Whether you’re trying to lose, gain or maintain your weight, it’s all a question of your calorie intake. The question is are all calories created equal? Is there such a thing as good calories?
What is a calorie actually?
Calories are the physical units for measuring heat and energy. The nutritional energy contained in fat, protein and carbohydrates is expressed in kilocalories (kcal or Cal) and makes up your daily caloric intake. Our bodies need the energy provided by these three macronutrients in order to function properly.
Calorie intake is key
The formula is simple: if you consume fewer calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight. In order to burn 1 kg (2.2 lb) of fat, you need to burn about 7,000 Cal. What if you consume more calories than you burn? The consequence is weight gain. In this case, the ratio of carbs, protein, and fat in your daily caloric intake is irrelevant. Those ratios do, however, determine how you feel, or whether you’ll be fighting with cravings two hours after mealtime.
Good calories vs. bad calories
Imagine for a moment if you nourished yourself only with pure sugar. If you didn’t consume more calories in sugar than you expended, your weight would remain the same. What would happen to your body though? First, you’d be suffering from some significant nutrient deficits, and therefore your body would not be able to maintain proper functioning. After all, sucrose doesn’t actually provide you with any valuable nutrients. The effects aren’t only noticeable in your general health, but also in the appearance of your skin and the functioning of your immune system.
(healthy) food consists of much more than just calories. More importantly, they provide us with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. These also determine how full you feel after eating.
Let’s compare the calories in some common foods and drinks:
So which are the good calories and which are the bad? There are some basic guidelines to get you on the right track. Start by adjusting your diet away from the standard “Western”, which includes a lot of meat, fat, sugar, and processed foods. Swap out animal products – often high in saturated fats – for plant-based foods.
If you feel like making a bigger change, switch to a vegan diet and see how it makes you feel. Plant-based foods are packed with good calories and nutrients. You certainly don’t have to give up meat entirely if that doesn’t feel right for you. Try mixing things up with new foods and recipes to ensure variety in your meals. Studies show that eating a whole-grain diet high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish, and nuts can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, inflammation, and depression.(1,2)
The “bad” calories can be found in high-sugar foods or fast food, which follow exactly the opposite principle. They offer you almost no nutrients, but a ton of empty calories. If you’re trying to maintain your weight, you’ll have to pay attention to your “bad” calorie intake. They only make you feel full temporarily, but usually lead to cravings shortly after.
Try to avoid thinking of food in terms of “bad” or “good” though. Listen to your body, do what feels right. If you’re craving some French fries, go for it. Don’t punish yourself afterwards. Just be aware of how different foods make you feel. If you can tune into this, you will start reaching for a handful of almonds over a handful of gummy bears.