If you’re like many astute shoppers who are trying to be mindful of their calorie intake, especially if you’re one for counting calories, the first thing you look at when you pick up a product might be the label on the back. What follows is a series of numbers, such as calories, total fat and total carbs, that you may or may not understand completely, but that you “know” should be lower rather than higher.
And while this awareness is imperative from the standpoint of making something better (you can’t improve your nutrition if you’re not aware that you need to in the first place), you may be hurting yourself more by taking your eyes straight to such numbers as calories or fats.
This isn’t a popular position to take. That’s because we’ve been brainwashed into thinking a calorie is a calorie. After all, who wouldn’t rather eat 100 calories of ice cream over 100 calories of broccoli if the end result is the same?
My hope is, by the end of this article you will be firmly on the side that understands and believes that nutrient value is better than calorie value, and that there are much more important things to pay attention to on a food label than the macro breakdown.
To kick us off, let’s continue this discussion about “a calorie is a calorie” so we can see exactly why this mindset is causing you to make poor decisions in your nutrition.
Where Counting Calories Came From
Because we’ve been told to believe that one calorie equals another calorie for so long, it’s hard to imagine that this concept isn’t true. And yet, when you start to dig into the research of how food is actually processed in the body, you can see that this myth has holes all over it.
You see, when scientists came up with the idea of the “calorie” in the first place, it was simply a way to measure how much “energy” a certain food held (and this is still all a calorie measures, BTW). Then, to help further understand foods and their components, scientists’ broke foods down even further to macronutrients (and also micronutrients, which we won’t discuss much here).
By breaking foods into macronutrients, scientists found that certain macros had more calories than others. For instance, fats contain the highest number of calories per unit of size, where carbs and proteins contain the same number of calories.
It was this breaking down of foods into parts that eventually led to the “calorie is a calorie” myth. Because when scientists broke apart the foods into macros, they noticed that the macros all contained calories of their own which simply burned as energy…at least that’s how it works in a test lab.
The Human Body is NOT a Vacuum
This, of course, was important research because it helped us to understand what foods were made of. However, this also created an apparent conflict of interest when it comes to a human digesting food.
You see, when foods are tested in a lab, they’re essentially broken down into their individual parts, then put in a vacuum to see how they react. The issue is, the human body is NOT a vacuum. In other words, when you eat a food that contains carbs, fats, and proteins, your body doesn’t say “okay, let’s breakdown this food apart, then digest the protein, then digest the carbs, and finally digest the fat”.
Actually, it’s quite the opposite. When you eat ANY food, the body digests it as a whole. And, considering some foods contain more protein or carbs or fats than others, all foods will digest differently based on their macro components.
Needless to say, this means that those sugar-laden 100 calorie packs of Oreos will digest much quicker and much differently than the fiber-rich 100 calorie apple filled with vitamins and minerals.
3 Things to Pay Attention INSTEAD of Calories
It’s important to understand that I’m not overlooking the progress that anybody has made by counting calories. There are many weight loss programs that have achieved tremendous success through calorie counting.
However, if you’re searching for a nutritional path that doesn’t require you to pay attention to those pesky numbers on the back of the box, there are a few simple rules you can follow instead to help guide you during your next grocery store trip:
#1) Look at the ingredient list FIRST
While we’ve been conditioned to believe that the daily value panel is the most important part of the package, this Is far from the truth. If you really want to improve your nutrition, look at the ingredient list before anything else.
To help you understand why, I first want to tell you what you should be looking at as far as ingredients go:
The first thing to check for in the ingredient list is the number of ingredients. Generally speaking, if the product has more than about 3-5 ingredients, it should be a “NO-GO!” on you list.
There are a few exceptions to this rule. Some protein bars, for instance, have a decent nutrient value without the addition of too much added sugar. However, for the most part, almost all products that exceed this limit can be eliminated.
Second, once you’ve eliminated products based on the number of ingredients, the next thing you should look at is the TYPE of ingredients. There are a few types of ingredients you want to avoid 99% of the time. That’s anything that falls into the category of “sugar”. There are approximately 60 names that sugar can go by. This includes high fructose corn syrup, molasses, agave nectar, cane sugar, fructose, evaporated cane juice and so on.
Other than sugars, you want to avoid anything that says “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated”. These oils have been processed in such a way that they create trans fats, which have been directly linked to heart disease.
#2) Look at the “Sugars” SECOND
Notice that I have said nothing about looking at calories, fats, or carbs. I have only mentioned that you need to avoid certain ingredients, namely sugar, and then see how much sugar is actually in a serving of the food. That’s because, if anything has been linked to chronic disease, it is SUGAR!
A good rule to follow here is, if a serving of the product contains more than 7g of sugar, then put it back on the shelf. Of course, if you’re following the rule above, you shouldn’t run into this issue. However, I know some of you will ignore that rule and move to this next step.
I will warn you, if you ignore steps #1 and #2 and continue to buy sugar-laden products, do not be surprised when you’re calorie counting is all for not. A calorie is not a calorie, and sugar is the ultimate culprit when it comes to blocking weight loss and the development of chronic issues.
#3) When in doubt, buy WHOLE FOODS
Of course, if you want to make your life super easy, you could simply decide to purchase only whole foods from now on. I know this would be challenging for many of you. But it would save you from many of your health woes moving forward.
Just to clarify, a whole food is anything that is recognizable as…well…FOOD. For instance, an apple is a whole food, where Cheez-its are not. The apple is recognizable is a food by any culture on earth. The Cheez-it, on the other hand, is a food-like substance. It would NOT be recognizable as food around the world.
And, guess what? I won’t restrict the amount of whole foods you can eat, either. That’s because, as you put more whole foods into your diet, you’ll see that they are self-restricting in nature. In other words, an apple will fill you up much more than a bag of 100 calorie Oreos.
If you follow these simple steps, there is NO DOUBT in my mind that you will reap the benefits of eating a more nutritious diet. You’ll feel better. You’ll have more energy. You’ll improve your longevity. And you’ll lose weight. So quit choosing those food-like substances and start choosing your health!