There seems to be some confusion on the difference between calorie intake and healthy eating. While closely related, the two concepts are not always the same. Many people wrongly assume limiting calorie intake and forcing weight loss equates to healthy eating habits and sound lifestyle choices. While controlling calorie intake is mandatory for weight control, it is not synonymous with healthy eating.
What’s the difference?
Calorie intake and healthy eating are similar but do not always require the same steps. Calorie intake specifically deals with body weight and body fat. Eating a lot leads to weight gain while eating less leads to weight loss.
As far as body weight is concerned, the source of calories (healthy vs. unhealthy) is largely irrelevant. Body weight and body fat only respond to a change in total calories. It’s possible to gain weight/fat from healthy foods just as it’s possible to lose weight/fat from unhealthy junk.
Body weight is important to overall health because overweight and obese individuals are at an increased risk of developing serious health issues such as heart disease, cancer, strokes and diabetes. Eating the appropriate amount of calories in order to reside within a healthy weight range yields health benefits even if it’s done without eating healthy foods. Practicing smart nutrition habits go a step further because certain nutrients have important health benefits.
Limiting calorie intake without focusing on healthy eating still leads to weight loss. This type of weight loss isn’t ideal because it yields suboptimal results. Focusing on the short term goal of weight loss rather than the long term goal of starting and maintaining a healthy lifestyle puts you in a frame of mind which promotes weight instability and constant yo-yo dieting (an endless pattern of weight loss followed by weight gain).
A healthy lifestyle is built around a foundation of smart nutrition habits and exercise. Instead of only worrying about calorie intake to reach a short term weight goal, creating a healthy lifestyle forces you to make long term healthy choices. These long term steps naturally lead to reduced body weight and body fat because:
- healthy foods are lower in calories than unhealthy junk
- when a bigger chunk of your diet comes from healthy food, calorie intake is automatically reduced
- exercise burns more energy, leading to more weight loss
- there are two sides of the weight balance equation: calories eaten and calories burned
Healthy or not, eating the appropriate amount is necessary in controlling body weight. A calorie deficit (burning more than you eat) leads to weight loss. A calorie surplus (eating more than you burn) leads to weight gain.
It’s much easier to lose weight eating healthy foods because they are lower in calories than unhealthy ones. This allows you to eat a larger volume of food, therefore reducing hunger and cravings. This doesn’t mean you should ignore calorie intake when eating healthy foods. It’s possible to gain weight on a healthy diet if calorie intake remains unchecked. For an estimate on how many calories you should eat, use the calorie calculator.
Regardless of weight goals, healthy eating is a necessity in improving health. Essential nutrients (vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, essential fatty acids, essential amino acids), which junk & fast foods are mostly void of, prevent disease and are necessary for optimal performance in a wide array of daily tasks.
Foods high in nutrients include:
- 100% whole wheats
- legumes, nuts/nut butters, seeds
Foods void of nutrients include:
- fast food
- junk food – pizza, hamburgers, ice cream…
- sugary foods – sodas, sweet tea, fruit juice, doughnuts, muffins…
- highly processed foods
A healthy diet must be high in nutrient dense foods. Conveniently, healthy foods are mostly low in calories while unhealthy choices are much more energy dense. Replacing unhealthy choices with healthier ones improves diet quality, reduces calorie intake and leads to weight loss.
The Bottom Line
Calorie intake and healthy eating are two closely related concepts. A diet built around both concepts leads to the most desirable results. Controlling calorie intake with proper food choices leads to a stable and healthy body weight while also lowering disease risk and improving performance.