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Health Matters: Not all calories are created equal, so you can stop counting them

By Kiersten Ahlm

Photo by Kelvin T on Unsplash.

Diet culture has had a hold on Americans for more than a century now. Calorie counting popped up around 1910 and we have seen a slew of … interesting dietary theories since then. One campaign by cigarette companies encouraged people to reach for a smoke instead of a sweet. Another diet — aptly named the “Sleeping Beauty Diet” — used sedation as a way to eat less. We also saw the Cabbage Soup Diet, the Grapefruit Diet and my favorite, the Hollywood Cookie Diet. On this diet, you eat four 150-calorie cookies each day: one for breakfast, one for lunch and two for a snack. You end your day with a “light, sensible dinner” (which, they recommend, contains approximately 800 calories).

These diets had very different approaches, but they all had the same underlying concept: to limit your calories. They also might have worked for a short spell, but none of them were what I would call sustainable. You cannot eat only cabbage soup for the rest of your life and still maintain your overall health.

Fast forward to 2022 and we are in the middle of the worst obesity epidemic in our nation’s history. How can this be possible, if “diet culture” in the United States prevails? While we have been busy counting calories, we have glazed over the fact that the standard American diet (also known as S.A.D.) primarily consists of refined carbs, e.g., bread, crackers, pasta, cookies and cereal. While a lot of these foods are admittedly low in calories, the refining process strips them of their nutrients, making them quick for our bodies to digest, which, in turn, causes our blood sugar to spike and then crash. When this happens, we reach for a “quick fix” (more refined carbs), continuing this cycle. This typically also leads to more calorie consumption in a day.

Not only do these refined carbs make us reach for more refined carbs, but their high glycemic index (how much a certain food increases your blood sugar) can also affect our insulin levels. Insulin, which is a hormone made by our pancreas, takes sugar from our blood and puts it into our cells for energy. However, when we consume too much sugar, our insulin levels remain high, and therefore our cells stop responding to it. This is called insulin resistance. With nowhere to go, the insulin gets turned into a triglyceride and is stored as fat. This can lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and a whole host of other chronic conditions.

I would be remiss if I didn’t address our fear of fat and our love of processed, low-fat foods. We have been programmed to believe that the low-fat option is the best option for weight loss. This is simply not true. If you take the fat out of an ingredient, you have to replace it with something. Take low-fat salad dressing, for instance. Sugar and other thickening additives are added to these dressings to mimic the texture of oil — and we know what sugar does to our bodies …

So don’t fear the healthy fat. I’m not talking about bacon double cheeseburger fat; I mean good, healthy, unsaturated fat (and quality saturated fat, in moderation). It helps slow the absorption of food, thus helping us stay full for longer. Our bodies also need it for hormone production, absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K), and for our brains to function properly, just to name a few of its important jobs.

If many low-calorie and low-fat foods can potentially make you gain weight, then what, you ask, should you eat? I advise my clients to aim to include a high-quality protein (wild fish, lean meat, grass-fed beef, beans, legumes, eggs from pasture-raised chickens), a healthy fat (avocado, nuts, seeds) and fiber (vibrant, colorful fruits and veggies, along with whole grains) with each meal. Achieving this balance means that you will stay satiated longer, your blood sugar won’t spike and you won’t reach for that quick fix, starting the vicious cycle all over. And when you eat nutrient-rich whole foods, your body will crave more of them. This is the cycle you want.

So, you see, simply counting calories should be a thing of the past. As we say in the health and wellness world, “Count colors, not calories.”

Kiersten Ahlm is an integrative nutrition coach who specializes in blood sugar balance. To find out more about her services, check out her website at


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