One of the biggest mistakes we often see customers and clients making is to put The All-Important Calorie on a pedestal. The thought of “calorie expenditure” and “calore intake” seems to lord over all diets — the idea that you can control how your body processes food, and what it will look like because of it, based on sheer numbers.

Some of that is true. Nobody would argue that eating more food is more likely to cause you to gain weight, and the reverse is true as well (sometimes). But, like the title of this post says, not all calories are created equal. In fact, they’re wildly different when it comes to 1) what they provide for your body, 2) how much “bang for your buck” you’ll get from them and 3) how easy it is to consume LOTS of one kind, compared to others.

Let’s say you’re doing some shopping for snacks, and you’re trying to figure out which is the healthy option, completely based on calories alone. You stroll down the cookie aisle, and see them marked as “100-Calorie Packs.” Perfect, right? Well, not really. Because those 100 calories are high-glycemic calories from simple sugars (even little crackers are eventually broken down into extra glucose), that 100-calorie figure loses some appeal. Compare that to, say, a half cup of brown rice with olive oil stirred in (lots of calories, but full of fiber and healthy fats) or a couple sticks of string cheese. Both the latter options have more calories, but the nutrition they provide for your body are unquestionably more useful than the empty 100 calories you’d be ingesting with the cookies. This all boils down to EATING WITH A PURPOSE.

You’ll also realize, as you go about your calorie-counting, just how easy it is to underestimate them, and why the old 2,000-calories-a-day adage that the FDA uses to gauge your standard diet is pretty far off-course — everyone is different! You have to listen to your body, take note of what you see in the mirror and adjust continuously; following a hard-and-fast number that might not even apply to you is crazy. The “daily values” listed on most American food products assume an “average,” sedentary person. Athletes and those concerned with their fitness DO NOT fit this mold! If you’re exercising or trying to burn fat, you need more muscle, and more muscle requires more food, and more calories. This is what we mean when we say “bang for your buck” — yes, you will be taking in more calories, and you might even gain weight. But just like you’d rather have a 250-calorie meal that provides some nutrition to your body than a 100-calorie snack that is simply 100 extra calories floating around, standing in at a lean, fierce 125 pounds (for example) is almost always going to look better and healthier than you would at 100 pounds lighter, with no muscle tone or shape to speak of.

And, let’s not forget, one of the easiest way to lose track of calories is by drinking them. Of all the macronutrient groups, alcohol is second-“heaviest” in terms of calories — a little goes a long way in bogging down your metabolism. Obviously, a fitness-focused individual should try to limit beer, wine and liquor consumption as much as possible. But let’s not get off-track: We’re actually talking about juices, soda and sports drinks that are adding useless calories to your diet, fast.

Consider that one can of Coke is like wolfing down two candy bars, or that many flavored teas, juices, sodas and other drinks often times have as much or MORE sugar than a serving of pure maple syrup, and it’s easy to see why Americans are so fat — we drink way too many of our calories! The best option is almost always water, as it not only is calorie-free but essential to just about every bodily function you have, including your metabolism. Again, some drinks with equal calories aren’t going to be the same as others; a post-workout chocolate milk, high in calories, is clearly a better choice than a 3 p.m. can of Pepsi at your desk. Our recommendation: Fill a gallon jug with water (optionally, mix in some muscle-building BCAAs!) and make sure it’s empty by the end of the day. This keeps you hydrated and full, meaning you’re less likely to want to keep reaching for unnecessary calories in the first place.

By making smart decisions on what calories are worth eating and which aren’t, you can take control over your diet and be an informed food consumer. Remember, not all calories are created equal!