The phrase “empty calories” is often used describing junk food. But what does it really mean when the calories are empty? What should they be full of? How do we separate the empty ones from the “full” ones?
Well, in order to answer this question I would like to take the liberty and first defend all calories. Most of us don’t like calories. We say “ I need to avoid calories” or “ I need to watch calories” or my personal favorite- which sounds almost violent - “ I am cutting calories”. Calories are actually the good guys and if we left them alone ( did not tamper with their original state)- we would become very friendly with them and invite them to join us on our life journey. Let me elaborate…
Calories come in 4 different “shapes”- carbohydrates, fats, protein and alcohol. I am choosing not to discuss alcohol today (while sipping a glass of wine), as I am focusing on food in this blog. The three remaining contestants compete for their place and fame in our food supply. Few years ago carbs seemed to be very popular with their “net carbs” and “low glycemic index” phenomenon; currently protein seems to be the star of the year – we just can’t seem to get enough of it. The games we play with calories are often a Monkey in the Middle or Hide and Seek.
But we almost never hear about all the other nutrients that come with the calories. I am talking about the tiny, microscopic, extremely powerful micronutrients. For most of us the knowledge of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients starts with a daily multivitamin and ends on few blueberries on a bowl ofcereal. But it’s those micronutrients that determine if the calorie is empty or not. And it’s also those same micronutrients that play a gigantic role in our health and disease prevention. So shouldn’t we want to have a better understanding of them? Shouldn’t we focus more on those instead playing violent games with calories? Let’s leave calories alone because they are the good guys. It’s what we do to the calories that is the problem. Allow me to explain.
An apple- the breakdown of calories is a follows ( roughly)- 95% carb, 3%fat, 2 % protein
Skittles- The breakdown of calories is as follows ( roughly)- 90 % carb, 10%fat, 0% protein
An apple is packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants as well as water and fiber. Skittles are packed with processed sugar, artificial coloring and lots of other chemicals. So how does 200 calories of apple measure up to 200 calories of skittles. If the calories are the same and the breakdown of carb, fat and protein is very similar, what makes one so much more superior than the other one?
I have seen plenty apple trees in my life, but I have yet to find a tree or a bush bearing skittles. So here is the bottom line: as soon as the food in its original state gets altered, separated into components and processes- it loses most if not all of the micronutrients, most of the water and fiber. It then gets some coloring and flavors added to make it easy on the eye and addictive to our taste buds. It becomes an “edible food like substance” and it pretends to be food.
Empty calorie foods are unrecognizable in nature and they have all of the goodness removed and replaced with synthetic, chemicalized and artificial ingredients. Why do they taste so good? They don’t. Our taste buds are highjacked and we often can no longer appreciate real taste of food.
So next time before you buy a 100 calorie snack pack or cut calories by sharing french-fries with a friend, ask yourself this very important question… Is this “food” something that my great grandmother would recognize? And “ Would I ever see it on a tree or growing out of the ground”. If the answer is “No” then you are probably eating empty calories, and the problem is not with the calories, the problem is with the emptiness of them.
Iwona Leger, RN, MSN, Certified Health Coach,
owns Love and Peas Health Coaching and runs individual and group
coaching sessions. She is very passionate about disease prevention, lifestyle
and diet modifications, as well as stress reduction techniques.
For more info visit www.loveandpeashealth.com