Are all calories created equal?

From Nicholas Cage movies to prerequisite discussions in social studies classes, the Declaration of Independence is one of the most iconic documents of American culture. Perhaps the most memorable component of this historic piece, besides John Hancock’s outsized signature, is a phrase coined by Thomas Jefferson – “All men are created equal.” (Sorry to go all history geek on you; I promise there won’t be a multiple choice test later.)  That sentiment has been amended over time to include women and people of all races, religions and backgrounds. But people aside, there’s one thing that will never be equal, no matter how hard brand marketers try – calories.

Like a little black dress or string of pearls, products with reduced calories never go out of fashion. Take one bite of their goods and suddenly you’ll have more pep in your step, be able to wear a bikini to the beach and perhaps broker world peace (okay, the advertisements haven’t made that claim yet, but I’m sure it’s on the horizon).  That lowered calorie count doesn’t mean much though once the food is processed by the body. Skimp on the nutritional value and you aren’t doing yourself any favors.

Certified Integrative Nutritionist Cheryl Howlin, BS, CHHC, illustrates this point using the example of a Nabisco Cookie Snack Pack and a banana, which both contain 100 calories.  “The difference lies in how these foods are assimilated into the body,” notes Cheryl.  “Those cookies are comprised primarily of  processed and refined carbohydrates that are very quickly digested into the body, raise blood sugar and within one hour produces a sense of hunger for more food.  Full of essential vitamins and minerals, the banana is processed much slower, its nutrients used by the body as proper fuel for both physical and mental tasks.”

When it comes to calories, individuals all too often just look at caloric math and nothing else.  That certainly was the case with my yo-yo dieting past. During my senior year in high school, I drastically cut calories without any regard for nutrition. Lunch every day was a scoop of ice cream, which ultimately made it hard to stay awake during afternoon classes.  As soon as I started eating normal quantities of food again, the lost pounds reappeared and brought friends along for the ride. Yeah, the good old days.

What are the most important nutritional considerations in your diet?  Are calories king or do other factors have equal or greater importance?



  1. faye miller says:

    I don`t count calories just eat in moderation.

  2. Make it a lot easier, doesn’t it? :)

  3. I know why people get confused. Besides conflicting information, it depends on the way people word and perceive their goals. If the goal is strictly weight loss, a kcal is a kcal. If the goal is weight loss AND good health, not all kcals are created equal. At the extreme, I’ve seen skinny women in Hollywood who want to be famous. They know they have to be extremely skinny. Health doesn’t matter – looks & weight do. So they “eat” cigarettes as food. Yup, they smoke instead of eating. This is my long way of saying “What you eat matters more than the kcal count.” And I like how you brought up the fact that food is not the same once it’s inside your body. sigh…..

    • Alexandra, the issue of calories is complicated, which is why I wrote this post. You’re right – it does depend on what your goals are. People who subsist on cigarettes or alcohol instead of food to look thin now are going to feel awful as they age, if they don’t already. My perspective certainly became longer term as I’ve gotten older (this is the part where you’re supposed to protest at how young I appear, no really :)) and I hope more people realize that nutrition matters a heck of a lot more than caloric content!

  4. No calorie counting here either. But sure helps to know how certain foods can knock out hunger better than others — even with the same caloric content.

    For healthy living, it seems to me how much you MOVE is even more important than how much you EAT.

    And, your longer term perspective … how could you possibly have one when you’re only 32?!?

    Jai Ho!

    • Well MB, you get the favorite comment of the year award for even jokingly mentioning that I’m 32 and I’m sure you look even younger! Moving is just as important as nutrition – it’s hard to think of those factors individually and not as one package deal in my mind. But no matter how active I am – and I enjoy cardio and strength training – if my eating isn’t mindful I don’t get the results I desire. Hence I’m even more concerned about nutrition than ever before. :)

  5. My understanding is that this is exactly why WW changed its program and made fruit “free.”

    • Smart call on the part of the WW planners so people won’t sacrifice fruit for a low cal treat that does nothing for their nutrition!