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Calorie Counting vs. Food Quality: Opposing Forces or Foundational Concepts

Full disclosure: I am an RDN who loathes calorie counting, calculating macros, and tracking calorie in - calories out.

It has nothing to do with why I chose nutrition as my career. I am not of the opinion that calorie counting is the most important aspect of improving one's nutritional status. What is? Food quality. In today's world, it is food quality that is at the root of poor nutrition. A 100 calorie pack of ultra-processed 'food' is something different altogether compared to 100 calories of fruits, vegetables, beans, avocado, or lean pasture raised meat. Food has varying effects on insulin levels, affecting satiety, and how you feel energy wise. It is our internal hormonal signals that help us self regulate appetite, and as a result, how much we eat. Research has shown processed food consumption to result in excessive calorie intake and weight gain. When we are hungry, the idea is to feed your body the substrates and fuel needed to help you thrive. Doing this may result in less food cravings, greater satiety, energy, and resilience.

Aside from appetite regulation resulting from the hormonal signals that result from what we eat, there are also the effects a food has on the microbiome to consider. Our microbiome is the collective of microorganisms that ideally live in symbiotic harmony with us, outnumber us in total cell counts and genetic information, and can impact our health for better or worse. A health supporting microbiome is nourished by diverse fibers in foods, a.k.a. a plant centered diet. Processed foods may make us more susceptible to dysbiosis, or a bad mix of microorganisms in the microbiota by not supporting healthy microorganisms and feeding more pathogenic or obesity promoting species.

If you want to eat healthier, first look at food quality. Cultivate a taste and appreciation for a diverse rainbow of whole, minimally processed foods. Weed out the processed foods. Look carefully and convenience food products and ask, 'are the ingredients in this products consisting of minimally processed foods?' For help with this consider a consultation to help you learn more about what to look for and how it relates to your personal health needs and goals.

Once your food quality is in a good place, or maybe even at the same time, you can work on your macros. This means how much protein, carbohydrate, and fat you are eating in proportion to your whole diet, meal, and snack intake. It can also be helpful to think about the timing of your eating, and how the timing fuels you day. This is another area where it can be helpful to work with RDNs.

Combining optimal food quality with optimal macronutrient and approximate calorie intake is a winning combination.


Hall KD, Ayuketah A, Brychta R, Cai H, Cassimatis T, Chen KY, Chung ST, Costa E, Courville A, Darcey V, Fletcher LA, Forde CG, Gharib AM, Guo J, Howard R, Joseph PV, McGehee S, Ouwerkerk R, Raisinger K, Rozga I, Stagliano M, Walter M, Walter PJ, Yang S, Zhou M. Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake. Cell Metab. 2019 Jul 2;30(1):67-77.e3. doi: 10.1016/j.cmet.2019.05.008. Epub 2019 May 16. Erratum in: Cell Metab. 2019 Jul 2;30(1):226. Erratum in: Cell Metab. 2020 Oct 6;32(4):690. PMID: 31105044; PMCID: PMC7946062.

Kim B, Choi HN, Yim JE. Effect of Diet on the Gut Microbiota Associated with Obesity. J Obes Metab Syndr. 2019;28(4):216-224. doi:10.7570/jomes.2019.28.4.216

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