Food Quality and Not Calories is What Counts

Relax and Enjoy Eating Right

 We have been told for decades that counting calories is the only way to lose weight, gain muscle and reduce fat, but the dinner tables have turned. While calories are still very important, smart athletes know that they should focus on the quality of their calories more than the quantity of them - here's why. 

Focus on Quality not Counting

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Is it possible to reach our health and fitness goals when we stop counting calories?  According to recent studies, the focus should be on food quality, portion size and not stressing about the numbers so much.  The American Council on Exercise indicates “counting calories is tedious, time-consuming and a sure-fire way to never enjoy eating.”  This has come as a breath of fresh air to those struggling and stressed with all the food calculations.  Many nutritionists have emphasized simply writing down healthy meals in food journals tracking quality food intake in lieu of every gram, ounce or calorie.  Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Heather Mangieri, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN explains a calorie-controlled diet is not be best way to achieve health and often times is void of essential nutrients.  

Calories are Not Created Equal

Calories Are Not Created Equal. Jamie Grill Photography/Getty Images

The nutritional shift is leaning toward quality food intake, portion size and the importance of enjoying what you’re eating.  Tracking what you eat is seen as a beneficial way to record patterns of eating habits but a waste of time to count calories.  The focus is now on quality real food selection first over counting calories.  We are smart enough to understand eating 100 calories of sugar is going to have a different effect on our body than 100 calories of vegetables.  The American Council on Exercise questions the continuance of the flawed idea of calorie counting when eating for health is all about quality food. 

Just Eat Healthy for Success

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According to the Harvard Public School of Health, the best diet comes from quality food.  Research is recognizing the relevance of calories but indicates the strongest evidence to attaining optimal weight and health is when the focus is on food quality.  The Department of Harvard Nutrition conducted a study including 120,000 healthy men and women over a 20-year period to debunk the theory “a calorie is a calorie.”  Weight gain occurring during this time was attributed to participants eating potato chips, processed foods, fatty meats and drinking soda.  Whereas weight loss was reported in the subjects who consumed vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts, and yogurt.  Researchers also implied one size fits all diets don't exist due to differing genetics and lifestyles. However, individuals can follow the “Harvard School of Public Health, Healthy Eating Plate” and food pyramid for successful planning.  The “Healthy Eating Plate” focuses on food quality and divides plated food portions into ½ vegetable, ¼ whole grains and ¼ lean meat.    

Nutrients over Numbers

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When our focus is on nutrient dense foods in proper portion size, the need to count calories is really unimportant.  You’ve heard the famous quote “nobody ever got fat eating too much kale” and this is the point of the research.  Kale, just like other quality food is full of essential nutrients but lower in calorie.  Eating right promotes a healthy lifestyle, enables us to maintain a healthy weight, improves athletic performance, enhances body functioning, and reduces our risk of illness.  The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics concludes that it’s the food we put in our body that matters proving diets don’t work and counting calories isn’t the success of our health and fitness.  

Healthy Food Plate Recommendations:

1.  Vegetables and Fruit: Comprises 50% of the meal. Fill ½ your plate with lots of color, texture and variety like spinach, kale, broccoli, peppers and squash for example.  Give this simple recipe for Sautéed Broccolini With Garlic and Olive Oil a try!

2.  Whole Grains: Makes up ¼ of your plate.  Enjoy whole grains like quinoa, brown rice or barley.  These foods are high in fiber and great complex carbohydrates. 

3.  Lean Protein: The remaining ¼ of the plate is reserved for lean protein. Enjoy your favorite fish, chicken breast, tofu or beans.

4.  Finally, drink plenty of water and stay active as part of a healthy lifestyle!


American Council on Exercise, Lifestyle Habits that Don’t Work, Counting Calories and The Calories In vs. Calories Out Myth, Jonathan Ross, 2/10/14

Harvard School of Public Health, The Nutrition Source, The Best Diet: Quality Counts

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, The New Math of Counting Calories, Sharon Denny, MS, RDN, 2/14

New England Journal of Medicine, Changes in diet and lifestyle and long-term weight gain in women and men, Mozaffarian D et al., 6/23/11

Harvard School of Public Health, The Nutrition Source, Healthy Eating Plate & Healthy Eating Pyramid, 2011

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