Diet Myth Revealed: What Does 200 Calories Really Look Like?

A plate of apple slices, a few hunks of cheese, two glasses of wine. It’s not just a wine-and-cheese plate, but three foods in very different quantities that all contain the same amount of calories: 200.

A shot of rum, one and a third beers, approximately one quarter of a Big Mac, two heads of broccoli and some change—all have 200 calories.

This is the visual ploy of a video from ASAP Science: What does 200 calories look like? It’s a compelling approach to thinking about diet and nutrition, because with so much talk of counting calories and listing calories on menus, and generally being obsessed, as a culture, with the number, there’s little understanding of the value.

So what is one calorie? ASAP Science has the answer: The amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. It’s a measure of energy, which underscores why we need calories—anywhere from 2,000 to 2,700 of them per day. Calories are our fuel. But when 217 Big Macs contain enough calories—enough energy—to propel your car 35 kilometers, should the burger be helping so many of us to keep running between lunch and dinner?

Maybe not. But according to that logic—eating the food with fewer calories is always healthier—we should be drinking Coke instead of milk. And whole-grain bread has more calories than white, so bring on the Wonder, amirite?

Well, no. Calories, as the video notes, are just one aspect of nutrition that, considered on its own, gives a very incomplete picture of the relative healthiness of a given meal. So there isn’t really a Quarter Pounder hiding in your diet, because a Quarter Pounder’s worth of calories, when comprised of foods that aren’t a Quarter Pounder, does not equal a Quarter Pounder.

So maybe ignore this video?

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