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When is a Calorie not a Calorie???

When it comes to choosing foods, no matter what your goals are, you need to be mindful about the calories you are selecting.

What we're talking about here is the difference between food that is nutritionally dense and food that is calorie dense, as well as the foods that happen to be both.

I'll start with nutritionally dense foods and what this actually means. The nutrients in food trigger hormones and these hormones essentially make the body work.

If we don't eat enough of the right foods then these hormones don't get triggered and the body ceases to function properly.

The nutrients I refer to are all the vitamins and minerals we need as human beings - the vitamins and minerals that we can only find in food like vegetables, meats, fruits, nuts and seeds. These food groups are nutritionally dense foods, although meat, fruit, nuts and seeds are actually nutritionally and calorie dense for reasons I will explain shortly.

Nutritionally dense variety of vegetables
Vegetableas are nutritionally dense

Vegetables are the big guns when it comes to vitamins and minerals (or micro-nutrients), they contain pretty much all you need to survive if you eat a good variety and quantity of them. Dark Leafy greens are by far the power houses of this group. Vegetables contain a degree of carbohydrates, but as there is also a lot of fibre, the body will utilise the carbs as quick energy, therefore they are not calorie dense.

For a list of the 11 most nutrient dense foods on the planet (according to Healthline) click HERE

So, when is a calorie not just a calorie?

Essentially a calorie is a measure of energy, I'm going to get a little scientific here.

A small calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1g water by 1ºC at a pressure of 1 atmosphere.

A large calorie or Kcal, sometimes written as just a C, which is the type we are all familiar with, is used as a unit of measure for food energy or nutritional energy and signifies the amount of energy a particular food will give us.

So in essence, yes a calorie is just a calorie, but food calories are further broken down as to where these calories come from. As far as food is concerned, calories or energy comes from 3 main places, carbohydrates, fats and proteins, often referred to as macro-nutrients.

Infographic for good carbs and bad carbs
What are good carbs and bad carbs

So back to the point of calorie dense foods.

When it comes to energy, carbohydrates are what the body goes to first for its' energy. Good carbs like rice, quinoa, bulgar wheat, British fruits (because we eat the skins), berries like blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, sweet potatoes, white potatoes depending how you cook them and pretty much all veg, are great for this quick energy.

These foods contain both carbohydrates and some nutrients we need and so fall into the moderately calorie dense category.

Here are the calorific values for carbohydrates, 1g starch = 4.18 calories or Kcal, 1g alcohol = 7.09 calories or Kcal, 1g sucrose = 3.94 calories or Kcal, 1g glucose = 3.94 calories or Kcal.

Fats are what the body will use as a longer lasting energy source. When all the carbohydrates are gone the body's fat stores are used. Nuts and seeds sit on the calorie dense category because they contain quite a lot of fats/oils too, mostly monounsaturates, polyunsaturates, omega 3, 6, & 9. Nuts and seeds also contain many vitamins and minerals the body needs to function - potassium, calcium, phosphorous, Vit B1, B2, B6, E, so are nutritionally dense also. Many endurance athletes rely on this information to plan their nutrition on long runs.

The calorific value of fats, 1 g fat = 9.44 calories or Kcal

A variety of foods offering healthy fats for the body
Healthy fats are in nuts, seeds, avocadoes, salmon eggs

Image showing a selection of protein sources
Protein comes from many different sources

Protein is sourced from all meats, fish and dairy as well as nuts. Some meats, like red meats and game, contain a lot of fat as well as protein and fall into the calorie dense category, this is again because they contain many of our vitamins and minerals like iron, potassium, magnesium as well as Vit K, Vit E and Vit B12. Proteins are what help to repair the body after the damage caused by extreme exercise like heavy lifting, resistance training and even endurance events. White meats like white fish, chicken and turkey tend to be a lot leaner and contain much less fat/oil, they are not considered calorie dense. Some fish, like salmon and mackerel, on the other hand contain good fats like omega 3, as well as some vitamins, minerals and protein making them calorie dense foods.

The calorific value of protein, 1g protein = 5.65 calories or Kcal.

Some of the most calorie dense foods are the ones that contain fats, again nuts and seeds, avocados, dark chocolate (the darker the better, around 85% is good), almond butter and other nut butters, olive oil, rape seed oil, avocado oil, coconut oil. These ought to be treated with caution as they are easy to over indulge on. Smaller amounts of fats are needed to satisfy the appetite and they last longer as an energy. Again many endurance athletes are turning to fats to fuel the longer events.

Calorie dense foods help to satisfy the appetite and make us feel fuller for longer, staving off hunger.

Protein, good fats and good carbohydrates are great for similar reasons, they prevent the need for snacking.

Many of the foods above are nutritionally dense and calorie dense, when consumed in the correct proportions, they help us to maintain our body's functions, size and shape.

Image showing fizzy drinks as processed foods
Avoid processed foods and fizzy drinks

The dangerous category for calorie dense foods are the processed foods - biscuits, cake, pasta, pizza, dried fruit, fizzy drinks, sports drinks. This group of foods are full of sugars, refined sugars and contain no real nutrients whatsoever. 

The body digests this food and then realises that it's not getting the nutrients it needs and so releases Grehlin, the hunger hormone which makes us want to eat again.

If we aren't active enough, all the sugar that has been consumed gets stored as fat for a later time and not used for energy immediately.

When it comes to choosing foods, no matter what your goals are, be mindful about the calories you are selecting, some can be more harmful than others.

Some foods will help you get the very best from your sport and others not so.

Even if you're super active, you need to think about getting the nutrients your body needs first and then, if you've got room, try a little indulgence.

It's not clever to think that just because you've done a long run, cycle or swim that's its OK to smash a cake stall to bits. There is truth in the quote 'You can't out exercise a bad diet'.

I'm not suggesting for a minute to never eat another cake, I like cake too, but maybe consider that your body is actually needing nutrients and when it's screaming out it's maybe not for bad carbs, but is really a call for some vitamins or minerals that you're lacking.

Being super active is, after all, damaging the body in some way or another and repair has to take place first. Failure to repair can lead to lasting, sometimes unnoticed damage.

So when is a calorie, not a calorie?

Imagine if you ate 3000 calories of nutrient dense food vs 3000 calories of processed food in the picture above... the answer is quite clear.

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