- Chain restaurants are required to post calorie counts on their menus as of Monday.
- The rules – put in place as part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act – require chains with more than 20 stores to list calories, fat, and sodium levels on all menus.
- While calories are an important tool for healthy eating, they aren’t a panacea, according to a registered dietitian.
- It’s also important to look at key things like sugar and protein content.
In glaring black-and-white block letters on the side of your favorite cereal, they vie for your attention: calories.
Starting Monday, chain restaurants are required to print calorie totals on menus as part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
“It’s what you’re putting into your body that counts,” Whitehead says.
While calories can provide a rough estimate of how healthy something might be, they leave out several important factors. Calories don’t tell you, for example, how satiated or full something will make you feel, how beneficial a food is for your digestion, or whether it contains the vitamins and minerals you need for healthy skin, hair, and nails.
For guidance about those things, you should look at two key things, Whitehead says: sugar and protein. An item that’s high in sugar and low in protein likely won’t keep you feeling full for very long. What you want instead is something low in sugar and high in protein.
Fewer than 10 grams of sugar and more than 10 grams of protein is a good starting place – whether it’s a processed food or a whole meal.
Take the following two breakfasts as an example. The meal on the left consists of a piece of wheat toast with butter, a couple of scrambled eggs, and a coffee. Meal two includes a bowl of frosted cereal in low-fat milk, a glass of orange juice, and a coffee.
The two meals have almost the same number of calories, but they are far from equal.
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The cereal-and-juice meal is based around sugar and refined carbohydrates, which the body breaks down quickly. That leads you to feel a constant need to refuel with caffeine or a snack. The eggs-and-toast meal, on the other hand, is what Whitehead would call “balanced” – it contains a good mix of proteins and complex carbohydrates to keep your body properly fueled in the long term.
Foods like processed cereals, white bread, and white rice fall into a category known as “empty calories” because they score high on something nutritionists refer to as the glycemic index – essentially a measure of how a food will affect your blood-sugar levels. Foods in that group will “give you a rapid amount of sugar, but you’re going to feel hungry shortly afterwards,” Whitehead said.
That’s why noting ingredients, not just a calorie total, is key when sizing up what you’re eating. When you see things like sugar, corn syrup, fructose, or white flour listed as the first ingredients on a food, that can be a good indicator that it will not keep you full or energized in the long term. Instead, look for things like whole grains, lean proteins (chickpeas, beans, or chicken breast), and vegetables.
“It’s what kinds of foods you eat that matters when it comes to how healthy your body is, how satiated you’re feeling, and how much energy you’ve got,” Whitehead said. “Calories are just a tool.”