What Matters More: Calories or Nutrients?

What does a good micronutrients profile look like? While most diets will 99% of the time “work”, the true underlying reason that they do always comes down to the energy balance. A few examples include the Keto Diet, the Clean Eating Diet, and the Paleo Diet. There is nothing magical about these diets. In fact they all have one thing in common, they demonize some sort of food. Keto will tell you that carbs are bad, clean eating will tell you anything that is not chicken, rice, or broccoli is bad, and only eat like a caveman if you are on Paleo! The act of cutting things out of your diet, supports less calorie intake, which in return causes a negative energy balance yielding weight loss.

You may ask, well if it’s only the calories that matter, then why does it matter what types of food I eat at all? Awesome question, and I will address this topic in the following paragraphs. I am going to break foods down into three groups to elaborate on this concept.

Calorie Dense Foods

Calorically dense foods are usually smaller in size, and bigger in calories. Think of doughnuts, pizza, candy bars, lots of packaged foods. These are also typically things that are hard to just stop at one. Remember the sloan “Bet you can’t stop at just one”? If you grew up in the 90s you remember that Doritos commercial! For a handful of nacho cheese doritos, you are looking at around 130-170 calories.  

These foods are also very low on the micronutrient scale, so the number of vitamins and minerals that they contain are slim to none. They provide no actual nutritional value. Foods with lower amounts of micronutrients will be the things we tend to overeat, and aren’t as good at telling our bodies that they are full and to stop. 

High level Elite athletes who actually have a hard time getting the right amount of calories to fuel their performance can incorporate certain amounts of these foods into their routine. For example, a few servings of cereal is pretty easy to eat without feeling super full and bloated, for an athlete going session to session, this is a good strategy to get the calories in without feeling full and slow. But for the average 9-5 desk worker, that few servings of cereal yielding 400 calories is not necessary to fuel their sit time, and will just keep them hungry again in an hour or so. 

Nutrient Dense Foods

Foods in this category are quite the opposite as the ones above. Fibrous vegetables, most fruits, lean proteins, and others. High in micronutrients, it is much harder to overeat on these foods. 

Say you have a big bowl of greens and other veggies, with vitamins and minerals such as vitamin A, C, K, and minerals such as manganese, folate, and lots of fiber to keep satiated. Once you finish the bowl, you’re probably not looking for another big bowl so you can binge on more vegetables like you would a bag of Doritos. Great for dieting because of the volume you get and hours of satiety! 

Caloric and Nutrient Dense Foods

Lastly, a combination of the two. Things that have high micronutrients content but also yield a high calorie amount. Foods such as avocados, peanut butter, nuts, oils, all fall into this category. 

This is my favorite concept to point out when it comes to healthy nutrition not being a one size fits all approach. The Keto zealots of the world will preach about the weight loss benefits of their high fat approach.  Fats yield the HIGHEST amount of calories per gram, so while it is definitely harder to overeat them because of their high micronutrient, fiber and satiating effect, it’s also not for some people because of the low volume. A thumb size portion of peanut butter is going to be 100 calories. A salad with limitless olive oil and avocados can be 500-1000 calories or more! At a certain point people may fail on a keto diet or wonder why they stop losing weight, because they are still consuming more calories than they burn!

People get frustrated after being promised they would lose weight forever on these diets, and then they don’t see progress and lose all motivation. Much of the food on keto, vegetarianism, etc. has many nutrient benefits, and I believe we need to incorporate them into our diet.  We just need to be able to add balance to our as well . So, why just meat? Why just vegetables? They both have so many different micronutrient profiles and benefits to us. I like the best of both worlds! 

None of the three categories are meant to be good or bad. They are meant to show you the different categories of foods, and of which micronutrients are more available. Include as much of the nutrient dense foods, be moderate with the calorie dense nutrient dense foods, and treat yourself once 10-20% of the time with the fun calorie dense foods! Overall a high micronutrient dense diet with balanced macros will support a healthy appetite and relationship with food while also supporting performance.