Updated: Apr 13
From the time I was a young girl, I’ve heard about calories in food. It used to be that everyone was watching their calories to lose weight. Now I hear about calories in a completely different manner. When people are sick and have lost weight, I’m continuously hearing that they need “calories, calories, calories” in order to gain weight and become healthy. It doesn’t matter the source of the calories, as long as they are calories. While I don’t disagree with encouraging weight gain for an underweight person, I do disagree with doing so without regard to the type of food being consumed for weight gain. Since many diseases today include a component of nutrient deficiency, it’s really important to ensure the calories we consume, ESPECIALLY when sick, are nutrient-rich calories. What does all of this mean? Let’s start from the beginning…
What is a calorie?
In the simplest terms, calories are units of energy provided by the food we eat. According to the USDHHS (US Department of Health and Human Services) and USDA (US Department of Agriculture), it is estimated that women and men need 1,800-2,400 and 2,400-3,200 calories per day, respectively (1), to accomplish all of their bodies’ necessary functions (e.g. breathing, blood circulation, digestion, movement, etc.) While these numbers address the quantity of calorie recommendations, the quality of the calories consumed is just as, if not more, important.
What does quality mean?
The human body requires a balance of healthy macronutrients and micronutrients to operate efficiently. Macronutrients include healthy protein, carbohydrates and fats. (I emphasize the word “healthy” because there are healthy and unhealthy versions of all three macronutrients.) Micronutrients encompass the variety of vitamins and minerals our bodies need to support many processes and function properly.
Every nutrient has a vital role to play in our health and well-being. If we’re not getting all our required macro and micronutrients through our diets, then certain processes will begin to break down or not happen at all. Once that occurs, that process impacts other processes, which impact additional processes and eventually we have a situation known as “disease.”
Our micronutrient needs include the following:
Vitamins: A, D, E, K, C, B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6, B7 (biotin), Folate and B12.
Minerals, including: calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and sulfur as well as trace minerals (e.g. copper, chromium, iodine, iron, manganese, selenium and zinc) and ultratrace minerals (e.g. boron, cobalt, molybdenum, nickel, silicon and vanadium.) Trace and ultratrace minerals are needed in smaller and much smaller amounts, respectively, than other minerals.
In order for our bodies to function optimally, we need to provide them with adequate amounts of the above vitamins and minerals, as well as healthy proteins, fats and carbohydrates, through a balanced diet.* This is why focusing only on calories at the expense of macro and micronutrients can be detrimental to our health over time. A high calorie diet may provide you with units of energy, but if it does not contain the necessary amounts of healthy proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals, then you are only consuming “empty calories,” which are calories with little value to our health. In many cases, empty calorie foods include ingredients that may even be detrimental to our health. In addition to not providing for our nutritional needs, empty calories fill us up so we don’t have room for other more nutritious foods.
Examples of “empty calorie” foods include what we normally call junk foods: soda, cookies, cake, pastries, potato chips, ice cream, sugar cereals, etc. "Healthy calories" are typically whole, minimally processed foods such as organic fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, eggs, beans, fish (preferably wild-caught) and meats (preferably grass-fed).
Let’s look at the nutritional components of one “empty calorie” food versus a “healthy calorie” food:
A medium avocado contains approximately 230 calories. With those calories you get many nutritional benefits.
Avocados contain greater than 10% of the recommended daily allowance (in parentheses)** of eight vitamins: Vitamin B5 (42%), Folate (30%), Vitamin B6 (23%), Vitamin K (20%), Vitamin C (17%), Vitamin B3 (16%), Vitamin B2 (15%) and Vitamin E (10%) (2, 3). Together, these vitamins help the body metabolize proteins, fats and carbohydrates, convert food into energy, enable cellular processes and function, help the body make DNA, create red blood cells and neurotransmitters, are important for healthy bones, help wounds heal, strengthen the immune system and many other tasks (4).
Avocados also contain greater than 10% of the recommended daily allowance** of three minerals: Copper (32%), Potassium (15%) and Magnesium (10%) (5, 6). These minerals are required for brain development, the creation of energy, connective tissues, blood vessels, immune system strength, proper organ, muscle and nerve function, the regulation of blood sugar and blood pressure as well as many other processes in the body (7).
Avocados contain mostly healthy (monounsaturated) fats, which improve your HDL (good cholesterol) and are helpful in lowering LDL (bad cholesterol.) They’re also a healthy source of carbohydrates, in the form of fiber (8). Avocados contain phytochemicals, which maintain stomach and intestinal linings and anti-inflammatory compounds which reduce the narrowing and swelling of the digestive tract (9). Since they’re very low in sugar, avocados don’t have an adverse effect on your blood sugar levels (10).
Chocolate Ice Cream
Ingredients: Milk, cream, skim milk, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, cocoa (processed with alkali), cellulose gum, vegetable gum (guar, carrageenan, carob bean), salt.
On the other hand, 2/3 cup of chocolate ice cream from a well-known national brand contains 210 calories and provides the following nutritional benefits: Ice cream contains greater than 10% of the recommended daily allowance** of calcium, which is needed to maintain strong bones and teeth, for muscle movement, for nerves to communication messages from the brain to every body part, to help blood vessels move blood throughout the body and to release hormones and enzymes which impact almost every bodily function (11). In addition, a bowl of ice cream provides 5 grams of protein, which is more than double the amount of an avocado.
While ice cream does contain some nutrients, its benefits are more than offset by the following unhealthy ingredients:
22 grams of sugar (ice cream's main source of carbohydrates), including high fructose corn syrup, raises your blood sugar, which leads to a host of other problems especially when consumed frequently. These health risks include obesity, heart disease, diabetes, fatty liver disease, cancer and dementia (12).
Cellulose gum, which typically comes from wood by-products, is not a naturally occurring food and has been shown to lead to inflammation and digestive problems (13).
Carageenan causes digestive problems and inflammation. It is also common for food-grade carrageenan to be contaminated with degraded carrageenan, which is classified as a "possible human carcinogen" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (14).
Cholesterol (35 mg), which, due to the high amount of sugar in ice cream, will stick around in your body. Unfortunately, high sugar consumption is associated with lower HDL (good cholesterol) and high triglycerides. Both of these are risk factors for cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and strokes (15).
When comparing the nutritional contents of an avocado vs. a bowl of ice cream, it’s clear that there are healthier ways to get the calories, calcium and protein available in ice cream without the added ingredients that are detrimental to our health.
Does this mean you can never have “empty calorie” food or a bowl of ice cream again? No. Everyone is unique, but many people can safely enjoy a bowl of ice cream once in a while, especially if it’s a brand of ice cream made with healthier, organic, whole food ingredients rather than synthetic ones.
However, on a regular basis, there are healthy calorie replacements for most empty calorie foods. If you are trying to heal from a disease typically caused by poor nutrition, doesn’t it make sense to feed your body a nutrient-rich, healthy calorie diet to support the healing process rather than an empty calorie diet, which only supports further malnutrition?
* While we can become deficient in the above list of vitamins and minerals by not consuming them, it’s also possible to over-consume them, which can lead to toxicity. This typically occurs through inappropriate supplementation rather than diet.
** Only vitamins and minerals with a significant recommended daily allowance greater than 10% are shown.
(9) Anthony William, Life-Changing Foods (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc., 2016), 56.
(12) Vani Hari, Feeding You Lies (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc., 2019), 239.
(13) Hari, Feeding You Lies, 236
(14) Hari, Feeding You Lies, 235
Subscribe to Connect4Hope to receive Notes of Hope, which includes my latest blog posts, stories of hope and inspirational messages about health and wellness.