A recent nutrition article that was published in the New York Times vastly undermined what nutritionists and scientists are saying about dietary sugar and fat. The gist of the article was to blame nutritionists for still confirming true the notion that ‘a calorie is a calorie, regardless of its source’. As a nutritionist, I believe I owe it to myself and the health industry industry to respond. Granted, my opinion may be largely based on my personal views, but I think I hold the same opinion as many authentic nutritionists out there.

Calories by themselves are not the whole story, let’s get this straight. The source of those calories is also extremely important. Energy-dense and nutrient-dense foods are not one and the same, despite having similar caloric content. You will pick up 200 calories from both 476 ml of Coke as you would from 400 ml of reduced-fat milk, but the former is energy-dense and nutrient-poor while the latter is contains many essential nutrients, like calcium, that our bodies need. A sane nutritionist will never equivelate Coke and milk, despite their similar caloric content. You cannot argue otherwise. Also, 200 calories will look like 606g of fresh strawberries, 384g of apples, less than one (42g) blueberry muffin, 3 digestive biscuits (43g), or 1 kilogram of courgettes! Those 200 calories may look like many different things, but they are not all the same and they will definitely not affect your body the same way. Therefore, one cannot claim that eating 1,500 calories a day from processed foods, fast foods and soft drinks is similar to eating the same calories from a balanced and healthy diet.

The first point to make here is varying nutrient compositions of different foods. A gram of fat is worth 9 calories, and a gram of sugar is worth 4 calories regardless of where they come from, that’s all true. But one gram of coconut oil is not the same as one gram of olive oil and certainly not the same as one gram of trans-fat, but they are all 9 calories each. The difference? Their composition. Olive oil is mostly made up of mono-unsaturated fatty acids while coconut oil essentially contains only saturated fats. For those who cannot relate to those facts, think of it this way: a Persian cat and a Terrier dog may weigh the same, but they are inherently different creatures and will naturally behave differently.

The energy-density of different foods is also essential for this matter. Overconsumption of calories is a global problem today largely because processed and fast food products contain the same calories in 42 grams of biscuits as can be found in 606 grams of strawberries. I personally don’t believe sugar is evil or that it is the root of the global obesity crisis. I do believe, however, that adding lots of sugar (and fats) to food products and creating highly processed foods with such a high energy density is a huge and significant factor to consider. But by no means is this the cause of obesity. The true cause of obesity is much more complex and multifactorial and unfortunately, beyond the scope of this article. I am nutritionist who believes in moderation. I sometimes add sugar to my cup of coffee and that’s perfectly fine; I only have to make sure I am not overdoing it and my overall diet is made up of mostly healthy, minimally processed and balanced foods.

Sugar can be bad and sugar can be good. Fat can be bad and fat can be good. This is the message me and many nutritionists like me are trying to tell everyone else, and it’s not that the public refuses to listen. Our voices are not even reaching the public adequately because we are constantly being overshadowed by both giants of the food industry (needless to mention names here) and fad ‘nutritionists’ who always seem to preach magical recipes for weight loss. Are you seriously going to listen to the next fast food joint telling you that their ‘healthy’ burger contains only 250 calories? Trust me, they’re not trying to do you any favours, they are only trying to increase sales. You will also feel much fuller getting those calories from an endless list of unprocessed and healthier foods.

To reiterate, calorie is a calorie regardless of its source, but that in no way means that all sources are the same. Five grams of sugar in grapefruit has the same calories as 5 grams of sugar in ice cream, but a nutritionist will never write up ice cream as part of a healthy diet plan. We never made the claim that eating grapefruit is the same in terms of health benefits as eating ice cream; their similar caloric content is beside the point. So if you choose to eat fat from olive oil and nuts and fatty fish and eat sugar from fruits and dairy and grains, that’s wonderful, but don’t call it equal if you decide to eat the same worth of calories from a fast food meal. They are not the same. Pay attention to where your calories come from, because that’s what really counts.

Laura Jabri, MSc 

Laura has a masters in Clinical and Public Health Nutrition from University College London and a bachelors degree from the American University of Beirut. Her interests include nutrition education, obesity prevention, maternal and child nutrition, undernutrition in developing countries and food sustainability solutions.  Tweet her @laurajabri

Foodtalk blog posts are written by a variety of health and care professionals to showcase a wide variety of opinions and specialisms.