The world is struggling with a global obesity epidemic. As of 2000, the number of obese adults has increased to over 300 million.
The British Nutrition Foundation’s Quality Calorie (QC) concept helps us to not just look at the number of calories we consume, but also the quality of the calories we consume.
Thing is, all calories are not created equally. There are quality calories and then there are empty calories.
What’s the Difference and Why is it Important?
Empty-calorie foods have either very little or no nutrient content. Examples of this are doughnuts, biscuits, fizzy drinks, and alcohol. These foods and drinks have loads of calories, but little or no nutritional value – thus empty calories.
On the other hand, foods like avocados, nuts, fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, seeds, beans, and legumes are nutrient-rich foods – they have what the BNF refers to as “quality calories”.
The point of this new concept is to make people aware of the quality of the foods they choose to eat rather than simply focusing on the number of calories a food contains. Simply counting calories is not enough.
At the same time, the aim of this concept is to make sure that we get enough of the nutrients that we need (including vitamins, minerals, and fiber), and that we limit the amount of sugar, salt and saturated fat we take in.
“We know that as a nation we are consuming too many calories. In order to help battle the obesity crisis, it is, of course, important to be aware of the calories we eat and drink, but we also need to be mindful of the nutritional quality,” states the BNF.
It’s important to understand that foods with the same calorie count can vary considerably in nutritional value. For instance, an avocado has a similar calorie count as a chocolate-covered biscuit, but it’s a better choice for a snack as it has many more nutrients than a biscuit.
The same goes for nuts. Nuts are high in calories, but they are also packed with nutrients. Provided you don’t overdo it and keep the portion small, a handful of almonds can be a healthy alternative to snacks like chips, biscuits, and crackers. Almonds are packed with protein and calcium.
A medium-sized (100g) banana contains 95 calories and a two-finger KitKat contains 106 calories. The banana has quality calories, while those from the chocolate bar are empty.
The point is, if we only think about calories as numbers, we might choose to avoid foods that are relatively high in calories but also have a high nutritional value.
For example, we might choose not to eat avocados, cheese, nuts or oily fish because their calorie counts are high. Yet, all these foods are highly nutritious and shouldn’t be excluded from a healthy diet.
This does not mean that we can simply forget about portion size. It’s important to still control portion size in order to control calorie intake and manage your weight.
There are simple ways that you can do this. For example, keep the number of nuts to a handful or use a spoon to measure out spreads or oils, suggests the BNF.
Preparing meals for the week ahead is also a way to avoid hasty takeaways and their high-calorie count.
Do These Simple Swaps and Improve Your Diet
If you understand the quality calorie concept, it can be a great benefit to your diet and your health. You might even lose weight without actually going on a diet!
This is because the quality calorie concept makes it possible for us to make small, simple food swaps that will improve the quality of our diets for the same or fewer calories.
In order to make meaningful substitutes, you need to inform yourself of the nutritional value of different foods. Understand that vegetables, fresh fruit, beans, nuts, grains, meats, fish (even the oily varieties) and dairy products are all examples of food that’s high in nutrients.
These foods can replace processed meat (that’s high in salt and preservatives), white bread, most store-bought cereals, crackers, and sweet and savory sandwich spreads.
Here are some examples of how you can QC your everyday meals, snacks, and drinks to increase their nutritional value.
- A bowl of chocolate-covered cereal – swap to a wholegrain cereal and add some fresh or dried fruit for sweetness.
- A bowl of cream of chicken soup – swap to lentil and vegetable soup.
- A ham sandwich on white bread with butter – swap to a chicken and salad sandwich on wholegrain bread.
- Fried egg, bacon and tomato sauce on a white roll – swap to poached egg with sardines and sliced, fresh tomato on a whole wheat roll.
- White toast with butter and jam – swap to whole wheat bread with peanut butter.
More ideas for your morning toast include mashed avocado, with or without cottage cheese, low-fat cream cheese with a sliced banana and a few nuts, baked beans with some grated cheese or mushrooms cooked in a little rapeseed oil.
- In the place of syrup or chocolate sauce on your morning pancakes, try fresh berries or other fresh fruit with a drizzle of honey. You can also add nuts.
- Your must-have mid-afternoon chocolate bar – replace with a few cubes of dark chocolate, a small portion of nuts, two rice cakes, and nut butter or malt loaf and unsaturated spread. A few pieces of dried fruit and some seeds will also do the trick.
- Replace low-fat fruit yogurt with plain yogurt and fresh fruit – much nicer!
- Pizza – don’t have a whole pizza. Have a few slices and make up the rest of the meal with a filling salad. Pizza and salad go great together. Make the salad filling by adding chicken breast, tuna, avocado or cheese. Add lots of leaves and raw vegetables for fiber and to fill you up.
- Replace fizzy drinks with fresh, unsweetened fruit juice. The BNF suggests sticking to 150 ml of juice per day. You can also make your own milkshakes with low-fat milk and fresh fruit or berries. Sweeten with a bit of honey and flavor with spices like ginger or cinnamon.
When you QC your meals, the BNF suggests thinking in terms of:
- Whole wheat or high fiber
- Adding plenty of vegetables
- Healthier cooking options: consider steaming fish and vegetables; less deep-fried food; less battered and less salt
- Tomato and vegetable-based sauces rather than creamy sauces
- Lean meat, chicken, fish or shellfish instead of processed meats