The foods we eat provide calories. Calories are a measurement of energy. Simply put, when we eat, we take in calories; when we exercise, we use up calories. Our bodies also use calories for day-to-day functioning-like breathing, brain function, digestion. Some calories come in foods that also provide lots of nutrients for health and growth. Other foods contain calories and very few nutrients that help our bodies stay healthy. Think of the calories you need for energy like money you have to spend. Each person has a total calorie “budget,” an amount of calories needed each day. This budget can be divided into “essentials” and “extras.”

With a financial budget, the essentials are items like rent and food. The extras are things like movies and vacations-they’re nice, but you don’t have to have them. In a calorie budget, the “essentials” are the calories required to meet your nutrient needs. By selecting low-fat and no-sugar-added forms of foods in each food group you would make the best nutrient “buys.” Depending on the foods you choose, you may have a few calories left over after you’ve met your nutrient needs. They are your “discretionary calories.” These calories are the “extras” that can be used on luxuries like solid fats, added sugars, alcohol, or on more food from any food group.

Each person has an allowance for some discretionary calories but, many people have used up this allowance before lunch-time! Most discretionary calorie allowances are very small, between 100 and 300 calories, especially for those who are not physically active. For many people, the discretionary calorie allowance is used up by the foods they choose in their regular meals, such as higher fat meats and cheeses, whole milk, or sweetened bakery products.

For example, assume your calorie budget is 2,000 calories per day. Of these calories, you need to spend at least 1,735 calories for essential nutrients that will maintain bodily function and keep you healthy. That leaves you with 265 discretionary calories. You may use these on “luxury” versions of the foods in each group, such as higher fat meat or sweetened cereal. Or, you can spend them on sweets, sauces, or beverages. Many people overspend their discretionary calorie allowance, choosing more added fats, sugars, and alcohol than their budget allows. Overspending your calorie allowance means overconsuming calories, and doing so regularly can lead to weight gain, increased risk for chronic disease and poor performance in daily activities.

Susan Lednicky 2015, What are discretionary calories?, Extension | University of Nevada, Reno

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