NUTRITION
September 1, 2015

It's Not About The Calories

Our rising obesity rates have led us to equate food with calories. But we really should be counting nutrients.

Food is one of the best medicines. We have become so accustomed to counting calories and thinking of food as weight-producing (which some foods certainly are) that we’ve forgotten to consider the nutritional and medicinal value of what we eat and the positive effects food can have in our bodies.

It’s time to reverse this trend.

If calories were the only thing that mattered, a cola beverage would trump a handful of nuts.

According to an editorial published in the online journal Open Heart, within just a matter of months, simple changes to our diets can make a difference in our individual health, as well as our collective health.

Our over-emphasis on calories has shifted the focus away from eating based on the beneficial nutrients in foods to simply counting the calories in what we eat.

If calories were the only thing that mattered, a cola beverage would trump a handful of nuts. A can of cola contains 150 calories compared to over 200 calories in a handful of peanuts. Nutritionally, all the cola provides is sugar and it substantially increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, but the nuts provide healthy omega-3 fats that have been shown to significantly reduce the risk of heart disease within months, and they contain a healthy dose of protein, vitamins and minerals.

By some estimates, eating more nuts could prevent 90,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease just in the United States.

“Shifting focus away from calories and emphasizing a dietary pattern that focuses on food quality rather than quantity will help to rapidly reduce obesity, related diseases and cardiovascular risk,” the authors write.

The evidence is mounting that the nutritional content of what we eat is more important to our health than the number of calories we eat. But the cost of obesity and its related chronic diseases is enormous, and this is perhaps one reason why calories have been overemphasized.

The estimated medical cost of obesity in the United States is $147 billion to $210 billion per year and accounts for about 21 percent of healthcare expenditures. By 2030 the tab is expected to increase by $48 billion to $66 billion per year. The total cost of diabetes is over $245 billion, and health expenses and lost productivity related to heart disease add more than $312 billion each year.

The authors maintain, however, that “…poor diet is consistently responsible for more disease and death than physical inactivity, smoking and alcohol combined.”

Taxing sugary drinks, government subsidies to make produce and nuts more affordable, and stricter controls on the marketing of junk food are among the ways the researchers suggest we can begin to make sure we give the health-producing aspects of food the importance they deserve. Such policies could achieve rapid reduction in disease and hospital admissions.

“It is time to stop counting calories, and time to instead promote good nutrition and dietary changes that can rapidly and substantially reduce cardiovascular mortality. The evidence indeed supports the mantra that ‘food can be the most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison’,” the authors believe.

Their recommendation? A high fat Mediterranean type diet and active lifestyle is a good place to start.

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