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It's Not Just About Calories

Nutrients, inflammatory and glycemic effect matter too when judging foods

A reader wrote in to say that the Queen of Sheba birthday cake I posted recently sounded delicious but was so calorie-laden she would avoid it.

She is right, of course: this cake is high in calories – like most chocolate cakes. However, calories alone don’t make a food healthy or unhealthy. They are just one measure of a food’s nutritional value.

Other ways of assessing the benefit of a food include whether it contains essential nutrients, how it affects blood glucose levels and inflammation in the body, whether it contains healthy or unhealthy fats and what proportion of each. Some high-calorie foods are very healthy (e.g. avocados, sardines, walnuts), others aren’t (e.g. donuts, French fries, sodas). Thus, calories are only one piece of the nutritional puzzle.

My curiosity piqued by this reader’s question, I decided to compare the Sheba cake’s nutrient breakdown on NutritionData.com with a traditional home-baked chocolate cake from the NutritionData.com database. Here are the results. (Note: a typical portion of Sheba cake (1/8 of the cake) weighs 75 grams and has 311 calories; however, I increased it to match the weight of the other cake for ease of comparison. Normally, though, you wouldn’t eat such a large slice of Sheba cake in one sitting.)

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Two chocolate cakes compared

Results:

Calories: Both cakes have a lot of calories — about the same amount as in a small meal. This serves as a reminder that cake should always be eaten only as an occasional treat.

About two-thirds of the calories in the Sheeba cake come from fats, whereas some two-thirds of the calories in the traditional cake are derived from carbohydrates.The fats in the Sheeba cake are mostly the healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats for which the Mediterranean diet is famous. Indeed, much of the fat in this cake is from olive oil, which contains anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer polyphenols. The fats in the traditional cake are about evenly split among saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

Although they are twice as caloric as carbohydrates, fats have the advantage of making us feel full faster and keeping us sated longer. While a person might be tempted to eat two portions of the lower-fat traditional chocolate cake, few would attempt a second slice of the Sheeba cake because they would simply feel too full.

Nutrients: The Sheba cake contains substantially more vitamins and minerals across the board – in some cases three times as many as the traditional chocolate cake. So while the Sheba cake supplies a lot of calories, it also provides a lot more nutrients. The traditional cake provides a slightly lower calorie load, but far fewer nutrients.

Inflammation: According to NutritionData’s inflammation ratings, the Sheba cake is barely inflammatory (it has an IF rating of -11; a rating of 0 means the food has no effect on inflammation), whereas the traditional cake is very inflammatory at -232 (anything below -200 is considered “strongly inflammatory”). This may be because white flour and sugar, which are generally used in traditional baking, promote inflammation whereas almonds and olive oil are mildly anti-inflammatory.

This is highly relevant in the context of cancer prevention because inflammation in the body promotes the growth and spread of cancer cells. This is why we should seek to eat mostly foods that are anti-inflammatory, and avoid those that fuel inflammation. You can find the inflammation rating of many commonly eaten foods here.

Blood glucose effect: The glycemic impact of the Sheba cake is low (it has a glycemic load of 9) whereas that of the traditional cake is high (it has a GL of 30), due to its much higher carbohydrate content. Anything with a GL over 20 is considered a high-glycemic food and should be avoided by people trying to lose weight or avoid weight gain, and by people needing to balance their blood-glucose levels. GLs below 10 are considered acceptable.

Blood glucose balance plays a central role in cancer prevention. High blood glucose levels prompt the secretion of large amounts of insulin, the hormone whose job it is to clear excess glucose from the bloodstream. Insulin – and insulin-like growth factor-1, another hormone that is secreted whenever insulin gets produced – promote the growth and spread of cancer cells. This is why highly glycemic foods should be avoided by anyone seeking to lower their risk of cancer.

The Upshot

I think we can all agree that chocolate cake is never going to be considered a super-food, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend that you eat it, or any kind of cake, more than two to three times a month. If you want a truly nutrient-dense food (i.e. one that provides the highest-possible concentration of nutrients at the lowest-possible number of calories), eat blueberries or broccoli; I have published many recipes using such ingredients here and in Zest for Life.

And when you want to party, you may want to go for a cake that’s not only tasty, but also has a minimally negative effect on your health – like this one.

Let me leave you with these cake-eating guidelines – which was how my grandmother ate cake, back in the days when it was still a rare treat:

  • Eat cake no more than once a week
  • Ideally, the cake should be home-made or from a small, artisanal bakery, and free from cheap ingredients and artificial additives
  • Choose a small portion and eat it using a small coffee spoon; if you are served an excessively large portion, find someone to share it with or simply cut off the amount you are comfortable eating and leave the rest on the plate
  • Instead of accompanying cake with whipped cream, ice cream or vanilla sauce, choose a fruity sauce – e.g. a coulis of raspberries or strawberries – or perhaps a small scoop of sorbet. Or just eat it “as is”.
  • Really savor it: take in all its colors, aromas, textures and flavors and revel in these; for when we intensely enjoy a food, we don’t need much of it to make us feel good.

(Happy Birthday, Colleen!)

Conner Middelmann Whitney is a nutritionist, journalist, chef, and former cancer patient.

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