Comparing Calories: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Not all calories are burned the same in our bodies. Take 200 calories of Twinkies and 200 calories of carrots, and your body will react differently to them. One will go to fat easier than the other; can you guess which? If you eat a Twinkie and the body doesn’t have the additional chemistry to use that fuel as quickly as it needs to, guess where it goes? The thighs, hips—to storage! The same amount of calories in apples wouldn’t.
Not all calories are created equally. They metabolize differently, and the calorie source affects how we digest the food and gain energy from it. There are empty calories and full calories. Empty calories go to fat; full calories mean all of the chemistry is there, ready to be used.
If you eat 2,000 calories of junk food versus 2,000 of fruit, the former may make you gain fat. For example, if you were to eat ten Twinkies a day versus fifteen apples a day, the Twinkies would go to fat even though they are roughly the same amount of calories.
Why do you think you lose weight when you just eat protein? Although it has many amino acids that the body can use that for structure, you’re still not giving your body the chemistry it needs to properly function. You're essentially starving your body when only eating protein.
Similarly, carbohydrates are just complex sugars; an extra step is required to break them down. That’s why you don’t want to eat only carbs, either. However, if you get carbs with the proper chemistry—that is, the whole fruit and vegetable—the body treats it differently.
This is why it’s important to eat healthily, rather than, say, focus on calorie counting and not exceeding a certain amount of calories. If you are calorie counting, it would make sense to eat more whole plant foods, anyway. Whole plant foods contain fiber which will help keep you fuller for longer. In addition, you’d be able to eat more of these foods because they usually contain fewer calories.
Let’s take a look at some comparisons. The following nutrition facts could vary depending on food size, brand, etc.
Bananas vs. Cookies
“It’s bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S.” Okay, spelled it right. Thanks Gwen Steffani. According to the USDA, bananas are a fruit that are around 105 calories and contain 0.4 grams (g) of total fat, 422 milligrams (mg) of potassium, 27 g of carbohydrates, 3.1 g of fiber, 14 g of sugar, and 1.3 g of protein. One medium-sized banana also contains amounts of vitamins A, C, E, K, and B6; riboflavin; folate; niacin; choline; pantothenic acid; magnesium; calcium; phosphorus; and omega fatty acids. Not to mention, bananas contain many beneficial plant compounds called phytonutrients.
One (you know you’d eat more) medium, commercially prepared, regular, unenriched chocolate chip cookie, on the other hand, contains far less protein, fiber, minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients. One cookie has 48.1 calories, 0.5 g protein, 6.7 g of carbohydrates, 0.3 g of fiber, 2.3 g of total fat, 1.1 mg of caffeine, and 8.3 mg of theobromine.
Blueberries vs. Chips
The USDA notes that 1 cup of blueberries has 85 calories; 0.5 g of total fat; 114 mg of potassium; 21 g of total carbohydrates; 3.6 g of fiber; 15 g of sugar; 1.1 g of protein; vitamins A, C, B6, K, and E; thiamin; riboflavin; niacin; folate; choline; iron; phosphorus; zinc; copper; manganese; magnesium; and 125 g of water.  They’re also loaded with antioxidant phytonutrients. The potency and effects of the nutrients together are exponentially greater than if they were isolated.
A much different snack option—chips—is, like twinkies, more likely to turn to fat than fruit. One 7-ounce bag of barbecue-flavored potato chips is a whopping 972 calories. It also contains 15.2 g of protein, 105 g of total carbohydrates, 8.7 g of fiber, 64.1 g of total fat, vitamin A, 67.1 mg of vitamin C, 1.2 mg of vitamin B6, thiamine, riboflavin, 9.3 mg of niacin, 164 mcg of folate, 1.2 mg of pantothenic acid, and 9.9 g of ash. Yes, ash. It also may contain the minerals calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, manganese, and selenium. A pretty controversial list. Depending on the chip’s brand and production, this list may vary. Additionally, some of those vitamins and minerals can be added and unnatural.
Cucumbers vs. Fruit Snacks
One whole, raw cucumber is around 45 calories and has 2 g of protein; 11 g of total carbohydrates; 1.5 g of fiber; 2.5 g of starch; 5 g of sugars; 287 g of water; some vitamin A, C, K, and B6; thiamin;, riboflavin; folate; pantothenic acid; and choline. It also contains phytosterols and phytonutrients. They make a great snack and topper to salads; you can easily eat many of these.
One pouch of a popular brand of fruit snacks claims to have 80 calories, 20 g of carbohydrates, and 11 g of sugars and contains vitamin A and C. It’d take about 22 minutes of walking to burn off 80 calories. However, the vitamin C or ascorbic acid used is not as potent or effective as half that amount consumed through a fruit or vegetable, since it is isolated. Fruit snacks also contain dyes and aren’t very filling, either. The food color dyes used include Blue 1, Yellow 5, and Red 40.
Blue #1 (Brilliant Blue) may cause chromosomal damage, and it’s actually banned in France and Finland. Red #40 (Allura Red) can also contribute to chromosomal damage, hyperactivity, and lymphomas. Yellow #5 (Tartrazine) is associated with chromosomal damage, asthma, aggression, lymphomas, insomnia, hyperactivity, allergies, thyroid tumors, and neurochemical and behavioral effects. It is banned in Norway. This is drastically different from organic food, which has no added dyes or preservatives.
Plant-Based Eating vs. Calorie Counting
If you’re working toward a healthier lifestyle, calorie counting isn’t the best course to take.
Relying on food labels for calorie information may be, well, unreliable. Calories listed on labels and menus are an average of the calories in the product due to processing and variations in ingredients. What’s more, the Food and Drug Administration allows for up to a 20 percent margin of error on nutrient labels.
Calories don’t tell us anything about the nutritional content of a food. You can’t judge a food’s ability to give your body the nourishment it needs by looking at a number that may not even be accurate. And the diets that do track vitamins aren’t really measuring full nutrition, either. Most people are under the impression that the nutritional content of food can all be calculated simply by looking at the small handful of vitamins that we’re accustomed to seeing on food labels. In actuality, there are hundreds of thousands of phytonutrients that are just as important in overall health as the more familiar ones. The beauty of not counting calories or relying solely on food labels is that you don’t have to overthink it.
There’s also the opportunity cost of calorie counting. The practice is tedious and time-consuming. The time and energy spent deciding what to eat, identifying calories, inputting them into a calculator or phone app, and determining how to ration a budgeted amount of calories throughout the day could be spent doing things that really do matter for our health—like preparing a healthy meal or exercising!
So calorie counting can be inconvenient, but it’s possibly ineffective too. It could make us more susceptible to nutrient deficiencies since the focus is on numbers instead of nutrition. Although rare, this could lead to scurvy, characterized by insufficient vitamin C, or other conditions caused by deficiencies of iron, iodine, vitamin D/hormone D, vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin A, and magnesium. Symptoms of nutritional deficiencies may include:
- Weak, brittle bones (osteoporosis)
- Heart disease
- Slowed thinking
- Shortness of breath
- Fast heartbeat
- Loss of balance
- Confusion or dementia
- Numbness or tingling in hands and feet
Instead of focusing on what we shouldn’t be eating, maybe we should shift our focus to what we should be eating to prevent these deficiencies. Our bodies need the right foods with the right nutrients to thrive. Instead of counting calories, count your servings of fruits and vegetables each day. This is a win-win: you’ll be taking in fewer calories while ensuring your body gets essential vitamins and nutrients it needs to be strong and healthy. And, of course, the more the better. Forgoing calorie counting isn’t an invitation to eat all food. It is, however, an invitation to eat all the nourishing food.
Plant-based eating is the way to go! There are numerous benefits, like lower weight. People who eat plant-based diets have been shown to have lower BMIs, lower risk of cancer and obesity, and more. If you are eating only plant foods, then you’re likely to eat fewer calories, anyway. Plant-based diets can also improve diabetes, mood, and productivity. 
It’s easy to lose track of how many calories we’re consuming in a day and overdo it. But if we eat for energy, we won’t need to track anything; our bodies will do it for us, letting us know when we’ve had enough. Energizing foods like sweet potatoes, yams, brown rice, oatmeal, beans, eggs, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and corn slowly release energy and protein, keeping us fuller longer and staving off hunger. They’re low in calories, deliver a healthy amount of fiber and nutrients to strengthen our immune systems, and trigger our brains to release hormones that tell us we’re full.
As the name promises, energy-packed foods provide energy, giving us staying power for exercise, the mental strength to avoid overeating, and helping us feel good. Fruits and vegetables, for example, deliver energy because they literally contain solar energy. Plants are the only things able to capture energy from the sun through photosynthesis (light generation) and put it between two atoms. When you eat fruits and vegetables, your body breaks that bond, and the solar energy is released into your system.
These energizing foods are also known as complex carbohydrates—and the more complex, the better. As the chemistry from these foods goes through the body, the body has to break apart the components to release the nutrients. That requires energy, which burns calories. Every time your body creates an enzyme, which speeds up chemical reactions, or has to break something down, energy is needed. Every time something breaks down, that’s a chemical reaction that demands energy. When the body breaks apart two atoms? You guessed it. More energy is expended, and you’re digesting as you’re using those sugars. All of this to say that the lengthy digestion process required of complex carbs means we’re burning calories as we’re eating food that will give us sustained energy! Talk about a win-win. This makes eating for energy both filling and an ideal option for weight control.
The same digestion process isn’t required for simple carbohydrates—think sugar-laden and high-fat foods like candy bars, chips, soda, and many baked goods. They’re easy to eat and easy to overeat. They’re simple carbs for a reason. There’s nothing substantial in them to break down, so little energy is required to eat them and they break down quickly to be used as energy. That means we just get the sugar and the calories—all of them. And who has ever gotten full off of a Twinkie?
Food has different effects on the body. Our bodies don’t just digest calories and macros—they digest all the micronutrients along with them: vitamins, minerals, fats, and proteins. Think quality over quantity, advises Dr. Qi Sun, associate professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The Last Bite
If your goal is to be healthier, calorie counting isn’t the best option. But the good news is, simply eating healthy plant foods has the most benefits and effectiveness for health without having to worry about restricting yourself in terms of amount. If you focus on eating healthy foods, you’d even be able to eat more food than if you were primarily calorie counting because fruits and vegetables are often much lower in calories and aid in satiety. Our body breaks down and uses different foods differently. Plant foods have different components, chemistry, and calories than highly processed foods, and they are better for you: there’s nothing added and nothing synthetic. Plant foods are simply whole, natural, and nutritious!
 Celia S. Spell. “There’s No Sugar-Coating: All Calories Are Not Created Equal.” Harvard Medical School. November 4, 2016. Accessed February 27, 2020. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/theres-no-sugar-coating-it-all-calories-are-not-created-equal-2016110410602
 “Cookies, Chocolate Chip, Commercially Prepared, Reg, Higher Fat, Unenriched Nutrition Facts & Calories,” Nutrition Data know what you eat (Condé Nast), accessed August 5, 2020, https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/baked-products/5159/2.
 “Cucumber, with Peel, Raw Nutrition Facts & Calories,” NutritionData know what you eat. (Condé Nast), accessed August 5, 2020, https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2439/2.
 Harvard Women’s Health Watch. “Important Nutrients You Could Be Missing.” September 2013. Accessed February 27, 2020. https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthy-eating/important-nutrients-you-could-be-missing
 Flashback Friday: Plant-Based Diets for Improved Mood and Productivity, NutritionFacts.org (NutritionFacts.org, 2019), https://nutritionfacts.org/video/flashback-friday-plant-based-diets-for-improved-mood-and-productivity/.
 Harvard Men’s Health Watch. “Counting On Calories.” Harvard Medical School. August 2019. Accessed February 27, 2020. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/counting-on-calories