As a nutritionist, I would sometimes meet with clients who wanted to know how many calories they should be eating or how many grams of fat their breakfast should contain. They would then go on to justify that their favourite snack was healthy because it only contained [insert low number] calories and [insert low number] grams of sugar/fat etc.
I've never encouraged counting calories, grams of fat or sugar. While counting calories, grams or litres can drive you crazy, it is also not a good indicator of health.
I used to run nutrition workshops with teenaged girls at a private school. The girls ranged in age from 12-17. As you can imagine, I had to be very careful with my wording. I was told before I started working with the girls that I could not bring up eating disorders (not that I would have anyways), but needed to keep it in mind. The workshops were always a success but it amazed and scared me when the girls shared what they believed nutritionally and where they were getting their information. At 12 years old, some of the girls were worried about the amount of fat foods and would skip a meal, drinking only a Diet Co.ke. These kids were incredibly bright though. They listened intently and would ask a ton of questions. One of my workshops, Debunking Nutrition Myths, would always start with a talk about calories.
Not all calories are created equal.
Larabar is a great example that I would use with my former clients. Larabars are Teagan and Quinn's on-the-go snacks. They contain 3-6 ingredients that can not only be pronounced but can also all be eaten individually (eg. dates, cashews, walnuts, apples etc.). When I would show them to a client, she/he would usually flip it over and look at the nutrition label. She/he would then flip out - 230 calories! 13 grams of fat! 18 grams of sugar! I can't eat this! She/he would tell me.
A Sn.ickers bar, on the other hand, contains 250 calories, 12 grams of fat and 27 grams of sugar. Practically the same as the 230 calorie Larabar for a calorie-counter. A Sni.ckers bar contains 20 ingredients. The word sugar is written 5 times -- sugar, lactose, sugar (again), corn syrup, lactose (again). It contains soy lecithin, made from cheap GMO soybeans. It also contains partially hydrogenated soybean oil -- a manmade oil that the body doesn't know what to do with. Lastly, there is the mysterious 'artificial flavour' -- like the word, 'fragrance', 'flavour' could be one or more of a 1000 different things.
Here's the difference...
-- The FAT in Larabars comes from things like, Omega-3 and vitamin E rich walnuts or heart-healthy, antioxidant rich cashews.
-- The FAT in Sni.ckers bar comes from things like the trans fat, hydrogenated soybean oil that is man-made and linked to a host of health issues, including decreased immune system functioning, cancer, diabetes and reproductive issues.
-- The SUGAR in Larabars comes from fibre-filled, cholesterol-lowering, antioxidant and iron-rich, easily digestible dates.
-- The SUGAR in Sni.ckers bars is heavily processed and void of all nutrients. Since corn syrup is man-made and not considered natural, so it cannot be digested by the body and enters the blood stream immediately, placing more stress on the liver.
The fat and sugar in a Larabar is going to do something completely different in the body than the fat and sugar in a Sni.ckers. Since the fat in the Larabar is mostly from Omega-3 sources, it is not going to go straight to our hips or butt because it is going to be too busy keeping clots out of our blood or keeping our skin smooth and ours brains sharp. The fat in a Sni.ckers on the other hand has a one-way ticket to those hips. The sugar in that Sni.ckers is very high on the gylcemic index so it will make us feel awesome briefly, only causing us to crash a short while later. The natural sugars in the dates of a Larabar will provide our body with high quality energy without the sugar crash because fibre helps to keep our blood sugar in check.
As you can see, the fat and sugar that make up calories can come in very different forms, ranging from very healthy to incredibly unhealthy.
Next time you find yourself leaning towards the "90-calorie" Sni.ckers ice cream bars or the "100-calorie" Chi.ps Ah.oy!, check out the ingredient list first. Where do those calories come from? Not all calories are created equal!