All Calories Are Not Created Equal—Here’s Why

For plenty of people, calories are king. We watch, count, and talk about calories an awful lot—but is there a difference between a PopTart calorie and a broccoli calorie? And do we really need to whip out our calculators every time we sit down for a meal?

First things first, we need to understand what a calorie really is. A calorie is a unit of energy that our body gets from a food or drink we consume, explains Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Keri Gans Nutrition. Our body needs calories to maintain basic functions and power us through daily activities, like exercise. (We each need a different ideal number of daily calories, depending on our gender, size, our health goals, and our activity level.)

What That Number Doesn’t Tell You

Calories alone shouldn’t be your only food-selecting compass. “There’s a big difference between 100 calories from almonds and 100 calories from cookies,” says Gans. While 100 calories of almonds provides heart-healthy unsaturated fats, fiber, protein, and some calcium, 100 calories of cookies likely provides little more than a quick burst of energy (and later, crash) from simple carbs and sugar. Without fiber or protein on board, the cookie’s carbs and sugar break down fast and send your blood sugar flying.

When you pick up a food product, Gans recommends asking yourself: “What nutrition does this give me that I need? What does it contain that I could do without?” Pay attention to where your calories are coming from. Protein and fiber? Great. Saturated fat and added sugar? Not so great.

Get in the habit of reading ingredient lists: “If we’re just focusing on the calories in a packaged food that has 50 ingredients, we’re way off,” says Brittany Michels, R.D., dietitian for The Vitamin Shoppe. Calories aside, our healthiest food choices are packed with nutrients, aren’t processed, and are free of antibiotics, chemicals, and preservatives, she says.

Foods that have a high ratio of important nutrients (like vitamins and minerals) to calories are called ‘nutrient-dense’ foods, explains Michels. These foods give your body more health bang for your buck. Meanwhile, foods that provide calories but little or no vitamins or minerals are ‘empty calories,’ says Gans. To support your body and health, you want your daily calories to be as nutrient-dense as possible. Foods like salmon and seeds may be high in calories, but they also happen to pack plenty of nutrients.

Related: What You Need To Know About The Popular Whole30 Diet

Considering Calories And Weight Loss

The number of calories you consume does matter, especially if you’re trying to lose weight, so while calories aren’t equal across the board, you should consider them.

You’ve probably heard that you need to consume fewer calories than you burn in order to shed pounds—but you don’t need to count every single calorie to get there. Instead of slaving over your food-tracking app, Gans recommends choosing whole foods and learning how to combine them for balanced, healthy meals. “Fill a quarter of your plate with lean protein like chicken or fish, a quarter with whole grains or fiber-filled carbs like quinoa or sweet potato, and half with vegetables like spinach or broccoli,” she says. When you combine nutrient-dense foods, you’ll feel full and satisfied, and likely land in the right calorie range without all the counting.

Keeping these portion sizes in mind is key, though, says Gans. Too much of a nutrient-dense, healthy food is still too much. Take avocado, for example. The fruit contains fiber and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, but one serving is just a quarter of an avocado, says Gans. So if you spoon your way through the whole thing (been there, done that), you’re still racking up major calories and sabotaging your weight-loss efforts. Other good-for-you fats, like nuts and olive oil, can also be easy to overdo if you’re not conscious of serving size, says Gans.

The bottom line: Calorie count doesn’t define whether a food is healthy or not. Keep your body in tip-top shape (and at a healthy weight) by picking nutrient-dense, whole foods over empty, processed foods, while staying aware of serving sizes when you nosh.

Related: Find a supplement to support your weight-management plan.

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