instance, fat is broken down into separate compounds for our body to store and use. It also provides more energy (9 calories per gram consumed), while carbohydrates provide less energy (4 calories per gram consumed). Meaning if you consume 20 grams of fat, you're getting around 180 calories and it would take 45 grams of carbohydrates to provide with 180 calories. If we take a look at two different meals with the same caloric value, it is possible that they differ in quantity but they differ also in quality. Not only does the low energy density meal provide more quantity, but it also offers more quality nutrients that your body can absorb and utilize efficiently. 



Furthermore, it is vital to understand that not all carbohydrates, fats, or proteins are created equally; just like all calories are not the same. Meaning carbohydrates coming from ice cream versus an apple have different effects on your body; physiologically, psychologically, and hormonally, because they differ in chemical composition. 
So why does having calories make it harder to make healthier choices? Simply looking at calories can be misleading and consumers can possibly avoid quality nutritious foods because they have more calories. In addition, the folks who would truly benefit from nutritional information when eating out, are not interested or are being misled.



This step to make caloric information available is not a real solution to overcome issues of obesity and chronic disease. It's merely a trend, especially when no preliminary efforts are being made to educate the mass about the basics of proper nutrition. So go ahead and get yourself that creamy, delicious treat occasionally; food is more than just a source of nutrients. We have many emotional, social, and cultural ties to the food we eat! So keep your guilty pleasures, no one is judging! But keep in mind that longterm health is promoted by a well-balanced diet, all year-round, which means incorporating quality foods and not just eating "low" caloric foods.

Health Beyond Numbers
Branavan Tharmarajah