Consuming Calories That Count in a Plant-Based Diet

By Marni Wasserman

Calories. Most people are all too familiar with these little guys as something to count and avoid. But they do serve an actual purpose beyond tormenting you — they measure the approximate amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree. This measure is used to understand how food “adds up” or is stored in your body and how it’s metabolized.

When it comes to counting calories, it’s most definitely not about the amount of calories but more about the source of those calories. When you focus strictly on the caloric values of foods, you stop paying attention to what is actually in them (the good and bad nutrients). Now, don’t completely overlook the caloric content, but the number of calories isn’t as relevant as the actual nutrients.

So how do you get good calories that are nutritious?

Getting your calories from whole foods is the first step. Whether you’re eating grains, seeds and nuts, beans, or fruits and veggies, strive to eat fresh foods from whole sources that don’t come out of a package. (Of course, packaged products may find their way into your life from time to time, which is okay. There are many health foods that come in a package.)

It’s your job to look closely at what you’re eating, whether it comes in a package or not, and ultimately be conscious about the calories you take in.

It comes down to how your food impacts you nutritionally, not calorically. For example, a single serving of junk food, such as chips, bagels, or cookies, easily contains way more than 200 calories. The nutritional value of these foods is next to zero. However, if you consume 200 calories in a single serving of plant-based foods such as nuts, seeds, quinoa, avocados, or coconut, for example, you’re much better off.

These foods provide your body with nourishment from protein, healthy fat, and complex carbohydrates. So you’re likely to feel satisfied more quickly, and you may even consume fewer calories because your body is using the nutrients. With junk food, you can pretty much eat endlessly with nothing to show for it except maybe a pair of jeans that doesn’t fit anymore.

The table shows how 200 calories of common foods stack up against one another. Notice how much of the plant-based foods you can eat (approximately) compared to a junk-food equivalent.

Comparison of 200 Calories in Plant-Based Food versus Junk Food
Plant-Based Food Junk Food
2 to 3 apples 1 small (2.5 ounces or 72 grams) blueberry muffin
One 4.4-ounce (125-gram) avocado 1 handful (1.4 ounces or 41 grams) of chips
2 heads (21 ounces or 588 grams) of broccoli Half (1.4 ounces or 41 grams) of a chocolate bar
2 bunches (50 ounces or 1,425 grams) of celery stalks Half of a side serving (2.6 ounces or 73 grams) of french

You need to look at your food calories more critically and decide how you want to gain the most nutrition from your food.