Do Calories Matter?

As a Dietitian, I’m used to friends and family coming to me with their nutrition concerns. Recently, a friend told me, quite dismayed, that her favorite quinoa bowl contains over 1,000 calories.  Looking rather confused, she asked, “Isn’t quinoa healthy?” I told her that the amount of calories in a food doesn’t determine its nutritional value. Instead, nutrient density should determine the health value of a food.


“Nutrient density” is not a glamorous term that is thrown around as often as “healthy”, but it’s a term that people should definitely understand.  It means the amount of nutrients, like vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, packed into each calorie.  More nutrient dense foods have more nutrients per calorie than less nutrient dense foods.  For example, 70 calories of a sweet potato has more nutrients–Vitamin A, fiber, Vitamin C–than 70 calories of white bread.  Therefore, sweet potatoes would be considered a more nutrient dense food than white bread. If you think the nutrient dense foods are just the boring low calorie fruits and vegetables, think again! Several high calorie foods are quite nutrient dense, such as nuts, olive oil, avocados, and fatty fish.  These healthy fats are packed with essential fatty acids, aka omega-3 and omega-6, which may lower blood pressure and triglycerides, may prevent inflammation, and could prevent heart disease. Feel free to ditch the calorie concerns when digging into these high fat foods–your heart will thank you!

Because nutrients contribute to many important bodily functions, eating a nutrient dense diet is usually more beneficial than following a restricted calorie diet. Yet, there are special cases when calorie-counting may, well, count. Here are three scenarios when calorie counting has a place:

  • You’re trying to lose a significant amount of weight: The bottom line for weight loss is that calories burned must outweigh calories consumed.  This is a hard and steady rule without much flexibility.  But, how many calories does one person have to omit in order to lose some weight? It’s a pretty well known myth that for every 3,500 calories you cut, you lose 1 pound. While this may work for those hoping to lose a few pounds, it does not hold true for individuals trying to lose a significant amount of weight over a long period of time. A person’s calorie requirements decrease as they lose weight, making the 3,500 calorie rule null and void.  Obviously, this makes planning out caloric intake for weight loss very difficult.  Luckily, a visit to a Registered Dietitian (RD) can help! An RD can calculate your individual calorie needs and counsel you on the correct food choices to meet these needs.  The recommended foods will most likely be more nutrient dense foods, but with caloric restrictions. Foods that are more nutrient dense are generally lower in calories, higher in protein, and higher in fiber.  That’s the perfect recipe for weight loss!
  • You’re training for an intense athletic event: Athletes have much higher caloric requirements than non-athletes due to the amount of calories they burn in a normal day. This may seem like a no brainer, but plenty of athletes do not refuel properly and unintentionally lose weight. Unfortunately, there is no standard formula to determine the amount of extra calories an athlete may need.  Calorie needs depend on many factors, such as gender, weight, age, activity level, weight goals, level of exertion and hydration status.  One of the main culprits for weight loss during athletic activity is dehydration.  Failing to replace fluid losses causes a rapid drop in body weight, which leads to a tired feeling and an adverse effect on athletic performance. To determine if dehydration and water losses have occurred, an athlete should weigh themselves before and after an athletic event.  If more than 1 pound is lost, more fluids are needed. It’s important for athletes to weigh themselves regularly and work with a Sports Dietitian to determine their calorie, nutrient and hydration needs.
  • You’re pregnant: Everyone knows the age old expression, “I’m eating for two”.  It is essential for pregnant women to consume more calories than non-pregnant women, but probably not as many as you think.  No extra calories are required during the first trimester of pregnancy. The second trimester requires an extra 300 calories and the third trimester requires an extra 450 calories beyond a normal diet. It is essential to eat a sufficient amount of calories during pregnancy for normal fetal growth, but extra weight gain could have negative side effects like gestational diabetes, gestational hypertension, and birth defects.

For the majority of people, calorie counting is not necessary and may drive you crazy.  Focus on choosing foods that are more nutrient dense.  A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if that food came from the earth or was processed in a factory.  If it’s mother nature’s bounty, there’s a good chance that it’s more nutrient dense.




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