Good or Bad, a Calorie is Still a Calorie


It might be obvious to you that even if a food is “healthy,” it doesn’t mean you can eat as much as you want of it. Or that no food, that we know of, has a negative-calorie effect.

Calories are units of energy. The reason we consume food is to provide energy for the body to live - it’s like putting gas in a car so it will go. Eating foods that actually take energy away from the body doesn’t really make any sense. For me-- full disclosure-- this concept is obvious. So when I came across a mention of Kellogg School of Management Professor Alexander Chernev’s new research paper on the Dieter’s Paradox, I was more than mildly intrigued.

The Dieter’s Paradox, you ask?

Chernev, a marketing professor who studies decision making, found that people most concerned with their weight are subject to irrationalities when it comes to deciding what and how much to eat. He has coined one of theses irrationalities the Dieter’s Paradox, which is when a person trying to manage their weight estimates that an unhealthy meal paired with a healthy side has fewer calories than the unhealthy meal alone.


In my story on the Dieter’s Paradox, I gave this example,

“Someone stuck in the Dieterʼs Paradox may estimate a burger has 250 calories, but will guess that the same burger paired with an apple has only 200 calories. In reality, more calories are consumed by eating the burger and the apple than in eating the burger alone.”

Chernev credits this paradoxical logic to the categorization of the foods we eat into “good foods” and “bad foods.” This oversimplification causes people to determine a food’s caloric intake by its “healthiness” factor. What many fail to realize is that calories are not only determined by the “what” but also the “how much.” As Chicago dietician Dawn Jackson Blatner said, “Just because you paired a salad with a pizza doesnʼt mean you can eat the whole pizza.”

If you find yourself stuck in the Dieter’s Paradox, there is hope. Awareness is the first step in the right direction, Blatner said. Just by knowing that you are subject to making irrational decisions about what to eat is enough to help you make different, smarter choices.

- blog by Tavaner Bushman, graduate student reporter, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University



Thanks for your insights. I have tried all of my life to find the "right" diet. I eventually came to the conclusion that usually escapes us ... it is about a lifestyle, not about crash dieting.

You are so right ... a calorie is a calorie, and the total per day consumed versus the total per day burned is the key. I have had a hard head about that most of my life and am finally beginning to "get it."

Thanks again for your insights. Keep up the good work!

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