Do you know which regularly consumed (and often revered) beverage has, drop-per-drop, double the calories of Coca-Cola? The answer is wine. And judging from the people I see in my office, it's not at all uncommon for a person to drink between one to two bottles of wine a week, providing them with the caloric punch of a 1.5- to 3-liter weekly soda habit.
More amazingly, while they would likely recoil at the suggestion of drinking 3 liters of soda a week, they've never given much thought to the caloric impact of their wine. In part, that's because alcohol is strangely exempt from useful nutrition facts labeling, and, in part, it's because calories are simply non-intuitive.
How non-intuitive? Take, for instance, the no-longer-for-sale Keg Steakhouse carrot cake. I'd venture a guess that many a diner ordered it because it contained the word "carrot," which, in turn, suggested it would be "healthier" than, for instance, the Keg's crème brulee. I'd bet not a single one of them would have guessed that a solitary piece of cake (albeit, with two scoops of vanilla ice cream) would contain more than triple the calories of the menu's crème brulee, and at 2,344 calories – more than a day's worth for most women.
Or, how about subs? Would anyone intuit that there's only one sandwich sold by Subway that has more calories than its tuna sub? (For the record, it's the Chicken & Bacon Ranch Melt, which contains only 20 calories more per 6 inches.)
[Read: Accounting for Calories.]
While I'm personally a calorie counter, I realize that's not a behavior that the majority are going to readily adopt. Now, if you're happy with your health and with your weight, clearly you're either genetically gifted, or you have a healthy living strategy that's working for you, and you should just stick with it.
But if you're unhappy with your health or your weight, let me make a plea that you consider adopting the very simple practice of "calorie awareness." No diaries. No counting. Just spending some time to get to know your caloric "foodscape," where that term refers to the regular dietary staples in your life.
The point, of course, is that the knowledge of your foodscape's staple calorie counts will inform your dietary decisions. And given the non-intuitive nature of calories, you're likely to find a few surprises.
Putting counts into soda or burger equivalents is also useful for comparisons. For instance, a full liter of soda contains in the order of 400 calories, while a Big Mac clocks in at 550. Knowing that your weekend indulgence of a Starbucks blueberry scone and a Grande White Chocolate Mocha with 2 percent milk and whip has the exact same number of calories as that Big Mac downed with a liter of soda might just influence how often you order it.
A food's healthfulness is definitely not measured solely by calories, but ignoring them isn't healthful either. And given that you can't see them, smell them, or taste them, and we have a world of information literally at our fingertips these days, it seems crazy not to, at the very least, be aware of them.
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book, The Diet Fix: Why Everything You've Been Taught About Dieting is Wrong and the 10-Day Plan to Fix It, will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.