In the battle to be healthy and maintain a weight conducive to good health (not aesthetics), food is not the enemy. Your basic biological drive to seek out nutrients for survival, a.k.a. hunger is not the enemy! The real enemy in disguise are fast food chains, junk food companies, and…the FDA (I should just rename my blog “I hate the FDA” because I rant about them so much!)
When most people attempt to lose weight, they turn to counting calories. After all, calories are facts. They are quantitative and easy to keep track of thus, the number is in your control. Well, I’m sorry to tell you this, but the number you think you know is wrong. A calorie is not a calorie and your body is not a machine. Eating less calories than you expend on a diet consisting of packaged foods is nearly impossible.
2 Reasons why you can’t count calories correctly:
- Calorie counts on food labels are incorrect. Under FDA regulations, packaged foods (even diet foods) can be as much as 20% off! The FDA allows this amount of “wiggle room” to account for variations in portions. Food companies mostly operate on the honor system because the FDA lacks sufficient manpower to ensure the accuracy of nutrition labels on all the food products available.* 20% wrong doesn’t seem like much, but in a day or a week, it can really add up…along with the excess sodium, chemicals, and preservatives.
- Calorie counts for whole foods are imprecise! Yes, even for whole foods! Whole foods don’t come standard, they vary in weight and nutritional content. Also,the caloric content of foods listed in databases that people rely on are based on a formula that is 100+ years old.** When caloric contents of natural foods were computed, there wasn’t any factoring in of how much of the food is actually absorbed by your body. Components of whole fruits and vegetables, like fiber decreases the absorption of calories by your body, especially when eaten raw. Also, when raw, fibrous foods are eaten, your body has to expend more energy in digestion to break these foods down. Conversely, when you denature or process foods in any way, such as cooking, chopping, blending, or juicing, you make more calories available to be absorbed. You have essentially predigested your food, and thus your body doesn’t have to work as hard to obtain the nutrients, expending less energy. (This is not necessarily a bad thing! Except in terms of counting calories.) So the amount of calories contained in whole foods is pretty variable! Though the volume of fruits and vegetables make it really hard to eat too much of them!
The practice of counting calories and eating packaged foods also instills some pretty bad habits. When someone eats from a package, they are more inclined to finish the package. That person may not want to leave just a little bit left, or may feel entitled to eat it all because they are still “safe” in terms of the amount of calories they have allotted him or herself. This teaches you to override your natural feelings of fullness, and eat for a number instead. Most packaged foods are designed to be eaten on the go, and thus promote mindless eating and further takes you out of touch with your natural hunger.
Calorie counting is also stressful! The stress hormone cortisol leads to weight gain around the stomach and also spikes your appetite! When someone is trying to dutifully account for every last calorie, it makes it impossible to appreciate the food for what it is and what it could do for you. It also teaches the person to view themselves as either “good” or “bad”. This creates a slippery slope toward the cycle of restricting and overeating, which characterizes yo-yo dieting.
In reality, a calorie is a number that means nothing. It does not tell you how healthy or unhealthy a food is. It’s a waste of your time and energy that could be better used elsewhere to try to count them. They’re not even accurate anyway!
This is a pretty good example of how whole food vs. packaged foods can create an unhealthy situation. A Pro Bar meal replacement bar is a really good idea for ultra endurance events (think 100 mile runs or 10 hour bike rides), it’s also a good idea for 8 hour plane flights, but it is a really bad idea for everybody else!
These meal bars are marketed as a healthier alternative to replace meals for people on the go. Undoubtedly, their natural ingredients are much healthier than a fast food meal. But the problem comes when people are so blinded by the “health halo” that they don’t realize how energy dense this little bar really is. One bar is 85g, that’s tiny! It’s about the equivalent of one extra small (less than 6″) banana. But it contains 360 calories! The problem is that people eat these packaged foods thinking they are “healthy”. In reality, this bar will not leave you with any feelings of fullness you would have otherwise gotten had you eat 360 calories of fresh, whole plant foods packed with water and fiber as well as the vitamins and minerals that the ProBar claims to contain as a selling point. (I might also add that the calorie equivalent of this bar is 3.5 bananas, which would be cheaper than one ProBar!)
Eating whole foods in as close to natural as possible makes it much easier to create a situation of good health where you don’t have to count calories to check your weight, you feel full, and you give your body the nutrients it needs in the correct proportions. Since it has gotten a lot colder, and the fruits available have whittled down to the basics (I can’t really afford out of season fruits, and by eating what’s cheap I also eat seasonally!) I have been eating a lot of oatmeal and apples. But this is what I mean by real food:
Whole food oatmeal:
- 1/2 cup oats, dry (150 cal.)
- 1 large apple (115 cal.)
- 1 Tbsp. chia seeds (14g) (68 cal.)
- 1/2 cup frozen cherries (50 cal.)
- water, cinnamon, fresh ginger (~0 cal.)
I also ate 3 tangerines before my oatmeal (170 cal.) this brings my total calories to 553 calories for my breakfast. Is that a lot or a little? The answer is that it is completely subjective. To a female dieter trying to restrict their calories to a tiny amount, they might have already “blown it” by consuming that many calories so early in the day… When I look at this breakfast I see: vitamins and fiber from the fruit. Oats have fiber, protein, and complex carbs to help my muscles recover from a run. Chia seeds are a source of Omega 3 fats and are filling as well as satiating because they bulk up my oats. Cinnamon is great for regulating blood sugar. Cherries are amazing for antioxidants, they are anti-inflammatory, and can speed up muscle recovery in endurance athletes. Ginger is also nature’s medicine, great for overall health including indigestion, GI distress, nausea, and inflammation. These are only the known benefits of these foods…scientists haven’t identified all the compounds inherent in fruits and vegetables, and they definitely don’t understand the symbiotic processes that occur when someone consumes a whole food.
I see this bowl of whole foods, not as a bowl of calories, but as a breakfast that will fill me up, taste amazing, and allow me to recover from my morning run optimally so that I can run again tomorrow. My main goal in life is not to see how few calories I can eat in a day, my goal is to push my body to the limit in terms of miles run and speed sustained.
The main message is to eat whole, fresh foods: fruits, vegetables, grains, and some nuts and seeds. Our reductionist scientific understanding of things has enabled people to view food as nothing but calories and macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins). The reality is that no one really knows all the magic contained in fruits and vegetables that allows them to unleash their nutrition on our metabolism (all the chemical reactions that take place in the body). The best bet for better health is to stop eating for a number (that’s arbitrary anyway) and eat whole plant foods till you are full!
*Jeff Rossen, Robert Powell, NBC News: Today Show “Rossen Reports: Can you believe diet frozen dessert labels?” Aug. 20, 2012.
**Sass, Cynthia, Health News & Views “Why Calorie Counts are Wrong: 6 Diet Myths, Busted” Feb. 7, 2013.