Why We Count Nutrients, Not Calories
It's time to go beyond the nutrition panel
From Sakara In-House Nutritionist Colleen Coffey, MS, RDN, LDN
“What if we don't go to war against calories?” asks our founder and co-CEO Danielle DuBoise. “What if instead, we take the stance that quality just matters so much more?”
Rather than stressing over the amount of calories we’re consuming, we like to think about the quality and abundance of nutrients within the foods on our plate. (And deep down, we all know that not all calories are created equal… compare 100 calories of broccoli with 100 calories of candy and think about how they actually make you feel.)
“When you focus on quality—and have the privilege to do so—you obviate the need for counting calories,” continues DuBoise. “Because inherently, in a truly healthy diet, you (and your body) know when you're full, when you're hungry, and what you're craving, and you get to listen.”
The standard “calories in versus calories out” method has oversimplified what it means to fuel and nourish our bodies—boiling our health down to a set of numbers rather than the complex, brilliant ecosystem that it is—and we’re here to rewrite the script.
Calorie Are Units of Energy
Calories are important as they provide the energy that our bodies need—supporting everything from our beating hearts and humming digestive systems, to our post-work walks and pilates classes. Technically speaking, a calorie is a unit of energy equivalent to the heat energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. At its core, a caloric unit simply explains the amount of energy within a food.
Typically, to quantify a food’s calorie content, a bomb calorimeter—an apparatus that creates a controlled environment to combust a food and measure the energy released—is used. But, our bodies are much more dynamic than that.
Simply focusing on calories—and only relying on any basic and outdated nutrition panel to do so—is misleading. Calories explain energy, but not the nutrients within a food, like phytochemicals, micronutrients, and water. More so, calorie counting takes away from our unique biological complexity and ties us to a number. Instead of trusting our body’s own intuition, we add undue stress, which can physically manifest as further discomfort and disconnection from our brightest, most embodied selves.
Breaking Down Biocomplexity
Unlike the bomb calorimeter, our bodies are not a controlled lab simulation; they’re so much more complex. The health of our gut microbiome, metabolism, and hormones, and our genes, influence the calories we actually absorb and utilize, meaning that the way we take in calories is actually unique to each of us.
For instance, if our gut health and microbiome are in disarray, we may not properly process the calories we’re consuming. Alongside a happy gut, a well-functioning thyroid is also necessary, as it impacts metabolic rate and directly affects our calorie needs each day. Our diet can also impact the health of our hormones. Take insulin, for example. If we become insulin resistant via a poor diet, we’ll have a much harder time actually utilizing the nutrients we consume to generate energy.
Food Is Information
So what happens when we shift the focus away from counting calories, and instead toward the quality and nutritive value of food? That's when we can focus on an abundance of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and colors to discover what truly makes us feel like our brightest, most energized selves. Food is not just fuel, but is information for our bodies.
Food and the nutrients within it can influence gene expression (also known as epigenetics). For instance, pro-inflammatory fats and refined sugar can “turn on” genes associated with high blood pressure and heart disease, whereas nutrient-dense, plant-based foods can positively impact genes and reduce risk of developing conditions like metabolic disorders and Type 2 Diabetes.
The nutrients within calories speak to our bodies and impact how our immune systems function, hormones work, guts operate, and more. This is why each day on Sakara floods your system with a diverse array of phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and colors—nourishing your mind, body, and spirit from the inside out.
Next time you find yourself checking nutrition labels, try considering these instead:
- Quality: Are you eating high-quality, organic, whole food?
- Balance: Does your food or meal consist of healthy fats, plant protein, fiber, and nourishing carbs?
- Vibrancy: Is your meal abundant in colors, which indicates a variety of protective phytonutrients?
- Joy: Are you excited about this and does this food make you feel good?