Calorie Conversations II: Weighty Issues on Food Quality

In a long over-due follow-up to the first conversation we had around Calories, this post takes a bigger bite out of the energy in = out argument, and the “healthy living guidelines” that have left us in the same place for too long . There’s more to the equation…


The recently hyped and debuted HBO special The Weight of the Nation combines the knowledge and campaign efforts of the three major public-health institutions in the United States: Institute of Medicine (IOM), Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Sunday night, my Mom and I watched the end of the third installment and then backtracked  to see the beginning of part I.

Weight of the Nation HBO obesityinamericamap CDC

I didn’t learn anything new; they aren’t telling us things we haven’t heard 100 times already*. They preached on:

For weight maintenance energy in {should} = energy out
One calorie here = one calorie there, whether it’s fat, sugar or protein
Exercise more, sit less. We need to
Overweight & obesity lead to chronic health conditions, significantly raising an individual’s risk of heart disease, Type II Diabetes, etc.

Obesity is a health epidemic.

*Disclaimer: I haven’t watched all 4 parts beginning to end; my judgment is premature premature, but based off of what I’ve seen thus far.

We know all of this, right?

If all things were as simple as scientists want them to be, we wouldn’t be thousands of pounds and billions of healthcare dollars deep into this crisis. The answer won’t be found in one simple math equation, and the problems won’t be solved by any one government or non-profit agency. The weight of our nation won’t change from food taxes or nationwide recommendations or government mandates.

It’s hopeful that the national scale will budge, as the four-sided boulder that HBO has created with these three agencies begins to roll.

An individual can only change when they’re ready. I do believe in the power of education in any media, but this essential step is only a catalyst, not a solution. It’s only effective when we know the whole story, not the bits & pieces that are supposed to ring true for “everyone”.

So, what’s not being said loud enough? What’s missing from the energy equation, exercise recommendations and nutrition guidelines?

In an interesting complement to the HBO series, Newsweek’s cover recently featured an infant holding French Fries, quoting “When I Grow Up, I’m Going to Weigh 300 Pounds. Help!”

NewsweekLogo-1 [Converted]

This article uncovers history and stats that we don’t see plastered over any diet book, dietary recommendation or physical activity suggestion. It intelligently looks past the basics, and dishes out some advice that challenges what science tells us to be true.

Not all calories are created equal. We metabolize forms of sugar differently; our bodies need protein and fat for different processes; set-points vary by individual, based on factors such as activity level, age, genetics, etc.

I don’t believe that an exact balance of calories in and calories out is the solution to weight maintenance. It hinges on what those calories are made up of, and what our body has been trained to do with them.

To paraphrase a section of Gary Taubes’ Newsweek  featured article:

“Glucose is metabolized by virtually every cell in the body, the fructose (also found in fruit, but in much lower concentrations) is metabolized mostly by liver cells…some of the fructose is converted into fat, the fat accumulates in the liver cells, which become resistant to the action of insulin, which is the hallmark of type 2 diabetes. The steady accumulation of fat in our tissue – a few tens of calories worth per day, leading to pounds per year, and obesity over the course of a few decades.”

In short, our body recognizes foods high in processed/added sugars, high-fructose corn syrup, etc. differently. Consuming 100 calories of fruit vs. a 100 calorie processed “snack bar” won’t result in the same digestive processes. The same is very likely true for other processed nutrients – hydrogenated oils, some saturated fats, etc.

Of course we shouldn’t be eating thousands of calories of fruit each day (I’m not sure your digestive tract could handle that fiber intake), nor should every calorie of soda (or candy, snack bars, etc.) be replaced with natural sugars – there is some level of energy balance to think about. But the take-away is that even when you are consuming the amount of calories you need, it does matter what foods you’re choosing. We have to start thinking outside of the numbers.

8.21 0018.21 00410.9.11 015

Think about (i.e. read ) what is on that ingredient list, and why you’re eating something out of a box, wrapper or can. Is there a better choice available?

Think about what any and every food is doing for you, aside from satisfying a hunger pain. There is always room for an indulgence (or two) – dark chocolate, I heart you – but with health-conscious consumers on the rise, even those can be short on ingredients and high in quality nutrients.


With another three other parts to the Weight of the Nation series, we have a lot to talk about! The productions are well done and engaging; there’s no doubt that these will strike a note with people. But as always, there’s more to the story.

{Any requests for Calorie Conversations, III ?}

Let’s hear it – what do you think about the quality of calories vs. just a number to add or subtract?

Are you watching Weight of the Nation ?



Filed under about me, Dietitians, food, health, learning, Nutrition, what to eat

10 responses to “Calorie Conversations II: Weighty Issues on Food Quality

  1. I’m not watching WOTN, but I am enjoying your recaps of it. I especially agree with your point that not all calories are created equal. 100 calories of vegetables will do the body so much more good than 100 calories of crap – sadly, the standard American isn’t able/willing (I think it’s more the latter) to discern between the two!

  2. runyogarepeat

    I started to watch it, but it wasn’t loading well for me. Obesity is such a complex issue in all forms – biochemical to environmental, social, etc. It’s easy to tell people to just eat less calories, but that won’t solve the issue. Maybe I’ll watch these this week to distract myself from marathon taper crazies.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful response to the series, and for urging readers to look past the obvious (but necessary) calories in, calories out, conversation. The factor I’d like to hear more about in these national conversations is how we got so far away from listening to our natural hunger and fullness signals, and how we can get back to a point where we let our bodies judge which foods make it feel good and energetic and which make it feel bad and sluggish (or worse—diseased).

  4. I think that for people who aren’t as well-versed in all the different ingredients that are good or bad for you, calories as a number are a little less daunting. Adding and subtracting makes more sense than determining the right amount of glucose/fructose/etc. If you really want people to understand the quality of the calories, I think you need to start that education earlier – like elementary/middle school health classes and make it a constant conversation so it’s just second nature.

  5. I SO agree with you on this. YES, calories count, they do. But the quality of the calories is equally, if not more, important too. I tend to gravitate towards fueling foods, nourishing foods, WHOLE foods. Sure, dark chocolate and other indulgences that are less “whole” come into play now and then but for the most part? It’s about whole, real, fuel. Excellent post!

  6. I tried to watch it last week and it wasn’t on in my area or maybe I just had the wrong time. Anyway, I do hope people someday are no longer apathetic to the ways they are killing themselves daily. It’s pretty tough to see people make choices they know are bad for them (or simply choose not to care). Hello, people, how can you not care?! You have a family and kids and people you want to be around for, right? Plus, this whole living thing, it’s pretty cool.

  7. I haven’t watched any of this series. My take is that while in the strictest sense “a calorie is NOT just a calorie” and there are differences in terms of metabolic consequences of consuming different forms of calories, yadda, yadda, yadda…..that when it boils down to it weight really is simply about the balance between caloric intake and caloric expenditure and our obesity epidemic is because people consume too much of all forms of calories and don’t move enough.
    Do I think the blame should be placed on individuals? No. Various environmental, societal, cultural, psychological, etc factors have all been related to obesity. However, if we step back even further to find the TRUE root of the problem, I think it is that too much food is produced and available. Plain and simple. It is well known that caloric intake increases at a buffet where food choices are plentiful in an acute setting. Well, essentially every day is a buffet because the number of calories of food produced is greater than the caloric requirements of the country. If there was a way to scale back production of food to a level more in-line with actual caloric requirements of the country I believe improvements would be seen in the obesity epidemic.

    • Heather C

      Thanks for chiming in! There is certainly a long list of other factors that contribute to this crisis, most of which fall under the Environment umbrella. But, the idea of this post was to draw attention to the fact that even when other things seem to be done “right”, health can be derailed by choosing to consume highly processed foods and not taking notice of the * quality* calories. I think we would see very different results from putting a highly-active individual on a diet full of “real” food vs the caloric-equivalent of almost entirely processed, high-sugar, etc food.

      Simply stepping back to look at the quantity of food *available* is also really interesting! Great point.

  8. Mamacita

    Good blog and interesting comments. There is more to the story but individuals make their own food choices and the buck has to stop somewhere.


  9. You are absolutely on the mark. Well said, Heather!

    Not all calories are created equal – and eating 100 calories of Strawberries is a lot different than 100 calories of Strawberry Jelly Beans.

    I agree that once people start to look at what they are putting into their body as a whole, you will blatantly see when you’re eating more processed or natural foods. Surround yourself with good foods!

    Great post!

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