Have you ever seen the restaurant menus that show the number of calories for each entrée and compared a burger to a salad? I have been shocked to learn how a salad could have more calories than a cheeseburger and thought, “well shoot. If it’s the same number of calories either way, I’m getting the burger next time and enjoying myself!” After all, weight loss is about calories in and calories out, right? As long as there is a net deficit at the end of the day, it’s all good, right?
Well, kind of. Yes, math matters in the world of weight loss and a consistent calorie deficit is key to progress. But nutrition science shows us that not all calories are created equal. It does matter whether you order the salad or the burger, even if they are the name number of calories.
Consider this tale of two diets: each totaling the same number of calories but with different levels of nutritional quality:
Each adds up to just over 2,000 calories, which is a recommended calorie range for most active adults. Which would you choose? Does it matter?
Yes. What we eat matters for weight loss, and also for energy, immunity, bone strength, muscle development, and brain health. Oh, and our likelihood of weight loss success, too. While each meal plan offers the same number of calories and might look the same when entered into an online food journal, one reflects a person at odds with their needs, and the other demonstrates someone who has joined their own team and is playing smart.
If you weren’t sure, the second meal plan is the one that wins. That’s because the high-fiber, nutrient-rich, complex (in a good way) foods that make up those calories not only do your body a lot of health favors, they also keep you full longer and make it easier to make healthy choices later in the day.
Plan two wins in other ways, too. The first option appears to have meals balanced with carbohydrates, protein, and fat but includes no fruit and offers carbohydrates in the form of processed, quick-releasing sources, like cereal and bread. Someone eating this way every day may find it hard to resist the temptation for a sweet snack in the afternoon, a pick-me-up coffee, or a quick burst of energy from a convenient snack.
The second option also offers plenty of carbohydrate-fueled energy, but from complex courses that include fiber and protein. These help us stay satisfied longer, avoid surges in appetite, and keep blood sugars stable. The fruits and vegetables provide minerals and nutrients, and the plant-based fats and protein (beans, avocado, olive oil, nut butters) fuel your brain. Same number of calories, but totally different levels of helpfulness to you.
Years ago, I practically lived off of Lean Cuisine, Weight Watchers desserts, diet soda (calorie free) and packaged protein bars. I meticulously logged it all in my online food journal and strived to stay within the calorie range that would result in weight loss. I felt very responsible and organized because I was doing such a great job of counting my calories. But, I was plagued by cravings, distracted by every temptation, and always waiting for the next time I could eat. I felt like I was always at odds with myself, battling energy, motivation, and that voice in my head that begged for more.
I was playing by the rules of weight loss, but I wasn’t truly on my own team. The boxes were checked off - calorie goal met: check; workout complete: check – but I was just providing myself with the bare minimum and withholding the kind of teamwork that could actually help me win. As a result, I was treading water. As I learned more about nutrition, my habits changed, and I became a true partner with myself. The 20/20 hindsight seems pretty obvious now, and the changes in my health and my body are night and day.
Your body is showing up every day and working hard to keep you going. Are you just checking off the boxes of healthy living, or are you really teaming up with yourself, bringing your best effort to the team, and collaborating for a win? If it feels like you are constantly battling yourself to stay on the healthy path, consider whether you are working for the right team.