Comparing Apples to Skittles: Are All Calories Created Equal?

Taking quality and quantity into account when it comes to calories

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Is a calorie just a calorie, whether it’s 200 calories of pizza, cake, or broccoli? Professor Ormsbee answers.

Overview of pizza slices being taken
Common sense says that eating a load of calories from pizza is not the same as eating the same number of calories from several types of foods groups. Photo By Dmitry_Tsvetkov / Shutterstock

Calorie Source Comparisons

You might have noticed that on nutrition labels, certain nutrients are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. However, not everyone requires a 2,000-calorie diet. To properly interpret nutrition labels, first figure out precisely how many calories per day you need, by looking at factors such as your age, gender, and activity level.

Next, consider where these calories are coming from. Let’s say that you’re 40 years old, 5’10” tall, weigh about 160 pounds, and are generally active. Using a metabolic calculator, you see that you should eat roughly 2,300 calories per day to maintain your body weight. 

Should you go out and consume 2,300 calories, regardless of where those calories come from? This brings up the classic question, “Is a calorie a calorie?”

Based on this logic and your goal of 2,300 calories per day, you could consume any of the following to meet your calorie needs: 575 jelly beans, 4 Big Mac®s, 385 stalks of celery, or a variety of nutrient-dense foods that promote energy, lean mass accumulation, fat loss, and disease prevention. Do you think these food choices all have the same effect on your body composition and overall health? 

Nutrient Density

Most likely, your common sense tells you that this is not the case. While these examples are extreme, they make an important point. If you consumed calories primarily from simple sugars each day—the 575 jelly bean example—you might not gain any weight overall, but you could be sure that you are missing a ton of nutrients that your body requires to function well. 

Over time, this would alter your body composition and health for the worse. Importantly, the readout on your scale probably won’t change—and you may go on thinking that all is well—but, internally, the story could be much different.

Chances are good that you would develop compromised metabolic, immune, and inflammatory functions that, at best, would not allow you to function optimally and, at worst, could lead to serious conditions like blood glucose and lipid abnormalities and possibly chronic disease. While we need to be aware of the amount of calories we eat, it is more important to worry about the quality of those calories

Eat More, Weigh Less

For example, let’s compare 100 calories from jelly beans to 100 calories from spinach—which is about 14 cups of raw spinach. The jelly beans have about 28 grams (g) of carbohydrate, all coming from simple sugars. 

The spinach, however, has about 14 g of carbohydrate. The spinach also contains about 10–14 g of protein, exceptional daily values for vitamins A and C, as well as small to moderate amounts of iron and calcium. 

Thus, even though these two foods have the same calorie density, at 100 calories each, the spinach offers a much higher nutrient density—meaning a lot of nutrients with few calories. The spinach has dietary fiber, protein, and a number of vitamins and minerals, and you’d have to eat a lot of it just to get those 100 calories.

In short, eating nutrient-dense foods provides way more bang for your buck. 

“In fact, many participants in my studies or clients I’ve worked with begin eating these foods and find that they have to eat quite a bit of the quality foods to meet their calorie needs,” Professor Ormsbee said. “Essentially, you really can eat more and weigh less.” 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.