Are Calorie Labels Giving You Wrong Info?

A nutritional label, close-up

When you read a food label to count calories, you might assume that all calories are the same. You may have heard the saying “A calorie is a calorie is a calorie.” Weight loss always comes down to burning off more calories than you take in. But it turns out that some calories are different from others.

What Makes a Calorie

A calorie is a measurement of how much energy a food provides. Calorie measurement is not very exact, however. It"s more of an estimate. A gram of protein or carbohydrate gives you about 4 calories. A gram of fat gives you about 9 calories. People have measured calories this way for more than 100 years. The problem is it does not take into account how a food is prepared or digested.

Your body uses more energy to digest food when you eat it raw. That leaves you with fewer calories. When you eat food that is cooked, mashed or blended, some of the work of digestion is done for you. This type of food preparation is called processing. Processed food goes down easier, so it gives you more calories. The food label might look the same, but the result is different.

The same thing happens with refined food. Take whole-grain foods, for instance. The starchy covering around the grain makes it harder to digest. Digestion takes longer and requires more energy. You get fewer calories. If you take the same grain and grind it up—refine it—it becomes easier to digest. This means your body gets more calories from the same food.

It’s likely that food labels are overestimating the actual number of calories we get from digesting foods that are less processed. 

What to Know About Calorie Counting

If you want to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, you need to pick calories wisely. Here"s how:

1. Avoid empty calories. Use the food label to choose foods with fewer calories. Also pick foods with healthy calories. Unhealthy calories are empty calories. They provide energy without nutrients.

To avoid empty calories:

  • Limit added sugar. Foods with added sugar include desserts and candy. Sodas and many fruit drinks have added sugar too.
  • Limit solid fat. Solid fats are solid at room temperature. They include butter, cream and shortening. Other foods with solid fat include fatty meats, pastries, doughnuts, and ice cream.

2. Look for whole grains. Whole grains contain the entire grain capsule:

  • They are usually darker in color than refined grains but not always.
  • The first word on the ingredient list should be “whole.” Examples include whole wheat or whole oats. Whole-grain foods are a great source of fiber.

Besides whole grains, other high-fiber foods also slow digestion and give you higher-quality calories. These foods include nuts, fruits and vegetables.
3. Shop the outside aisles
. Processed foods are usually the foods in the inner aisles of your grocery store. Whole foods are usually found around the outside. That"s where you"ll find fruits, vegetables, fish, meats, dairy products, and freshly baked breads. This is where you typically get quality calories.

The Bottom Line

If you want to lose or control your weight, it still comes down to burning more calories than you take in. Stay active and keep checking the food labels for a calorie count. Remember, though, that not all calories are equal. The less processed the better.

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