Calories provide our bodies with the energy we need to survive. The number of calories in a specific food or drink depends on the amount of carbohydrates, fats, and/or proteins it contains. The total number of calories we are consuming is helpful to look at, but it is equally important to give attention to the quality of the calories we are choosing.
Why does the quantity (total amount) of my calories matter?
The quantity of calories we consume is directly linked to our weight. When we take in more calories than our bodies need, we gain weight. If we take in fewer calories than we burn off, we lose weight. Having excess weight or being underweight both present health risks that can be avoided by consuming calories in an amount that is appropriate for our personal needs.
How many calories do I need?
Every individual needs a different amount based on age, gender, height, weight, activity level, and overall health. To get a better idea of what your calorie needs are, visit choosemyplate.gov or create an online account with myfitnesspal.
Why does the quality of food matter?
We all require a variety of nutrients that enable our bodies to work properly. Some foods contain a lot of calories with very little nutritional benefit. They are called empty calories. Other foods like whole grains, lean proteins, low-fat dairy, and a variety of fruits and vegetables contribute fewer calories with lots of vitamins, minerals, and fiber that benefit our bodies and help prevent disease.
Where do empty calories come from?
The primary sources of empty calories come from processed foods high in added sugar and fat as well as alcoholic beverages. Some common examples include desserts, candy, soda, specialty coffee beverages, packaged snacks, chips, french fries, and alcohol.
How do I balance the quantity and quality of my food choices?
Think of your daily calories like a budget. In a financial budget, your set expenses (like rent) are your top priorities that you always set money aside for. Then, if you have money left over after your bills are paid, you can consider an extra purchase like tickets to a concert. In terms of a food budget, most of our calories are needed to get the nutrients our bodies need. Our set expenses are the five food groups. After our "nutrient bills" are paid, we are left with around 200 calories per day for treats or foods that contain added sugar or solid fats.
What steps can I take today to make better food and beverage choices?
Take a moment to think about what sources of empty calories you consume most often. Then, ask yourself the following three questions:
- Can I enjoy this food or beverage less often?
(I will choose to drink a can of soda twice a week instead of every day).
- Am I able to enjoy it in a smaller portion?
(I will choose to eat a mini candy bar instead of a regular size).
- Can I make a healthy substitution?
(I will buy a frozen yogurt bar made from nonfat Greek yogurt instead of ice cream).