Many people like to label food as good or bad, or label calories as good calories or bad calories. However, as we’ll discuss in this article, whether calories are good or bad is more nuanced than a simple label, and has to be reviewed in context with the rest of our eating and our intention behind each food choice, and not in isolation.
Let me get started by explaining some concepts, like “calorie budget”, “calorie deficit”, and “calorie investing”, and then I’ll answer the question about good and bad foods.
Every day you have a calorie budget.
This is like you have a certain money every day to do with it whatever it is that you want to do. So you already allocate those calories by making different food choices, and when you’re counting calories you know exactly what calories you invest with each food choice.
Same with your money. You have a certain amount of money and I’m pretty sure you may have an investment portfolio or a retirement account or you spend some money, you go on vacation, you pay maybe for a gym, like you make decisions about your money.
OK, now you do have a Calorie Investing Portfolio, but that means that portfolio is performing as it should, or better said as it could, because if you were to optimize it, you would get higher returns, which is what Calorie Investing is.
Same thing with money. If you optimize your money, you might be making more out of your investments. OK, maybe you’re going to sell some bonds and buy some ETFs. I don’t know. But there are things that you can do to increase your return. OK, and totally same thing with your money.
To lose weight, you’ll need to be on a calorie deficit.
When you consume fewer calories than your body needs for maintenance, and reduce your energy intake, then you’ll be losing fat. This is what a calorie deficit is.
Cutting calories will help put you on a calorie deficit. However, calorie restriction does not necessarily mean “eat less”. In fact, here at Fitness Reloaded, we eat MORE food, while still on a reduced calorie intake and losing weight.
Want to find out your best calories when on a calorie deficit? Use my online weight loss calculator.
Are there good calories and bad calories?
Let’s discuss on this dichotomy between good and bad foods. Many people think that, oh, those are good foods and that we can eat and those are bad foods that we cannot eat and I want you to stop thinking in simplistic terms.
This is extremely simplistic because it all comes down to context. OK, this is good for what? For example, the color red is a great color to wear if I want to attract attention. The color red is also probably a bad color to wear if I were to go to a funeral. You see my point? Color red is neither good nor bad. It can be both, it depends on the context. So when it comes to food, again, it depends on the context.
What is context when we discuss good foods and bad foods?
There are TWO types of context. One has to do with the intention that was driving the eating. And the second one is related to reviewing that food choice together with the rest of your food choices.
Here are the 5 types of context when it comes to the intention:
#1 Sense of Belonging
Maybe having a glass of wine is increasing your sense of belonging, so it’s good for that. Glass of wine? Not a very good choice if you’re going to drive.
OK, so if you’re optimizing for safe driving, you will stay away from that glass of wine. If you’re optimizing for a sense of belonging, you will go ahead and have a glass of wine.
If you’re having cheesecake, maybe you optimize for pleasure, or maybe you’ve had a bad day and eat to make yourself feel better.
Back to the cheesecake example, if you want to stay under the American Heart Association’s recommendation about limiting saturated fat to 5 or 6% of your calories to reduce risk of heart disease, then you may want to stay away.
#4 Pleasing other people
Continuing with the cheesecake example, if your aunt made the cheesecake and you feel like you need to try it so you don’t hurt her feelings, then you’d be optimizing for pleasing others if you were to go for it.
#5 Weight loss
If you’re wondering whether a food ir good or bad for weight loss, then you have to think about satiety.
Now when it comes to Weight loss, we care about one thing specifically, and that is satiety, meaning you want to get full in fewer calories. This is what you care about with weight loss, because if you can feel full without eating a lot of food, and by a lot of food, I don’t mean a lot of calories, I mean volume of food.
For example, nuts are more calorie dense than fruits. You’re going to feel fuller faster if you consume, say 200 cal of fruit, vs 200 cal of nuts.
The other thing we care about when it comes to weight loss, is joy. Meaning, 100% optimizing for for the really healthy food items, without leaving any room for food calories from what people refer to as “junk food,” might create deprivation which might make you quit.
That’s why at Fitness Reloaded, when you apply Calorie Investing, you will be eating items from ALL food groups, and not make exclusions. Because this is what Calorie Investing is all about: having a healthy diet and making some really good investments with food, so you can then have extra calories that you can spend on high calorie foods, or “save” and lose fat even faster!
Cheesecake: Can it be both good and bad for weight loss?
So back to the cheesecake example. Eating a lot of cheesecake, a food that’s likely to drive overeating and is very calorie dense, might risk giving you extra calories that would go against your weight loss goals.
So is cheesecake bad? Yes.
But at the same time, if you were to never eat cheesecake, when you really love that cheesecake, and if that deprivation makes you quit, then not having the cheesecake ever was a bad weight loss strategy.
So in this scenario, cheesecake is good!
So you can see now that when it comes to weight loss, even the same food, can be good or bad depending on the context!
You have to take into account the intention, i.e., what am I optimizing for here, and also, the rest of your eating, to determine if that was a good or bad choice.
So are good and bad calories always reviewed in context? Can’t we group foods in absolute terms and say that this is a bad food absolutely or this is a good food absolutely?
You can definitely talk in absolutes, because some things are absolutely true, no matter the intention or the rest of your eating. For example, eating trans fat is bad, period. Eating contaminated food is also bad, absolutely.
So just because with the majority of food choices you need to review multiple factors to determine if the choice was good or bad, doesn’t mean that this is true for all choices.
Other than the absolutely good or bad choices, the rest of your eating you still label if you want, using “rules of thumb”, but keep in mind, some choices might still go against your rule of thumb labeling.
That means that if you’re optimizing for health specifically, then you can certainly say that, e.g., cheesecake is bad or kale is good, just like you can say that the color red is a bad color to wear at a funeral.
Weight loss is about increasing your quality of life.
Overall, items in the high-yield an medium-yield food groups, i.e., nutrient dense foods that are high volume and high fiber foods with 6 g of fiber per 100 kcal, plus lean sources of protein, are good when it comes to weight loss specifically.
At the same time, I would refrain from labeling the “negative return” foods, i.e., the high calorie foods such as yellow cheese or high fat desserts, as “bad”, because while they do “cost calories” without any strong satiety benefits, they can make life fun & more enjoyable, and weight loss is not just about getting to the goal as soon as possible, it’s about getting to your goal body weight while increasing your quality of life.
And your quality of life is more than your body weight but is instead a mixed bag of pleasure, sense of belonging with others, and health.