Calories: Quantity or Quality?

May 19, 2018

Calories. Those little ethereal, mystical creatures buzzing around in our food, then somehow burning in our workouts, and making some sort of difference in our weight loss or gain or not, depending on where you stand.


Solving the mystery of what a calorie actually is, is the first step. Once you develop an understanding of what a calorie is and how many you should be eating for your goals, you are well on your way toward achieving progress.


Inevitably, the next question is something like this “If the only way to lose fat is to be in a caloric deficit, then does it really matter WHAT I am eating? Couldn’t I conceivably reach my goals while still eating all the pizza, cheeseburgers, and ice cream I want?”


The answer is Yes… and NO. It all depends on what your goal is.


If the only goal is fat loss:


As long as you are keeping your body in a caloric deficit, you WILL lose fat. This means that you can still make progress eating all of your favorite junk food. As you get used to tracking your food, you will learn how to plan ahead for pizza night by eating lighter earlier in the day. This is awesome! It means that you have learned how to incorporate higher calorie foods into a day without “falling off track” of your program.


There is so much power that comes from being learning about your food. By learning about the caloric makeup of food, you can take control of each day’s eating. You eliminate any kind of “good food” or “bad food” rules that you might have in your mind. There is no missing out or deprivation of the things you love, so you are less likely to binge on them later. It is all about portioning out those higher calorie foods, enjoying the shit out of them, and filling the rest of your day with lower calorie meals that balance it all out.




You may find yourself eating more traditionally “healthy” foods by default. Lettuces, greens, and non-starchy vegetables are naturally lower in calories and higher in fiber and water, so they lend themselves easily to those lower-cal meals. You can eat a giant salad for relatively few calories, but still fill yourself up and get in some important vitamins and minerals… and leave room for nachos for dinner.  


At the end of the day, though, calories are king for fat loss. If you find that your plate hasn’t seen a single fruit or veggie all day, it’s nothing to fret about, as long as your calories remain within your healthy fat loss range. Unsure what this range is for you? Get in touch, and I’d be happy to help you there.


If the goal is improved health and wellness:


When you want to prioritize health and wellness, you have to look closer than just the amount of calories you are eating. In this case, the most important factor is  the quality of the calories that you are consuming. Rather than focusing on the simple caloric value of a food, you also must consider the nutritional punch that each food is delivering. This way of thinking highlights the micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber) found within the food. Foods with a higher density of these nutrients, will be more nourishing to your body than an equal amount of calories from nutritionally void foods.


When people talk about eating “clean” they are talking about this- prioritizing whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods. For some people, this way of eating can lead to fat loss because they are unknowingly putting themselves into a caloric deficit. For others, they may maintain, or potentially gain, weight if their calories are still too high. However, eating a majority of truly nutritious foods will improve your body’s overall health below the surface by providing it with all the necessary vitamins and minerals that your cells need for optimal functioning.



High Nutrient-Density Foods include:

Vegetables - ALL of them are full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. As a rule, go for dark, deeply colored veggies- this is an indicator of a higher concentration of nutrients.

Fruits - ALL of them. Same things go as vegetables, dark color=more nutrients

Whole grains- brown rice, oats, quinoa, buckwheat, etc. These pack a punch of complex carbs, fiber, protein, and minerals. Go for the least refined version (i.e. brown rice over white, whole wheat pasta over white)

Nuts and seeds - proteins, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Low Nutrient-Density Foods include:

Refined, processed sugars- like the sugars found in baked goods, sweet cereals, candy

Refined, processed wheat- like those found in white bread, white pasta, crackers

Fried foods- just packing something full of oil does nothing for your nutritional needs, but add hundreds of calories.

Sweetened beverages- soda, lemonade, energy drinks, sweetened tea… all sugar and very little else


In a perfect world, we would combine the two ideas- eating the right amount of calories and eating for nutrition density- to create a health-focused way of eating, in the right amounts for our own bodies. We would be eating the right number of calories to bring our bodies to a healthy weight and to have enough energy to perform the various tasks of our day, while also pumping our system full of micronutrients that help it operate smoothly.


How to get there:

It takes a while to get there, find the balance, and make steady, slow progress, but it’s worth the wait. In my experience with coaching clients, it makes the most sense to ease into it in 2 different phases:

  1. Get the caloric value down first. Set yourself a calorie range (or get in touch and I can help you set the right range) and focus on eating to that range of calories for 15-30 days. Let your body find some consistency in this number. Learn what a day of eating this much feels like and practice adjusting meals to fit as different events come up.

  2. After you’ve gotten used to hitting that calorie range, add in the intention of filling your daily calorie bank with things that are doing more for your insides- i.e. eating more vegetables and fruits, or choosing less processed versions of things you are already eating.


Eventually, it will take less brain power to eat the right amount. You will get used to making food decisions based on how their nutrients will factor into and balance your day. Without realizing it, you will have developed eating habits that actually do bring you closer to your best wellness. It’s not a quick process, but that’s ok- it’s not a race either.


Give yourself time to learn about food and your body and to practice making the best decision you can in any situation. Creating your own healthiest lifestyle is entirely in your control. Take it, and go for it. There is no time like now to make a better decision and take a step toward your best life.


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