You probably know that exceeding the daily number of recommended calories can negatively impact your health. But when it comes to how specific kinds of calories make you feel, nutrition is much more nuanced. A donut and a chicken Caesar salad may have the same number of calories for example, but one will get you a higher return on energy than the other (and the dressing on that Caesar may make a difference between a good return and a bad one).
But how can you simplify the math on nutritional return?
Sure, you can just look at the number of calories you’re getting each day, but this is only one part of healthy nutrition.
If you skip lunch to have cake for dessert after dinner, you’ll still be eating an appropriate number of calories, but the nutritional value for those calories will be quite varied.
The nutrients within foods are just as important as the number of calories foods contain. Certain nutrients impact hormones and brain centers differently, so the impact on the biological processes in your body change from one food to the next.
For example, take a look at how different 200 calories can be between individual foods. Eating 200 calories of candy will contain significantly fewer nutrients than 200 calories of vegetables.
When you’re deciding what to eat, it’s important to consider not only whether you are getting within a range of calories, but whether you are getting enough nutrients.
Think About Fructose vs. Glucose
In comparing nutrients for example, many people aren’t aware of the nutritional values of fructose and glucose.
Some manufacturers may use glucose (what we know as sugar) as a sweetener in foods and beverages. Other manufacturers may use the artificial sweetener, fructose (high-fructose corn syrup), as an alternative to sugar in many products.
Grocery stores might then sell these products side-by-side on a shelf. While both items contain the same number of calories, one product contains fructose and the other contains glucose.
They should be nearly identical products, right? Not exactly–and the reason why lies in the effect fructose and glucose have on the body.
In one study, researchers compared the effects of fructose and glucose consumption among adults who were overweight. For 10 weeks, study participants consumed either glucose or fructose-sweetened beverages. Participants in both groups gained weight, but they did so in different areas of their bodies.
The group that consumed fructose products largely gained fat in the belly area, which is more strongly associated with heart disease and diabetes. The group that consumed glucose products gained more subcutaneous fat (under the skin), and this subcutaneous fat has a weaker correlation with such diseases.
Glucose is likely the healthier option for people who use beverage sweeteners because it’s naturally occurring. Glucose is the kind of sweetener found in fruit and it is more nutritionally compatible with our bodies. It can be a great source of energy if you need an extra boost during the day.
If you can opt for a glucose sweetener instead of a fructose one, your body will likely be less susceptible to certain diseases.
Then There’s the Satiety Index
Satiety is important for your health, but why? One of the most important reasons you should eat for satiety is so you aren’t hungry! Related to the word “satisfied,” satiety means that you feel full, or you feel close enough to full that you’re content not eating more.
If you eat a lot of foods that contain “empty calories” you won’t feel full, even if you exceed the caloric amount that’s right for your body.
The foods you eat will have an impact on how full you feel after eating them. Not only do you have to worry about the satiety of the current meal you’re eating, but subsequent meals as well.
If you don’t obtain enough nutrients, you’ll likely overeat because your body is telling you it needs more sustenance.
For this reason, make sure you’re eating foods that are high on the satiety index and healthy for you. Some of these foods will include:
- Whole grains (oatmeal, quinoa)
- Nuts (almonds, walnuts)
We Can’t Forget to Mention Protein
An essential tip to make sure you are eating enough high-quality calories is to make sure you’re getting a lot of protein.
Protein is one of the most filling substances, so you’ll be getting a lot of nutritional value while also feeling full.
Your body uses proteins to make enzymes, skin, neurotransmitters, DNA, and cells, to grow and repair muscles. Protein also takes longer to digest, so it will leave you feeling full for longer than carb-heavy meals.
Try to add a healthy source of protein to every meal. Some healthy sources of protein include:
- Lean beef or pork
- Dairy products
Some plant-based protein sources include:
- Legumes, like beans, peas, or lentils
- Grains, like wheat, rice, or corn
The Bottom Line
In order to get the most nutritional value out of the calories you consume each day, it’s important to understand the value of the foods you choose to eat.
Although you have room for all kinds of food in your diet, make sure you begin your meal planning (or on-the-go eating) by evaluating the nutrients you are consuming. After you’ve created meals based on nutrient-rich calories, you can add in some empty calories for flavor. You may be tempted to cut out healthy foods in order to fit dessert or drinks into your caloric intake, but it’s better to prioritize getting the nutrients you need first.
If you feel you could benefit from talking through your nutritional habits, an Arootah coach can help support you in making positive changes.
What are your favorite healthy, nutrient-dense foods? Tell us in the comments!