The Value of Calories: Comparing Unlike Things

By Megrette Fletcher M.Ed., RD, CDE

Society has created a lot of unfortunate emotions and assumptions regarding calories. These emotions seem to be centered on the confusion when looking at two 100-calorie products: a pack of nuts and an ice cream sandwich. The calories of these two foods are equal. However, the nutritional value of these two foods is very different. Therefore, knowing what the calories are, doesn’t help you or your kids understand the nutrients that food offers. This confusion can become downright misleading when the focus is on ONLY the amount of calories in food.  When a parent or professional starts down the road of valuing only the number of calories a product has, they promote food judgment. 

Resist the desire to defend the idea that the amount of calories makes a food good or bad, and remember back to what a calorie is — a measure of energy. Calories can’t be judged in isolation, they are only a tiny part of this “whole” called nutrition. Calories are just a piece of a much larger conversation.  Calories can help you explore and understand your values. Ask yourself, does this food provide a good value for the number of calories it offers?  This question, “Is it a good value?” is an important but seldom discussed nutritional concept called nutrient density. Nutrient Density is a comparison between the amount of nutrients a product has available per calorie. Gratefully, there are helpful tools available if you are willing to ask yourself, “What could I do to improve the nutrient density of the foods already in our diet?” For instance, smartphones offer helpful apps such as FOODUCATE. Also, algorithms that supermarkets use, such as Guiding Stars, help shoppers choose higher-nutrient foods. Simple questions that can improve the nutrient quality of a meal include, “Can I add fruits and vegetables? Could I add whole grains?” If you are feeling a bit timid at the idea of increasing the nutrient quality of your diet, remember that registered dietitians and nutritionists now work in supermarkets and are a fabulous resource!

mefk-value-of-calories-meme-010The good news is that when teaching your kids about nutrition, smartphone apps, and point-of-purchase systems can help you make a healthier food choice.  When families open up the conversation to family values, the discussion typically includes eating and enjoying nutritious meals. This means that the conversation also has to include nutrient desire. What is Nutrient Desire? It is a term I coined that evaluates the nutrients in food and how much a person desires eating it. Using kale as an example, it may be loaded with nutrient density, but most kids report a low nutrient desire! When both of these values are included in a conversation, there is a huge shift identifying solutions and the speed at which they can be implemented. Parents have to be not only clever about bringing more nutrient-dense foods into the diet, but also patient about introducing those changes. They sometimes will have to move at a glacial pace!

Cleverness and patience are two aspects of change I believe are critical for families! The Parents can no longer make a foul-smelling, brown-colored breakfast shake and expect their  kids to be willing drink it because “it’s healthy.” They might think back to their own childhoods and recall that nutrient-dense foods were offered without discussion. Now we know that fear of new foods is wired into the brain and that being forced to take care of the body by eating foods “because they are good for you!” breeds resentment and a strong desire to not eat healthy food. When a parent forces a child to eat nutrient-dense foods, they create the conditions for a food struggle. This struggle can quickly become a fight, a war, and ultimately a stalemate when, twenty years from now, he remembers back to childhood and thinks, “I wouldn’t eat it then, I won’t eat it now!”  This stubborn resistance began when parents valued low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods over taste, enjoyment, nutrient desire, choice, and ultimately, the child’s own preference. 

mefk-value-of-calories-meme-011Parents feel they need to provide their families with nutritious meals, which is something that I, too, value and share as a parental goal. However, I also know that one food, one meal, one week does not make a diet “nutritious.” Changing your families diet is a slow, deliberate process. Mindful Eating for Kids explains that change begins with a “dot” or one attempt at something new.  This “dot” is how a kid Discovers!  The Dot represents a child learning something new. Kids are interested in learning, so discovering with your kids is natural and often effortless. Once you discover something — say, that your child like strawberries — you can Explore with your child all the other meals that include strawberries.  This could range from yogurt to shakes to strawberries on a salad. The options are endless! After you explore, make an effort to Play and bring the fun into your family’s food, eating, meals! The Explore and Play phases are a series of little changes that provide parents with an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of their child’s food likes, dislikes, and limits.  It provides the necessary information for a parent to adapt, modify, and change things up, learning the limits and edges of their child’s willingness to eat specific foods. Once that has been identified, it is time to move to the “Challenge”  phase, where small adventures promote change and push these edges. These can range from meal planning, cooking, eating 1, 2, 3 nutrient-dense foods or more in a day. The “Challenge” phase is often completed during short time-limited “games” that you can play and enjoy talking about with your kid.

These four phases — Discover, Explore, Play, and Challenge — are the heart of Mindful Eating for Kids. This format helps parents instinctively select the phase that would work for their family. There is no pushing, arguing, or food fights with eating. These have been replaced with the intention to talk about what the parent and child value. In the next post we will keep exploring how and when to talk about calories to your children.  Join me as we identify ideas, interesting concepts, and engaging ways to talk with your kids about what matters most about nutrition — your family values!

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