Friday, May 22, 2009

Nutrients vs. Calories: The Debate Goes On

The debate continues. So far, I have not heard any support for high calories and low nutrients, except in the case of starvation (see below). Instead, people seem willing to sacrifice a few calories in the name of healthier food, which can be looked at as preventative medicine. This decision seems heavily based on nutrition education.

Earlier this week, I shared the debate with Dr. Marion Nestle in an email. Here is what I said:

"I ask my readers to choose what they would prefer: less nutrients and more calories (i.e. cheap junk food) or more nutrients and less calories (assuming there is a cap on the amount of money spent on food). What I find to be a fascinating argument is that junk food (fast foods, packaged food, frozen food, etc.) is argued to be cheaper so it has been concluded that lower income people are more overweight due to higher calories at lower prices. I'm not quite in agreement with this argument because those same lower-income people could (assuming they are educated about nutrition in this case) choose to eat healthier foods, albeit less calories for more money, but it seems like most of us could use less calories anyway.

What are your thoughts on this? If you had to choose between less calories/more nutrients or more calories/less nutrients, which would you choose?"

Dr. Nestle responded: "The choice you pose depends on the circumstances. For people who are starving, calories with some nutrients is better than not enough calories. For typical Americans who are largely overfed, cutting down on calories is a good idea."

Emma's comment about junk food is another good argument:
"...1200 calories of potato chips is almost a day's calories for someone trying to lose weight but I bet those chips are eaten as a snack in one sitting. You then have to buy food for lunch, dinner, breakfast and afternoon tea."

I enjoyed reading everyone's comments and I hope to fuel the debate by sharing a story about school lunches:

I learned recently that one of the biggest problems with school lunches is that there are USDA guidelines that require a certain amount of calories per meal (1/3 of a child's daily caloric requirement must be served at each meal). The following story describes why this guideline needs to be changed to adopt a more nutrient-based requirement, and not just calorie-based:

Once, a dietitian decided to try and make school lunches healthier by taking cookies off the trays and substituting apple slices. The apple slices did not provide the required amount of calories, though, and so the apple slices were taken away and replaced with the high-fat, high-sugar cookies--all because of a caloric requirement, not a nutrient requirement. It seems that as long as the minimum number of calories are met, the quality of food doesn't matter. Fried, sugary and fattening foods seem to fly as long as the calorie requirement is met. I understand that some children get one or two meals at school and this might be the best form of nourishment they get all day. However, if the USDA guidelines would take into account nutrients, those same kids might also be participating in preventative health care, which in turn lowers annual health care costs.

Take a look at PCRM's (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) school lunch program nutrition advocacy here.

Also, there is a Childhood Obesity National Conference coming up next month, June 18-19 in Washington, D.C. where I am currently visiting and learning a lot about nutrition and politics. The issues being addressed at this conference are particularly interesting to me, including:
  • PANEL: Are government and industry responsible for childhood obesity?
  • The fattening of America: How the economy makes us fat, if it matters, and what to do about it.
  • Global dynamics of diet and obesity
  • Can a vegetarian diet protect children from obesity?
  • PANEL: Should every school offer vegetarian options?
  • The developmental origins of obesity in childhood and chronic disease in later life
To name a few. To find out more, go to

Also, this just in: Dr. Nestle's post, "Strong Opinions About Obesity"

And, lastly, an article in the Washington Post giving us insight into the decision-making of the poor.


Kitchen Stewardship said...

Very interesting! I'll have to check back in on your blog. We think a lot alike -- see my post here: and my journey of no sugar (just 40 days) here:

Michelle said...

Calories are easier to count and make rules around. Nutrients, not quite as easy. And food quality, forget it! It's hard for politics to handle something so qualitative. But you are right, these are the issues that need to be handled sooner than later!

My Year Without said...

Kitchen-Thanks for sharing your sugar-free journey!

Michelle-I hope that there is enough pressure put on nutritional guidelines that we change from JUST calories counting, to nutrients counting, too. Every voice counts!