Navigating the Diet, Calorie and Nutrition Conundrum
The New Year is the perfect time to take a step back, look at our lives and really evaluate. Are you as healthy and happy as you want to be, or are you feeling stuck in sluggish mode? Especially after the holidays many of us fall into the latter category. This is not our natural state! If you’re feeling heavy, tired, or depressed, then your health is out of balance. Many of us don’t realize that diet plays a key factor in either promoting or alleviating these unhealthy conditions. The amazingly good news is, you have the ability to rebalance your diet and feel your best right though the everyday choices you make!
Now is the time, and it’s more straightforward than you think. As you may know, not all calories are created equal, which kind of skews the simple calories in, calories out equation. Some foods are more high-quality, as in, more nutritionally dense than others. While you would need to be well-versed in nutrition science to assess this correctly every time, most of us know in general say, that a piece of fruit is healthier than a fruit roll up. Real food always beats the processed version, we’ll start with that.
Calories differ in other ways too. Foods like fiber-rich veggies burn calories just through digestion, while other foods, including many ingredients of refined, processed foods, actually incite cravings, and since the body doesn’t get to process refined foods, they go unnoticed by your hunger center. In short, they just don’t satisfy.
What about Diet?
Of course all of the ado about individual diets creates even more confusion. And as Nutritionista extraordinaire Meghan Telpner reminds us in her Enliven interview, diets don’t come in one-size-fits-all. More typically they come in fads, which lots of us try, but just like miniskirts and platform stilettos, they simply won’t work for everybody. Gluten-free anyone?
The problem with most diets is you have to work to stay on them. And when you finally take a break, it’s so much more enjoyable you’ve taught yourself to associate diet with denial. It’s hard to willingly opt for that. So adapting a new definition of diet may make sense. It’s really about finding the most nutritionally dense foods that work for your body, without overeating. And since in general, the most nutritionally dense foods are the most fibrous, filling and satisfying, with some planning ahead you won’t experience the dissatisfaction that leads to cravings and overeating.
How do you find the foods your body needs to feel your best? First, begin by making sure you’re getting enough of the foods you may be deficient in. This illustrative chart from the USDA measures the average nutritional profile.
As you can see, Americans are way too low on whole foods, and way too high on solid fats SoFas), saturated fats, refined grains and sodium, all of the ingredients so prevalent in processed foods. The best place to start improving your eating habits is to replace all of the nutritionally devoid foods shown on the USDA chart, with healthy foods rich in nutrients we’re getting too few of, mainly fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. I don’t personally agree with the dairy suggestion on the chart, for reasons discussed in depth by author Rita Rivera in her Enliven interview, but the remaining suggestions are generally accepted as good health advice.
So goal number one regardless of the rest of your dietary plan, is to replace refined processed foods with healthy whole foods as much as possible. On average, 70% of the food we’re eating is processed. Not all processed foods are bad, but it’s important to avoid the high percentage of overly refined processed foods that have become so widespread in our culture. This can be tricky, because it does require a bit of working knowledge. It also involves a habit many of us avoid, reading labels.
Read Food Labels
Food labels are not only confusing, they’re tiny! But reading them is important, because when you must eat processed (and at least some of the time, many of us must) you don’t have to eat junk. By making it hard to read and understand the information, manufacturers give themselves plenty of latitude when it comes to ingredients. So even if you can barely make out the words, take the time and do the legwork to source your goods. You’ll be able to navigate the grocery store aisles more easily once you know what to look for.
Here are some simple rules of thumb so if you have to buy packaged foods, at least there’s less of a risk factor. And even if you go no further and remember nothing else, it will always benefit you to keep in mind this inconvenient truth that we all need to remember: never believe the claims you read on the front of the package. If you’re interested in making healthier food choices by understanding nutrition labels, here are some tips:
- Beware of serving sizes. Not all serving sizes are the same, nor do they necessarily make sense. Bottled beverages, even those that look like they’re meant for one, often use this tactic to make calorie counts seem lower than they really are. Even clearly individually packaged items like sports bars and muffins sometimes list two servings per piece, so it always makes sense to check.
- In the US, we consume on average 22.2 teaspoons of added sugar per day (more than 4 times the 5 teaspoons the American Heart Association recommends for women), so attempting to reduce when possible is a good idea. Avoid products containing sugar of any kind in the first five ingredients and you’re on the right track. The most common tactic manufacturers use to sneak it in? Mixing the names of different sweeteners so the weight is spread out among several forms of sugar. Some to look out for: honey, dextrose, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, molasses, sucrose, fructose, maltose, and lactose.
- Sodium content should never exceed the number calories; look for a 1:1 ratio. If a serving of Pop Chips contains 100 calories, be sure it also contains less than 100 grams of sodium. Simple! It’s also healthier to avoid products containing sodium nitrate, a preservative that’s commonly used in processed meats like bacon, jerky, and lunch meats. Studies link nitrates to diabetes and heart disease.
- Shift your focus from fat grams per serving, since serving sizes are quite subjective. Fat content should be no more than 20% of the total calorie content and should contain no trans fats. How to tell? Read the Nutrition Label on the back of the package, find the total calories per serving, and divide by 5. If fat calories are less than 20% of total calories, or if it contains hydrogenated anything, put it back.
- Make sure you’re buying whole grains. Claims announcing “Whole-wheat” or “Multi-grain” on the front are not the same thing. Read the Nutrition Label carefully to make sure the word “whole” precedes every grain listed, or look for the “100% whole-grain” claim. This is one term regulated by the FDA to ensure that all grains used in the product are, in fact, whole.
- Finally, beware of words you don’t know or recognize in the ingredients. If you wouldn’t stock them in your kitchen, it’s because they don’t belong in your food! Of course it’s important to focus on what to include, and not just what to avoid. For a comprehensive shopping list of healthy foods to include in your diet, visit http://elizabethborelli.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/BeanaliciousShoppingList.pdf
Updating your shopping habits with nutritious choices will make a tremendous difference in your energy level, weight and overall health. It’s a step-by-step process, and involves a new level of awareness and commitment. But once you start experiencing the benefits of a better diet, you may be surprised to learn your favorite thing about your new diet is how amazingly delicious that real, healthy food can be!