Staying Healthy and Fit: Is Counting Calories the Answer?

When it comes to food, I used to be a big believer in “moderation”.  You know, the school of thought that says, you can have a little bit of everything, just not too much. It’s no wonder that this approach to food appeals to us. You think, wow, I can have chips, soda, and cake, as long as I don’t over-do it.

But how do you know if you’re over-doing it?  

Maybe you limit your sweets intake to two desserts a day, maybe you just wing it, or maybe you count your calories. I know so many people that do the latter! A few years ago, I was one of them. But if you count calories, how do you stick to this approach over the years? Do you tell yourself, the cookie is only 150 calories, so if I have two, I can skip my afternoon snack and cut back at dinner. I don’t know about you, but those internal conversations stress me out.  The constant calorie-counting can make you feel like you’re borderline obsessing about your food rather than enjoying it.

So here is the question, does calorie-counting and eating “everything in moderation”  help you be and stay healthy,  prevent diseases and make your body to thrive? 

Disclaimer: I don’t want to completely bash counting  calories or eating in moderation because I think there are benefits to giving yourself a lot flexibility. If you are flexible, you are more likely to stick to your food plan. We already know that overly restrictive diets that cut out certain food groups don’t last.  I also think there is a real benefit to learning about what type of calories are present in different foods. This part of learning about your food is extremely important.

Personally, I like to make sure that I’m getting a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, and good fat as well all the nutrients, but I no longer count my calories. The only time that I really pay attention to my calorie intake is when  I’m training for a race  and need to make sure that I eat enough  throughout the day for my body to recover and re-fuel.

So here is the question –  is there more to maintaining a healthy body than simply counting calories? Of course, I don’t presume to tell you I have all the answers, but after doing the research and trying a few different approaches myself, I realized that it’s more than just how much you eat, and more about what you eat.

What to Eat 

We don’t like to leave the dinner table hungry for the sake of the bag of chips we had earlier that day. If there is food in front of us and we are hungry, calorie calculation or not, we will eat it. We will eat it because the bag of chips didn’t satisfy us.

In his book, Eat to Live (one of my absolute favorite books), Dr. Fuhrman  discusses another approach, calorie density. Here is an excerpt from his book:

“Food supplies us with nutrients and calories. All calories come from only three elements: carbohydrates, fats,  and proteins. Nutrients are derived from vitamins, minerals, fibers, and phytochemicals. These noncaloric nutrients vitally important to our health. Your key to permanent weight loss is to eat predominantly those foods that have a high proportion of nutrients to calories”.

Basically, Dr. Fuhrman wants you to ask yourself the question, how much of the food you are eating contains essential vitamins, minerals, fiber as a proportion of the total calories? Or even more simply, how much of what you’re eating is good for you?

According to Dr. Fuhrman, eating foods that are rich in nutrients and fiber and low in calories, fills you up, and prevents you from overeating. One of the most interesting things I learned is that the signal in your brain that lets you know when you’re full, is activated based on the type of food you’re eating and the volume, not weight. When you eat vegetables and fruits for example, you satisfy your hunger. When you eat a large quantity of them, they fill you up.  Less nutrient dense food on the other hand, leads us to overeat because our trigger is to always eat more.

I won’t go into specifics about what food Dr. Fuhrman recommends (there is so much research that goes into support his findings), but of course I wouldn’t leave you hanging. Here is the very concise version:

  • In a nutshell, eat UNLIMITED amounts of all raw vegetables, cooked green vegetables, and other vegetables such as eggplant, mushrooms (not a true veggie, I know), peppers, onions, tomatoes. Because vegetables and greens are low in calories, you have to eat a lot of them to be full. That’s a good problem to have, if you ask me
  • Eat at least one cup a day of all legumes including beans and lentils, and other protein sources such as tofu. I personally have about 3 servings of legumes a day.
  • Eat a few servings of fresh fruits a day.
  • Have some whole grains and starchy vegetables such as squash sweet potatoes, avocado, raw seeds and nuts, and ground flaxseed.
  • The book advocates staying away from animal products as much as possible.

Again, there is a lot of research on this topic, so I would encourage you to read Dr. Fuhrman’s book for details.

Sure, plate #1 has the same amount of calories, but will it fill you up? The salad is loaded with vegetables and beans that will give you energy and activate your “I’m full” signal. Plate # 2 will make you hungry in 30 minutes.

So the good news here is that we don’t have to count calories with certain foods at all. The other good news is that those foods will keep us full and provide us with all the essentials for optimal health.

You are probably thinking, but you’re just telling me to eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, I heard that before! No, I’m telling you to eat PRIMARILY fruits, vegetables and whole grains

The Harvard Study 

A recent study done by Harvard University provides evidence for what we discussed so far. It is the most detailed long-term analysis of the factors that influence weight gain, involving 120,877 men and women who were healthy and not obese at the start of the study. Their diets were recorded over a 20 year period and weight gain analyzed. The weight gain in itself is not as important as what it represents. It is often an indication of other health risks, including heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. The study was published this June in the New England Journal of Medicine.

This study is so important because it actually shows the effect of dietary choices on people over the span of 20 years! Is it weird that I am so excited about this? 

Some sectors of the food industry would have you believe that there are no bad foods, but the findings don’t support this claim. Instead, the findings show that eating fewer calories and eating everything in moderation may not be the best approach.

The findings show that the food listed below contributed to the greatest weight gain over the 20 year period. Not surprising.

french fries (highest weight gain of all foods!)
potato chips
sugar-sweetened drinks
red meats and processed meats
other forms of potatoes
sweets and desserts
refined grains
other fried foods
100-percent fruit juice
butter

Foods that resulted in weight loss or no gain were fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Also, not surprising.

Why is this important? These findings mean a lot of different things. I take away the fact that the food list above is not helping us reach and sustain optimal health. Even if we count calories and monitor how much of them we eat, they are not filling us up, but are causing us to leave the table hungry and ultimately to over-eat.

What about me? I no longer count calories.  I do eat sweets, and indulge occasionally. Come on, I love to bake pies! But when cooking or eating out, I try to make sure that my food is as nutritionally dense as possible. I eat A TON of fruits and vegetables. So much that Eric sometimes calls me a rabbit.

Does this mean that I eat boring food? Absolutely not. I get really creative and love to cook new things. Check out some of my recipes.

I’m off to go on run and then I’m making a vegetarian lasagna. Happy Sunday

 

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2 Comments

  1. sofiya
    Posted December 4, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    i started baking recently and i love it. i have to hide or give away at least half of the pie or cake to avoid trying to stuff myself with it.

    • Posted December 4, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

      That’s great! You can always give it to your husband, right? Eric asks me to bake, but when I get into my moods where I bake all the time, he politely asks me to stop.

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