Nutrition for Your Health: Put Your Diet on a Budget

If you had to pay 1 cent for each calorie you ate, would you have enough money to visit Chipotle? Let’s do the math:

  • A chicken burrito would cost you $10.30 (hold the guacamole!), or 1,030 calories.
  • Add those salty lime chips with guacamole and a 16-ounce bottled tea, and you’d be at $19.50 or 1,950 calories.

Do you have enough?

What’s a less expensive option?

We’ve all heard that we should eat more greens, but let me put it into perspective with this money analogy.

  • 3 cups of mixed greens would be just 60 cents.
  • Add 2 tablespoons salad dressing and you’d be at $1.40.
  • An apple would be 80 cents, a cup of strawberries 46 cents, a pear $1.
  • A cup of skim milk 90 cents.

So this salad and cup of milk would cost you only $4.56, or 456 calories! It’s better for you and your pocketbook.

What is a calorie?

A calorie is the amount of heat it takes 1 milliliter of water to raise one degree Celsius. We use calories to measure the amount of energy or “heat” in the foods we eat.

How many calories do you need each day?

Most moderately active adults need between 1,800-2,200 calories each day. Food supply trends suggest that the average daily calorie consumption was 12 percent higher in 2000 than in 1985. That represents an increase of about 300 calories per day. If you eat 300 extra calories a day, without becoming more active, that relates to a 31-pound weight gain in one year!

Where did those extra calories come from?

According to FoodReview, published by the USDA:

  • About 46 percent came from refined grains
  • 24 percent from added fats, especially trans fats and saturated fats
  • 23 percent from added sugar
  • 8 percent from fruits and vegetables
  • And about a 1 percent decline in dairy

Are calories from refined grains, trans fats, and added sugars worse for us?

Yes, because we aren’t getting any nutrients from these substances. If we focused our calorie intake on whole grains, plant sources of protein, fruits, vegetables, and some low-fat dairy would we get more nutrition for our dollar.

But if we overate those “healthier” foods we might still gain weight and thus put ourselves at risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes. Recent studies validate that dietary factors can cause and prevent disease.

Are there good calories and bad calories?

Gary Taubes, author of “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” says  that “there is no solid scientific evidence demonstrating saturated fat and cholesterol causes heart disease, salt causes high blood pressure, or fiber is a necessary part of a healthy diet.”

Instead, he argues, most health problems are due to the refined carbohydrates we eat, and it is the type of calories we eat, not the amount. Hence, there are good calories and there are bad calories.

We eat too much.

As a Registered Dietitian with more than 20 years experience working in health-care settings, schools, and working with individuals, I disagree with Mr. Taubes. I believe we eat too much. We eat too many calories everyday and that is why we are gaining weight.

So, what do we eat?

As Michael Pollan states, “Eat food, mostly plants, and not too much.” Then you will have some money left over for the movies!

 What do you think about our calorie consumption? Do you have any tips on how to make healthy food choices?

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Chris Heuston , M.P.H., R.D., is a registered dietitian with 20 years experience of eating right and teaching others how to eat better. She is the Allied Health Department chair at the Westminster Campus of Front Range Community College, a community college in Colorado. She teaches several Human Nutrition courses.

10 Responses to “Nutrition for Your Health: Put Your Diet on a Budget”

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November 04, 2011 at 9:49 am, Jan Atkin said:

I don’t get the analogy. Would you have enough what? Money? We aren’t really talking about spending money, so how does it translate to what do we have enough of that would clarify? Maybe stating what the daily budget for calories is would help. If I have a daily budget of 1200 calories and I pay 1950 for one meal at Chipotle, then no, I really don’t have enough because I need to eat at least three times a day, optimally four. That makes sense. Using money is not quite as helpful. Thanks for the info though, overall it helped. :)

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November 07, 2011 at 10:15 am, Chris said:

Sorry, for the confusion. The analogy is like a budget–you have a certain number of calories for the day (it varries by the individual) for you to “spend” each day–so, if you should have 2000 kcals in a day and you eat the burritio and fixings (1950 calories)–you only have 50 kcals left over for the rest of the day! To determine the amount of calories you need each day you can go to–then to the Interactive tools, then to Food Tracker, then to Assess Food Intake–you find out how many kcals you need in a day based on your height, weight, age, activity, and gender…and you can enter in what you ate in a day to see if you are meeting your calorie “buget.”–Chris

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November 05, 2011 at 8:15 am, KLF said:

I think the point is to treat your daily caloric intake like a bank. So, if you can eat 2,200 calories per day, you could not afford to eat at Chipotle and McDonalds etc. because you would run out of calories in your bank. Healthy foods “cost” less, therefore you can afford more of them. I know I try to use this method (most of the time) and it works well to help me maintain my weight and also eat a balanced diet. There are many websites and apps that can help log your food intake. I like how this article explains what a calorie is and points out how many calories are in some of the common foods people eat. The more you know*

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November 07, 2011 at 10:21 am, Chris said:

KLF’s comments explain the budget concept well and I encourage you to find out how many calories you need each day and how many you eat each day. Keep in mind, that most people underestimate the amount the eat by 20-40%. Another interesting fact is that there are 3,500 calories in a pound—so if you want to lose a pound in one week you will need a deficit of 3,500 calories for that week–so about 500 less calories a day.

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November 05, 2011 at 2:57 pm, TCVE said:

The idea of matching up a calorie to a cent is an interesting analogy, but going on to say that it is good for the individual and the pocketbook together is not a transition from the analogy back to reality, because the analogy itself does not accurately reflect on a person’s pocketbook in reality as much as it might on a person’s health.

On the topic of health, despite what some have said about animal fat, I have easily lost weight (20 lbs in a month) on a low carb diet relying mostly on cheese, beef, poultry and fish, and by easily I mean to say that I did not have to do any exercise, which admittedly has consequences of its own, but I digress. What I mean to say is that within the realm of my practical experience and my success with low carb dieting, Gary Taubes makes sense.

With this being said, dietary choices should also be made accounting for one’s heritage and allergies, as different groups of people are used to eating different things. So, I would imagine that the idea of a silver bullet as applied to health for the general public is unrealistic, and that people should find what works for them instead of being told that there is only one solution to a problem, as kindly nature usually provides several pathways to a goal.

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November 07, 2011 at 10:49 am, Chris said:

You bring up an interesting point TCVE. Some do argue that all calories are not created equal. For a reference all carbohydrates–both sugar and starches–have 4 calories for each gram, and proteins have 4 calories for each gram, and fats have 9 calories per gram. Some research does suport that persons who follow a low carb diet lose weight, but most of that research also shows that they have lowered their overall calorie intake.

Here a part of another peer reviewed research article:

Nutrient intake
Subjects randomized to the low fat (n = 20) and the very low carbohydrate (n = 22) diet groups consumed similar amounts of calories at the initiation of the diets (1707 ± 104 and 1608 ± 123 kcal respectively) with similar distribution of macronutrients (Fig. 2⇓). Based on the results of the weekly food records, subjects complied with their assigned diets. Although subjects on the carbohydrate-restricted diet were not specifically asked to limit caloric intake as were those on the low fat diet, both groups reported a decrease in caloric intake of approximately 450 calories compared with baseline. Although caloric intakes in the two groups were similar, the proportions of carbohydrate, protein, and fat consumed differed dramatically. At 3 months, caloric intake in the very low carbohydrate diet group was distributed as 15% carbohydrate, 28% protein, and 57% fat. In contrast, the low fat diet group had daily calories distributed as 54% carbohydrate, 18% protein, and 28% fat. At 3 months, the very low carbohydrate diet group consumed significantly less carbohydrate, vitamin C, and fiber and significantly more protein, total fat, saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, and cholesterol than the low fat diet group (P < 0.01 for all comparisons). At 6 months, the two groups still differed significantly for most of these measures (Table 2⇓).

So, what this article supports is the idea the lowering overall calorie intake is the key to weight loss.

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December 05, 2011 at 4:57 pm, John said:

This year I have gone from 440 lbs to 300lbs following a low carb diet. My advice is to eat your protein first and drink a lot of water and exercise. I divide my weight in half and drink that amount of fluid ounces. I also do a hour on the treadmill every day.

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February 22, 2012 at 7:56 pm, dieting tips said:

Most persons have to be open about their health and respect it to understand this article,i think where society goes wrong is the very little effort from them in education the masses about good dieting.For me I think its a good article for she touches on some important topics for example on how we eat too much hence the reason for so much obese individuals which leads to diabetes and many other future complications.

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February 25, 2012 at 6:46 am, 1000 calorie challenge said:

It’s strange how people keep on doing wrong things to their body. There is a big difference in good and bad fats and some people still do not see the difference. Other than that, amount of food and it’s quality is the main factor for those who fail to lose weight and fat.


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April 15, 2012 at 5:12 am, John said:

Agreed, we eat too many calories. Otherwise why do athletes and actors control their calorific intake in order to lower their bodyfat percentage for a specific period?