Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and
One thing the shaky economy has taught us is how to be a little more careful with our money. So, here’s
a thought – why not handle your daily calorie allowance the same way you’d handle your money?
Imagine that you carry with you a calorie wallet – one that holds all the calories you should spend in a
day. How you spend them is up to you. The food choices you make every day – and the way you spend
your calories – is really no different from how you decide to spend your money. Most people do their
best to take care of the necessities first, and maybe use what’s leftover for something special. And
when we do part with our money, we’re usually looking to get the best value for our dollar, too.
It’s the same thing with those calories in your wallet. You want to spend them wisely to get the best
nutritional value. And – just as you might splurge on a really expensive pair of shoes – you could spend
your calorie bucks on something you want but don’t really need. But if you want to keep your weight in
check, you’ll need to make up for it somehow. Just like it might make sense to save up for those great
shoes, you could hold back a few calories in your wallet every day, so you can spend a little extra on the
weekend – kind of like a savings account.
So, when it comes to choosing what foods you’re going to eat, the goal is to get the most nutritional
value you can for the number of calories you have to spend. Ideally, every meal or snack should be
balanced to help us stay sharp and energetic during the day and should provide enough protein to help
keep hunger and mindless snacking at bay. In short, we’re looking to spend our calorie bucks on a meal
that’s filling, satisfying and protein rich. And that’s a tall order.
What choices are you making at every meal? How many calorie bucks do you have to pull out of your
wallet to pay for them?
A healthy breakfast
When I pull out my calorie wallet in the morning, I want to spend my calories on
some healthy protein to keep me satisfied until lunch. Then I round out the meal with some fruits or
veggies. A cup of nonfat yogurt or cottage cheese with some fruit on top or a veggie omelet both fill the bill.
And I only need to pull about 300 breakfast calories out of my wallet. Same goes for a protein shake made
with protein powder, nonfat milk and fruit. For less than 300 calories, I get a balanced meal with about 20
grams of protein, a third of my day’s calcium and a serving of fruit. For me, that’s right on the money.
A salad for lunch can be a healthy meal if it’s based on fresh greens and veggies and has some added
lean protein. Consider grilled fish or chicken, or maybe a scoop of low-fat cottage cheese. Even with a
couple of tablespoons of light salad dressing, you’ll be pulling out less than 400 calories out of your
calorie wallet. But many restaurant salads are often loaded up with high-calorie ingredients like cheese,
fatty meats, oily tortilla strips or croutons. And then they’re drenched in a heavy dressing. If that’s your
idea of a salad, you’ll be bankrupt in no time. If you’re not making your salad, ask your restaurant server
to leave out some of the high-calorie ingredients. And ask for the dressing on the side, so you can
control the amount you use.
A sandwich at lunch can cost you a lot of calories.
More often than not, a restaurant sandwich starts
with some low-fiber white bread and a spread of fatty mayonnaise topped with a hefty portion of fatty
meat and cheese. Stop there, and you’ll still be pulling more than 500 calories out of your wallet. And if
you have your sandwich grilled, it’ll cost you another 150 calorie bucks or so. By the time you add in
beverages and sides, you could be nearly broke for the day. If sandwiches are your thing, choose whole-
grain bread whenever you can—and leave off one slice of bread and have your sandwich open-face.
Choose lean proteins, pile on the veggies, and skip the fatty spreads and replace with mustard.
A balanced meal at dinner means filling about a quarter of your plate with protein (meat, poultry,
seafood, eggs, beans, tofu or veggie burgers), half with vegetables and the remaining quarter with a
healthy starch – like brown rice, quinoa, sweet potato or whole grain pasta. But to avoid over-spending,
pay attention to how foods are prepared.
Seafood is considered one of the best nutritional buys around. Most fish are low in fat, high in protein,
and offers up some healthy omega-3 fats, too. And that means that most of the time you’ll be spending
your calorie bucks wisely when fish is on the menu.
But if your fish is breaded and fried – instead of baked or broiled – it doubles the calories per serving.
Add a couple of tablespoons of creamy tartar sauce on the side, and you’re looking at another 100
calories or more. Ditto for seafood salads that are loaded down with mayonnaise – for 150 calories, you
can eat an entire can of tuna, but just a tiny 1/3 cup of fatty tuna salad.
The same holds true for poultry. It’s lower in fat than red meat, so your calorie dollars usually go a little
further. But – as with the fish – pay attention to how it’s cooked. A 3-ounce portion of grilled turkey or
chicken breast costs less than 150 calories. But if you eat 3 ounces of fried chicken nuggets (which is
only about 5 nuggets), the breaded coating means you’ll be pulling twice as many calorie bucks out of
And watch the side dishes at dinner, too. And a typical side order of French fries will cost you about 400
calories – about 100 calories more than an entire turkey sandwich with mustard. A small baked potato –
that’s one about the size of a computer mouse – has only about 150 calories. But most potatoes are a
lot bigger than that, and if you load it up with fatty toppings like butter, sour cream, bacon and cheese
you’re going to need a loan to cover the extra 600 calories it’s going cost you.
So, you’ll want to put these sides aside. Instead, opt for veggies, which are usually a good choice as long
as they’re not drenched in butter or creamy, cheesy sauces. Or, have light vegetable soup or a lightly
dressed salad that will fill you up, but not out. Either way, you’ll spend maybe 100 calories – practically