Making Calories Count

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on September 12, 2005 · 0 comments

There are 80 calories in an oatmeal cookie, a medium apple, or a glass of nonfat milk. Which is the best nutritional investment?

An oatmeal cookie, regardless of how good it tastes, has far more fat and sugar than oatmeal. Your calorie investment is low on important nutrients, but high in fat and sugar – not a great return for calories spent.

The apple is crunchy, tasty, low in fat, high in fiber, with modest amounts of vitamins and minerals. Not a bad choice, but the return on your calorie investment is conservative at best.

Nonfat milk is low in calories and fat, but high in protein, calcium, phosphorous, potassium, vitamin D, and vitamin A. Few calories spent – nutrient return excellent.

This comparison is an example of a new way researchers are looking at the foods we eat – the vitamin- and mineral-to-calorie ratio. If the contribution of vitamins and minerals is low –as in a candy bar or bottle of soda – but the calories are high, the food is less nutrient-dense. In contrast, nonfat milk, fruits, vegetables, and whole wheat bread pack a number of important nutrients into a modest amount of calories, and so are nutrient dense.

The 2005 My Pyramid food guide illustrates nutrient density visually by the width of its segments (see past feature The New Pyramid). Fruits, vegetables, dairy, and grains have wider sections, followed by meats, with the slimmest section for fats. Foods found in the widest sections are lower in calories and higher in important nutrients for the amount of calories they contain.

Discretionary Calories
So, you’re thinking, what about that oatmeal cookie? It becomes part of your discretionary calories. Experts calculate that most people can count on 100 to 300 discretionary calories daily after they’ve eaten all the nutrient rich choices needed for a healthy diet. Add more activity to your routine and the number of discretionary calories you can splurge on goes up.

Nutrient-density = Power calories

  • Eat brightly colored fruits
  • Eat vegetables, including potatoes. Choose deep green, red and orange choices often
  • Eat whole grain or fortified breads, cereals, and pasta
  • Eat nonfat or lowfat milk, yogurt, cheese
  • Eat moderate sized portions of lean meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, beans, and nuts
  • Eat less foods high in fat or sugar
  • Use moderate amounts of alcohol

Choose nutrient-dense foods first, followed by discretionary calories as your individual calorie and activity level allows.

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