Calories are all around us. They are found on any packaged good, printed on restaurant menus, and even on your treadmill in the form of ‘calories burned.’ What exactly is a calorie? A calorie is simply a unit of measurement for heat. A food’s calorie count is estimated from its carbohydrate, protein, and fat content.
Reading ingredient labels and the nutrition facts on foods is one thing, but counting calories all day is a whole different ball game. If you’ve ever done it, you know how tedious it can be. Whether you are on a strict diet plan, or are simply interested in the foods you are putting into your body, counting calories and understanding nutrition labels is a great starting point.
First things first, it is important to understand that low-calorie foods aren’t always the best choice. While certain low calorie foods are nutrient-dense, like fruits and vegetables, others lack the health benefits and are most often highly processed with added sugar, starch, sodium, additives, fillers, and synthetic ingredients. Low-calorie and low-fat labels are a marketing gimmick – they often allow us to feel like we can eat more and not feel as bad about it. But beware – this is not the case. If you want to eat low-calorie and low-fat, begin first with real, whole foods from the earth like vegetables and berries and refrain from those labels. Instead of simply looking at the calorie count on foods, aim to track carbohydrates, fats, and protein—not just calories—when you’re evaluating foods.
Next up – Not all calories are created equal. As mentioned before, our fuel comes from 3 sources – fats, carbohydrates, and protein. Each of these has a different effect on the body, so the saying “calories in, calories out” isn’t exactly accurate. A good example is that for every 100 carbohydrate calories you consume, your body expends to 10 in digestion. With fats, you expend slightly less, and protein: for every 100 calories you consume, your body needs 20 to 30 for digestion. This means that carbs and fat yield more usable energy than protein, however, if you want to lose weight make protein a priority at every meal and cut down a bit on the carbohydrates and fats.
Where your calories come from is as important (and possibly more important) than how many you get. For example, plant-based whole foods are nutrient dense, rather than calorie dense. I often hear that carbohydrates make you fat. This is not true – but what does make you fat are excess calories. Even if you cut all carbs from your diet, if you are still overeating, your body is taking in excess calories and storing them as fat. There are, however “good carbohydrates” and “bad carbohydrates” – the good being vegetables, legumes, and fruits and the bad being cookies and pizza. Aim to incorporate good carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and other whole foods into your diet. Avoid refined grains (white flour, white bread, and white rice), processed foods, baked goods, and sugary drinks.
Fats are not the enemy. Just as calories, not all fats are created equal. Saturated fats such as high-fat cuts of meat, chicken with the skin, dairy products, and processed trans-fats used packaged snack foods and cookies, margarine, and fried foods are bad for you as they can raise cholesterol levels and cause other chronic diseases. Monounsaturated fats on the other end, such as avocado and olive oil, and polyunsaturated fats, such as pumpkin seeds, flax seeds and walnuts support your health in more ways than one. The one important thing to note with fat in the diet is that it is the most calorie-dense food. One gram of fat has about 9 calories, so even with healthy sources you should practice moderation.
Snacking in between meals is not necessarily a bad idea. Sure, mindless snacking on chips will sabotage your weight loss, but mindful snacking can help you to stay feeling satisfied between meals so that you do not get to the point of binging. Planning healthy snacks into your day can also help with not overeating at meals and even with cravings. Snack on a handful of raw nuts, an apple with one tablespoon of nut butter, raw veggies like carrots, snap peas, and celery with hummus. There are some great options out there. And don’t forget to drink your water!
There you have it – not everything that you hear in the media is true. If you begin to educate yourself on portion size, real, whole foods and refrain from eating processed, packaged foods and fast food, you will already begin to reduce your caloric intake! If you don’t know where to start, check out Fresh n’ Lean – our meals are portion sized, and calorie conscious!