No Two Calories the Same

The usage of calorie counting apps has been on the rise, particularly on Boston College’s campus. Although powerful apps such as MyFitnessPal can provide nutritional information and motivation for those who wish to be more conscientious about their dietary decisions, setting rigid “limits” can make the user feel limited to “safe” foods that apps deem healthy. This mentality can quickly lead to an unhealthy obsession with comparing our calories consumed to calories expended in order to stick within the bounds of an unforgiving caloric goal. Aside from the fact that restriction rarely results in long-term success, the idea of comparing “calories in” to “calories out” has been entirely oversimplified to the point of misunderstanding.         

All calories are not created equal. The nutrients found in certain calories play profound roles in our metabolisms. A recent study conducted by the University of Florida found that participants with lower body-mass indexes and body-fat compositions ate more antioxidants than confederates with higher numbers. Even though both groups ate roughly the same amount of calories, the results demonstrate how consuming proper nutrients rather than “empty calories” proves more beneficial in attaining weight-loss goals.

Wake Forest University also conducted a study in which two groups of monkeys were fed the same amount of calories, while their food differed in nutrient composition. The monkeys given foods high in trans fat gained four times as much weight as the healthier group, and held 30 percent more visceral fat than the animals who ate meals containing plant-based fat. If all calories were the same, then both groups eating the same number of calories should exhibit similar health results. Applied to our diets today, consuming 500 calories of mozzarella sticks from Late Night will have more pejorative impacts upon our bodies than consuming a 500-calorie meal of vegetables, fruits, fish, or whole grains. Calorie-counting devices fail to account for this discrepancy between the relative quality of calories, misleading the user to believe that eating the caloric equivalent of fruit in cupcakes will provide the same health consequences.

Furthermore, not only is this perception of “caloric equivalency” incorrect, but our measurement standard of the calories themselves is outdated. Food manufacturing companies still rely on the Atwater system, which ascribes four calories per gram to proteins and carbohydrates, nine calories per gram to fats, and seven calories per gram to alcohol. Recently, however, Harvard professor Rachel Carmody contested this standard, explaining that the caloric values listed on food labels fail to account for the energy required to digest certain foods. The Atwater system treats all fats the same, while we know now, as shown by Wake Forest’s study, that they simply aren’t. Plant-based fats have drastically different impacts upon our health than fats found in processed foods.

Carmody continued that highly processed foods, for example, require less energy to be digested, thus rendering reported caloric values inaccurate by as much as 50 percent. Calorie counting apps fail to take this into consideration by underreporting the actual amount of calories in processed foods, further contributing to the myth of caloric equivalency. On the bright side, however, the reverse applies to nutrient-dense foods. A serving of almonds, for instance, is reported to contain 32 percent fewer calories than the Atwater formula predicts.

The three types of calories our bodies need—carbohydrates, fats, and proteins—each serve an important and unique role in the maintenance of our health. If we restrict all of our calories to proteins and fats, neglecting carbohydrates, we risk feeling fatigued and injuring proper brain function. Although muscles can utilize fatty and amino acids when carbohydrate intake is depleted, the brain cannot. It cannot store energy, and its cells require double the amount of energy of all other cells. Its only source of energy comes from blood sugar, which relies upon carbohydrates to regulate and maintain normal levels. A severely carb-restricted diet can result in slower auditory, visual, and thought-processing speeds, and impair long-term memory storage.

Similarly, a diet deficient in proteins and fats can result in muscle atrophy, brittle nails, dull skin, weak immune systems, and hormonal imbalances. Yet calorie–counting apps simply assign an (inaccurate) numerical value to the foods we consume, as if our metabolic rates, digestive systems, and genetics are universal and concrete sciences. Not only do calorie trackers leave little room for inter-personal variability, but they also leave little flexibility for realistically healthy lifestyles—that is, in ascribing to a food a certain numerical value, it becomes either a “good” or “bad” food. In reality, however, there are no bad foods, just bad diets. Instead of restricting ourselves to an imperfect science of meal tracking devices, we should enjoy a wide range of foods in moderation.

For instance, it is crucial to eat not just carbohydrates or protein before or after a workout, but rather a combination of the two. Pairing them results in a slow, steady release of glucose for an extended period of time, while the protein alone facilitates muscle synthesis. Some great examples include snacking on peanut butter or almond butter with a whole-grain Nature Valley bar, adding peanut butter to oatmeal, or pairing nuts with raisins or a fruit. Apples are an excellent source of fiber, which also slows the digestion of glucose, helping us feel fuller and more energized for an extended period of time.

Fats are essential in our diets, too, as they support cell growth, facilitate the absorption of nutrients, and manufacture necessary hormones. Fatty acids are crucial for protein synthesis, and are often found in avocados, seafood, chia seeds, flaxseed oil, and spinach. The avocado toast topped with sliced eggs served at Hillside Cafe and acai bowls from Addie’s are both great options.

With that being said, the typical college student should not feel pressured to eat perfectly healthily all the time. The occasional ice cream or late-night indulgence can fit into a balanced and varied diet. When we allow ourselves to occasionally indulge, we do not limit ourselves to unattainable standards, and are less likely, then, to eat “sugar-free” or “low-carb” foods which are, in the long run, worse for our health than eating junk food in moderation (When companies subtract from the product something such as sugar, they inevitably sneak in another flavor-filler such as artificial sweeteners or saturated fats). In setting our goals realistically and actively deciding not to restrict ourselves, we end up physically and mentally healthier as a result.

Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor