What are “discretionary calories”?
You need a certain number of calories to keep your body functioning and provide energy for physical activities. Think of the calories you need for energy like money you have to spend. Each person has a total calorie “budget.” 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. In a calorie budget, the “essentials” are the minimum calories required to meet your nutrient needs. By selecting the lowest 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 be able to spend more calories than the amount required to meet your nutrient needs. These calories are the “extras” that can be used on luxuries like solid fats, added sugars, and alcohol, or on more food from any food group. They are your “discretionary calories.”
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 totally used by the foods they choose in each food group, such as higher fat meats, cheeses, whole milk, or sweetened bakery products.
You can use your discretionary calorie allowance to:
- Eat more foods from any food group than the food guide recommends.
- Eat higher calorie forms of foods—those that contain solid fats or added sugars. Examples are whole milk, cheese, sausage, biscuits, sweetened cereal, and sweetened yogurt.
- Add fats or sweeteners to foods. Examples are sauces, salad dressings, sugar, syrup, and butter.
- Eat or drink items that are mostly fats, caloric sweeteners, and/or alcohol, such as candy, soda, wine, and beer.
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, if you choose foods without added fat and sugar. Then you have 265 discretionary calories left. 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.