It’s easy to look at fitness through a binary filter. In other words, to label things as being one of two extremes on a spectrum, such as “good” vs. “bad,” or “healthy” vs. “unhealthy,” while ignoring everything in the middle. Nutrition is no exception.
On one side, you may have heard the claim that only calories matter. If you’re in a calorie deficit, you can eat nothing but Twinkies and lose weight! On the flip side, you may have heard that calories don’t matter as long as you choose healthy foods. If it’s “clean” food, you can eat as much as you want! As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
They both matter.
It’s true that calories are the most important factor in body composition change. You must be in a caloric deficit to lose weight. That’s non-negotiable. But that doesn’t mean that food choices are insignificant.
Consuming the majority of your calories from nutritious whole or minimally-refined sources is important for a number of reasons. Here are just a few of them:
- They tend to be more filling for fewer calories, therefore physically harder to overeat.
- They are not as palatable as processed foods, which may reduce the urge to overindulge
- They provide micronutrients, fiber, etc. which are important for health.
While both calories and food choices are important for body composition and health, it doesn’t mean that you’ll get more benefit from being overly focused on either one. Being overly focused on calories (e.g., filling your diet with junk as long as it fits within your calorie goal) can mean missing out on important health benefits of whole foods. Likewise, being overly focused on food choices (e.g., only eating healthy foods) can mean ignoring calories, therefore not making progress.
The best approach is to find a balance between the two. If your focus is on food quality, be sure to also keep calories in mind. And you don’t have to fear an occasional indulgence, if you wish to partake. If your focus is on calories, be sure you’re also eating plenty of whole foods to make sure you cover your nutritional bases. They both matter, so incorporate a little of each and find your own happy medium.