Food does not equal calories! Putting calories in their place

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 ycount chemicalsou 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!

Packaged food vs. Whole food:
pro bar health food

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!)
2014-11-16 09.27.53

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!

Sources:

*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.

 

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Post-Marathon: Many Recovery Runs

recovery eCard

I’m knee deep in my recovery week post-Portland Marathon. Resting and recovering always sounds fun until you actually have to do it. Running slower than a turtle through (all-natural) peanut butter doesn’t seem as appealing when it’s not a choice! Also, my post-marathon hunger cravings have taken me for a ride this week…and I’m still not sure if they’re over yet! So how am I dealing with the achy muscles, fatigue, moodiness and comfort eating that accompany a marathon break-up? Read on!

running hangover eCardSo far (if you’ve been following along) you know that I crashed hard after the marathon. I was fine till about 3pm (I finished running at 10am) when I developed a head-pounding-makes-you-throw-up-and-cry type of migraine. I used to get terrible migraines like this when I was a kid (luckily I grew out of them), so I knew that I wouldn’t feel better until I slept it off. I chugged some electrolytes, took a few aspirin, and then slept with a frozen bag of corn pressed against my forehead until 9pm. I woke up, still had a headache and felt pretty sick, but I ate what I could stomach and went back to sleep until the next morning.

Monday morning I skipped my 8am class…no way I was going to make it…instead I stumbled out for my first recovery run, a mere 2.6mi run at a glacial 9:16 pace! I did feel somewhat dizzy that morning. When I turned my head it seemed to take a moment for my eyes to focus and catch up with what I was trying to look at. I’ve had this happen before, so I wasn’t too worried…

Unfortunately I had to go to my 10am class (I took the bus, no cycling for me thanks!) and for a project I spent 1.5 hours walking around downtown in the afternoon for a ‘neighborhood observation report’. After walking on shaky legs with my group, my body was pulled into a nearby Whole Foods and subsequently hijacked by hunger! I read about how elite runners indulge after a major race, and no offense but I’m always skeptical…for example I recently read about how Shalane Flanagan took some time off running and  indulged in pastries while in Europe after her recent marathon in Berlin. Really? Hmmm… But all that aside, I could not stop thinking about and craving avocados! I exercised my right to indulge that day by raiding Whole Foods’ avocado salad roll and avocado sushi selection. (I spent way to much money on food that day!)

This-Is-How-I-Roll-GirlTuesday, the next day, I got a 30 minutes massage. My quads were the most beat up part of my body, but my hamstrings always give me some trouble! I ran an easy 4 miles in the morning.

Wednesday, I jogged an easy 3.1mi in the morning, cycled to class and home, and ran 1.3 to my favorite running store. I ran 3.3mi with a fellow runner (as part of the store’s amazing running and walking group) and then I jogged 1.3 home. In total I put in 9 miles, but they were all very easy!

Thursday (today), I put in an easy 5.5 miles at an 8:00 pace.

I plan to continue taking it easy for at least another 5 days, until about mid-next week. I am extremely wary of becoming injured by pushing things too fast too soon. After I ran the Newport Marathon in May I suffered my hamstring injury exactly one week later. I would not like to repeat that experience! I am focused on dynamically warming up and doing a brief pass over the foam roller before every run. After each run I am stretching thoroughly and foam rolling more intensely at the end of each day.

Sleep is my friend this week! I’ve made it a priority because I know that it’s essential for recovery. No matter how much homework I have to do, or blogging I want to do, neither is more important to me than my recovery. Nutrition and hydration are the other key pieces to coming back stronger than before. As I’ve written, I’m attuned to my cravings and I am honoring them! The first few days post-marathon I put special emphasis on chugging back the water! I stopped being dizzy in less than a day, it was most likely due to a combo of dehydration and my headache, as well as the all-out effort of the marathon.

rest day what to do

I’ll just have to deal with being passed by snails for another few days! My quads are still feeling sore from the long downhill at mile 23 of the Portland Marathon. My left hamstring has also been protesting as usual, and I am hyper aware of the need to give it some extra TLC. My main focus right now is preventing injury and giving my muscles all the resources they need to make a full recovery. When I start my winter training cycle in a week I want to be 100% healthy and chomping at the bit to begin!

I’m ready to get:

Harder_Better_Faster_Stronger_by_abhijitdara

What I Eat Wednesday: 10/08/2014 What works for you?

I’ve been a bottomless pit for the past two days! Logically it makes sense, I just put my body through 26.2 miles of intense running and I need to refuel the tank, but I was not prepared to be so ravenous! The day of the marathon I took in 250 calories prior to the run and 200 calories on the course. Immediately after finishing I ate ~1 lb. of green grapes, about 300 calories and then went home and ate: 2 small apples, 3 small nectarines, 1 large peach and 2 tiny Seckle pears which all totaled ~560 calories. I ate my usual meal for lunch and had a smaller dinner than usual because I slept all day and felt sick from my migraine. So it makes sense that the next day (yesterday) my hunger drive kicked into high gear!

hungry dog memeI ate my usual fruity breakfast, and my pre-packed lunch of veggies and potatoes…but mid-afternoon I was walking past a Whole Foods and decided to go inside for the salad bar (where there’s always something healthy and tasty for a high carb vegan to eat). I grabbed a to go container and filled it to the brim with corn, peas, edamame, cauliflower, tomatoes, mushrooms and lettuce. After I paid and started eating and I realized I was ravenous. It was a 2lb. salad and when I was done I was still starving. It hadn’t made a dent! I was craving the rich fat of avocado, and so I bought a fresh avocado salad roll and a mini avocado white rice sushi roll. I ate them both (without the sauces) and then went back for 2 more servings of avocado salad rolls (I have a history of past addictions to salad rolls) for the road. By this time my hunger was finally beginning to feel quelled and I was able to tear myself out of Whole Foods, which was rapidly consuming my whole paycheck! I went home and consumed the rest of the salad rolls as well as my usual huge portion of steamed sweet potatoes and lettuce.

Today was a little bit better! I ate my usual fruit for breakfast and veggies for lunch. In the afternoon I only bought one serving of avocado salad rolls and 1 serving of avocado white rice sushi. Then I ate my usual dinner.

I’m really proud of myself. Listening to my body and honoring my hunger drive, specifically my cravings, has never been something I was able to do. In high school I developed severe anorexia and then bulimia, and so I was either depriving myself or binging and then purging. Thoughts of food were never safe, and feelings of hunger and cravings filled me with dread that I might binge or eat something I wasn’t allowed to. But yesterday I realized I was hungry and I definitely understood why, so I ate. And I made good choices! I wanted to eat more veggies and salad rolls! My only strong, specific cravings were for avocado (maybe I needed the fat?) so I ate avocado and I didn’t worry about the fat content! For a brief moment I did fret that eating extra food I hadn’t planned for in the day would make me fat, but I checked myself quickly. Everything I ate was natural, fresh, whole foods! Who has ever gotten fat eating vegetables, salad rolls and rice?

post marathon cravings

My main focus right now is to recover my muscles optimally and stay healthy! This is the time to pack nutrient-dense fresh fruits and veggies into my body! I want to be strong and injury free. With my mindset of optimal athletic achievement, a healthy weight will naturally follow.

Breakfast:

WIAW 7 breakfast

I hobbled through a quick 3 mile run this morning, I’m still recovering! But I plan to run again tonight and I also feel like my quads have healed enough to bike to class (it’s only 25 minutes each way with minor hills).

It finally happened 😦 I went to the grocery store and there were NO peaches, nectarines or pluots! I’m heartbroken! I’ve known for awhile that the summer fruit was waning…but I didn’t expect the breakup to be so sudden!

For breakfast I had honey tangerines, 2 medium-large Honeycrisp apples, and a large Asian pear. I took the apples to class with me and ate them mid-morning.

On my way home I stopped to do a sweet potato haul at a New Seasons grocery store. New Seasons’ are the only place nearby where I can find my favorite Japanese sweet potatoes. I also bought some deliciously squishy golden kiwis for tomorrow’s brekky. I like to have sweet and juicy fruits for breakfast, so it might be hard for me to survive this winter on bananas, apples and citrus only 😦

Lunch:

WIAW 7 lunchAs soon as I got home, I dug into lunch. Again, I was ravenous! I am still getting really hungry! I had my usual carrots, zucchini, and sweet potato (steamed). It’s a really large potato, about 300 calories worth…so it’s not as though I am not eating enough calories. But even after I ate all that, I was still wanting…

Yesterday when I went grocery shopping I had bought some avocados just in case (based on the avocado cravings I had the past two days) and after lunch, I really wanted some avocado! Good thing I had planned for this!

So I threw together what I had and made 2 little lettuce boats containing: 1/8 avocado each, sliced yellow cherry tomatoes, 1/2 sheet dried nori, and a handful of freeze-dried corn. It seemed to do the trick! After I ate those I finally felt satiated and ready to get to my homework!

In the early evening I donned my running clothes and jogged over to my favorite running store to lead a run group. We didn’t go far, and the pace was pretty relaxed (which was all I could manage anyway). In total I jogged a mile there and back and ran 3 miles with the group.

Dinner:

Guess what??? Steamed sweet potatoes and lettuce for the win! Yes, I had what I always have, but that’s the dinner that I ate everyday of my training cycle and the night before I won the Portland Marathon, so it must be working! I had 1.8 lbs. of steamed potatoes and 2 large heads of Romaine lettuce. I might finally be calming my post-marathon hunger!

In total I ran 9 miles (easy) and biked 50 minutes.

Macro nutrient breakdown:

Total Calories: 2,101 calories

Carbohydrates: 475.9g (86.3% of total calories)

Fats: 16.9g (6.7% of total calories)

Proteins: 54.6g (7% of total calories)

make the healthy choice

What I Ate Wednesday: 09/17/2014

eat right buddha

Today, I had to bust out of my comfortable eating routine and SOCIALIZE! For those of you who have unique diets or food avoidances, you already know how hard it is to eat out with friends…unless you know how to plan ahead!

I always pack my day’s food the night before. When you are trying to sustain a vegan, high-carb low-fat (no salt, no oil, no refined food) diet you can’t rely on convenience stores or packaged items. The benefits of packing your own food are numerous:

  • You have complete control over what goes into your food- no nasty chemicals or food dyes!
  • You save time (ordering, shopping, trying to read all the ingredients in a label!)
  • You save money! Ordering a small salad can cost up to $6 dollars! Making a ginormous one at home that will keep you full and satisfied might cost the same amount, but be twice the size!

Breakfast:

My day began as usual, it was an easy run day between the 6 mile tempo run at a 6:30 pace yesterday and tomorrow’s track workout. I broke in a new pair of shoes on my morning 4 mile run. Running in the morning heightens my awareness of the shortening of the days. The sun is getting up later and later! Afterward, I multi-tasked: stretching, eating, and watching a few YouTube videos.

WIAW breakfast 4

 

2 peaches I’m trying to hold onto summer, but good stone fruit is getting harder to find 😦

1 purple plum and 3 squishy little yellow plums!

 

 

I jetted off on my bicycle a little late, that’s been the theme of my week, and bike-commuted 30 minutes of moderate cycling to my internship. It’s my last week, and I am definitely sad to be leaving. It’s been an incredible experience to be a part of such a positive team. Friends of the Children seeks to serve the most vulnerable population in Portland: children who have suffered poverty, abuse and neglect. Being a part of  this powerful community re-affirmed my desire to help others in my life and continWIAW morning snack 4ue along a career path dedicated to health and community.

Mid-Morning Snack:

1 1/2 crunchy Tango apples! The end of summer fruit gives rise to the crispy sweet crunch of apples and pears! I am really spoiled to be living in the northwest where the best apples ever grow in abundance!

 Lunch: Time to be social!

One of the staff at my intern site wanted to go out to lunch with me, just to chat. We’ve had time for brief small talk, but no real time to actually have a good conversation. Initially, when he brought up going to lunch I was freaked out. How could I quickly explain my dietary restrictions without coming off as completely crazy? I managed to let him know I was vegan, but I didn’t get into any details. After thinking about it, I suggested we just go to New Seasons nearby, which has plenty of offerings including a hot foods bar, salad bar, and pre-prepared meals. There would be something for both of us. But just in case, I packed some extra food with me:
WIAW preplanned 4
This is probably one of the most important things you can do to successfully stick to a healthy lifestyle. Have a back-up plan! I packed a mini-version of my usual lunch, including a potato for sustenance and lots of veggies to crunch on. I won’t get home tonight until about WIAW 4 drinks6:30pm, and I don’t want to be hungry.

Out to lunch! I already knew I was going to hit the salad bar, hard! I didn’t feel like being totally weird, so there’s no picture of my salad to share with you, but it was a large plate overflowing with chopped romaine, baby spinach, and baby arugula leaves. I added a ladle full of black beans, sliced celery and cucumber and raw, sliced mushrooms. The final touch was 5-6 cherry tomatoes, which promptly tried to roll off the mountain of greens and beans. It was satisfying, and nutrient-rich, but I was glad that I had packed extra food with me! I enjoyed the conversation, though I found myself feeling the need to explain my diet, although he didn’t ask. The way I eat is just so far from the mainstream that I feel compelled to explain why I am being so different. Do any of you ever feel that way?

After lunch I cycled 20 minutes to Portland State campus where I caught the bus and rode up the hill to my after school care teaching job. I took my bike with me so that I could just cycle straight home after work, because I get to zoom down that big hill 🙂 It takes about 40 minutes, and I worked up an appetite!

Dinner:

The usual! Lots of my favorite Japanese sweet potatoes (880g or ~2 lbs. steamed) with 2 heads of water-rich, fresh Romaine lettuce! I ate more than was pictured, this is just round 1!

WIAW 4 dinner

Macro nutrient Breakdown:

Total calories: 2044

Carbohydrates: 460.1g (86.3% of total calories)

Protein: 67.2g (9.3% of total calories)

Fat: 10.9g (4.5% of total calories)

That wraps up my day! I met all my micronutrient requirements (vitamins and minerals). I get Vitamin D from the sun, and I supplement Vitamin B12. I am always weirdly short on selenium, but I haven’t noticed any ill-health effects from it. From my research there doesn’t seem to be many side effects from lower intake of selenium in an already healthy individual. I usually get between the 30-50% range of the RDI. Amount of selenium in foods depends heartily on the selenium content of the soil the food was grown in, so I may be getting more than a calorie-counting app like Cronometer can calculate.

Let me know your thoughts and criticisms as well as how you socialize as a vegan, vegetarian, or health conscious eater 🙂