by Kris Parfitt
- The Capitol Hill Times -
My girlfriend and I recently debated smart calories versus empty calories. I don’t see the difference between a bowl of Lucky Charms (in her terms, “empty”) compared to an apple with peanut butter (“smart”). They are both going to be high in calories. Is there really a difference between calories? – Andy
The quality of our calories has an impact on the performance of our bodies. A diet dense in fats and sugars can make us feel lethargic and apathetic, thus impacting our decision-making skills and energy for productivity. On the other hand, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, hydration, healthy proteins and polyunsaturated fats provides energy and alertness, which results in being engaged, inspired, and interested in the world around us, along with feeling good and experiencing optimal body and brain performance.
In the nutritional world, the terms “nutrient-dense foods” (commonly referred to as Smart or Super foods), and “nutrient-poor foods” (also known as empty calories), refer to the quality of the calories found in foods. The term “empty calories” refers to foods that supply energy along with high calories, but little-to-no nutrition. Nutrient-dense foods are high in nutritional values such as vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants, and are commonly low in calories.
If we want to feel good and experience sustainable energy throughout the day, nutrient-dense foods provide us with the vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals needed for high body, brain, and cell performance. The best consumption choices that we can make include foods naturally rich in nutrients, which come in every color of the rainbow: fruits, veggies, lean meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, legumes, unsalted nuts and seeds, for example, and as low-processed as possible.
Eating empty calories requires us to eat more food in order to gain our daily requirements vitamins and mineral. Empty calories include processed foods rich with sugar, fat, and unhealthy oils, which are all high in calories and very low in natural nutrients. And eating empty calories inevitably leads to weight gain, because to acquire the enriched nutrients, we need to eat a lot of empty calories. Empty calories leave us insatiate, and, often, we find ourselves still hungry a few hours later. Studies find that a diet full of empty calories increases the risk of obesity and diabetes.
Let’s put this into perspective: One slice of pure whole wheat bread is approximately 70-75 calories and has, on average, 350 micrograms of natural vitamin E. To receive the same amount of vitamin E from regular enriched white bread, we would need to eat close to five slices. Those extra slices could add up to over 300 calories.
I’m going to use your Lucky Charms example, Andy. Looking at the back of the box, one serving is 3/4 cup of cereal along with 1/2 cup skim milk; together the calories add up to 155. The two combined also provide 170 miligrams of sodium, 22 grams of carbs, 2 grams of fiber, 10 grams of sugar, 10 grams of “other carbs” and 2 grams of protein. There isn’t enough fiber, protein, or natural nutrition in this snack to make it worth the amount of calories consumed. And while the cereal is enriched with all sorts of vitamins and minerals, these nutrients are not naturally found in this food. In order for the body to actually absorb certain vitamins and minerals, the food needs to include or be paired with certain fats and proteins. And let’s face it, Andy, the probability of pouring a bowl of cereal and milk beyond the suggested amount on the back of the box is high, thus the calorie, sodium, carb and sugar amounts will be even more.
Your girlfriend’s suggested snack is one that may not be lower in calories but provides more nutrients for the calories. Half of an apple with a tablespoon of sunflower butter would provide a nutrient-dense food source, and would keep you full for much longer than the bowl of cereal. Substituting sunflower butter for peanut butter saves you an extra 75 calories per tablespoon and a few grams of saturated and monounsaturated fats.
An apple is, on average, 80 calories, and is rich in natural fiber (4 grams), vitamins (A, B, C, D, E and K), and minerals (calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium). One tablespoon of sunflower butter is roughly 70 calories, 4 grams of polysaturated fat (a healthy fat), zero sodium if it’s a non-salted butter, has 4.4 grams of carbs, 3.2 grams of protein, and no fiber or sugar yet is high in natural calcium and iron.
And consider eating just half the apple with a tablespoon of the nut butter and drinking a glass of water. Not only will the calorie consumption be less, the nutrients will still be gained and water satiates the appetite.
The apple and nut butter is more nutrient-rich for 150 calories. While it’s similar in calories to the 3/4 cup bowl of cereal, the cereal is low in fiber, protein and natural nutrients while being high in carbs, sodium, and sugar. Being aware of the quality of our calories will support weight loss or maintenance and better overall health and energy levels. The choice is ours alone to make, but it seems obvious that high nutrient-dense calories is a smarter way to go.
Email your health-related question for Kris to firstname.lastname@example.org.