Nutritional information is a misleading term. In practice, posting nutritional information is posting the amount of calories in particular food. Nutrition, however, is not solely based on the amount of calories in a certain food. There are two essential modern approaches to nutrition: the caloric approach and the micronutrient approach. Increasingly, the micronutrient approach, which takes into account the nutrients in a particular food, is coming into the forefront of the field of nutrition in the United States. From the micronutrient perspective, listing the calories is no longer an adequate measure of health.
For a word that’s thrown around so profusely, very few actually consider what a calorie is. Simply, a calorie is a unit of heat content or energy. One calorie is the amount of heat required to raise 1 gram of water 1°C. When speaking about calories in food we actually use Kilocalories (1000 small calories). Note that the EU often uses kilojoules along with kilocalories. Now, this is probably all information you learned in your high school science class, but maybe your teacher didn’t draw the connection with food. The number of calories in a particular food refers to how much potential energy they contain. Although our bodies need energy to run properly, there is no standard base amount. Metabolism refers to the chemical reactions that breakdown molecules for energy and the synthesis of compounds required by cells.
Because the amount of calories only tells us the amount of potential energy, taking into account solely the calories may not necessarily aide in making healthy choices. One may say that energy is energy, but it’s more complicated than that. It’s important to consider the nutrient per calorie ratio. As the field of nutrition evolves, studies are showing that there are high calorie foods that aide in disease prevention and extending life. One such food is nuts. For many years, nuts were labeled a “bad guy” because of their high fat content. Coincidentally, many of these fats are good fats, poly-unsaturated fats and Omega-3 fatty acids that can actually aide in lowering bad cholesterol and even weight-loss.
Foods such as nuts and avocados, which are nutrient rich and calorically heavy, can greatly impact the calorie content of a dish. This is why many salads contain more calories than a burger. The salads however are still the more healthy choice. In the typical burger, you are ingesting about 250 calories of saturated fat from the red meat, protein, simple carbohydrates from the bun, and possibly cornstarch from the ketchup. Other than the protein, none of this is particularly beneficial to the healthy functioning of your body, let alone disease prevention. In fact, most of the calories in a hamburger would be referred to as “empty calories” or calories that posses little to no fiber, antioxidants, minerals, amino acids, vitamins… etc. Although it can be used as fuel, a typical salad of the same caloric content gives you B vitamins, iron, healthy filling fats, and fiber. For the same amount of calories you are receiving many more benefits. So, next time you notice that the burger has less calories than the salad, really think about what your getting from each kilocalorie, and note that sometimes the hamburger can be just as nutritious as the salad.
Even though displaying calories may not always aide in healthy choices, it is important that people understand what is in their food and where it comes from. Part of making healthy choices is understanding what you are eating, only when informed, can you make healthy decisions. I would therefore encourage listing ingredients and ingredient sources on menus. Know that not all meat is created equal. People have the right to be educated about where their food is coming from. Only then can they make judgments on health.
As an ever-evolving field, what we know about nutrition seems to change every few years. All the nonsense diets and cleanses leave many people even more uneducated about what is good for them. I can’t help but believe, that the healthiest approach to nutrition is the most natural, nutrient-rich diet possible, that leaves you the least stressed. I am a proponent of clean eating and whatever measures you can take to keep yourself as chemical/pesticide- free as is humanly possibly. This doesn’t mean I’ll miss out on a burrito with friends every once in a while, but I always aim to understand what I choose to put in my body.