Perspective: Public Health Nutrition Policies Should Focus on Healthy Eating, Not on Calorie Counting, Even to Decrease Obesity

Adv Nutr. 2019 Jul 1;10(4):549-556. doi: 10.1093/advances/nmz025.


Calorie-focused policies, such as calorie menu labeling, seem to result in minor shifts toward healthier choices and public health improvement. This paper discusses the (lack of) relations between energy intake and healthy eating and the rationale for shifting the focus of public health nutrition policies to healthier foods and meals. We argue that the benefits of reducing caloric intake from low-quality foods might not result from the calorie reduction but rather from the reduced consumption of low-quality foods. It is better to consume a given number of calories from high-quality foods than a smaller number of calories from low-quality foods. It is not possible to choose a healthy diet solely based on the caloric value of foods because calories are not equal; they differ in nutritional quality according to their source. Foods are more than just a collection of calories and nutrients, and nutrients interact differently when presented as foods. Different subtypes of a macronutrient, although they have the same caloric value, are metabolized and influence health in different ways. For instance, industrial trans fats increase lipogenesis and the risk of heart diseases, whereas monounsaturated fats have the opposite effect. Food processing and cooking methods also influence the nutritional value of foods. Thus, public health nutrition policies should stop encouraging people to focus mainly on calorie counting to fight noncommunicable diseases. Instead, policies should focus on ingredients, dietary sources, and food processing and cooking methods.

Keywords: calories; chronic diseases; energy; food guidelines; food quality; healthy food; joules; menu labeling; obesity; processed food.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Caloric Restriction
  • Chronic Disease / prevention & control
  • Diet, Healthy*
  • Energy Intake*
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Food Labeling
  • Humans
  • Nutrition Policy*
  • Nutritive Value
  • Obesity / prevention & control*
  • Public Health*
  • Recommended Dietary Allowances