Do you count the calories you’re consuming each day? Do you know what exactly a calorie is? A calorie is defined as the amount of heat required at a pressure of one atmosphere to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree Celsius. Huh? I don’t know about you, but this does not seems like something I want to be thinking about while cooking dinner. It seems so removed from our food. What if I told you to put aside the calories, and instead focus on the type of food you are eating.
All calories aren’t created equally
I remember when I was in university, individualised 100 calorie snack packages were really popular. It was marketed as a way to control portion sizes. Personally, I think this is a terrible idea. It’s a waste of packaging. Most of the foods that have been reduced to 100 calorie portions have been processed in some way. They aren’t natural foods. They are processed, contain chemicals, have few health benefits, may be nutrient void, and generally unsatisfying to our bodies.
The picture below shows how 400 calorie portions of oil, beef and salad fill the stomach. If we have a 400 calorie fatty snack, like french fries, not only are we not supplying our body with nutrients, but we aren’t filling the stomach. Our stomach has stretch receptors which when stimulated, send a signal to the brain telling us that we are full. When we don’t receive that signal, we still feel hungry. It’s more about the types of foods we eat, not the calorie content.
Counting calories takes away the fun
Counting calories takes away the pleasure from eating. If you’re always stressing about how many calories you’re eating, it’s possible develop a complex relationship with food.
Food is meant to nourish us, to provide us with energy and to give us life. Food is supposed to be pure and the act of eating a time to relax and re-energize. Counting calories is bringing unneeded stress. We are not machines that need a calculated chemical formula to function. We are dynamic beings, with unique requirements. Listen to the signs and signals your body is sharing. You may feel like having more protein at dinner or crave the bitterness of dark green vegetables. Your body will tell you what it needs if you just listen.
Eat in a way that truly satisfies you. Eating raw carrot sticks for lunch won’t satisfy you as much as a fresh salad topped with nuts, healthy oils and a source of protein. Think about how you can combine foods to create a meal that will leave you feeling nutritionally full, not just physically full.
Our state of mind affects how our bodies use the food we eat. Regardless of how many calories you consume, being in a stress-state (sympathetic nervous system dominance) compromises digestion and inspires our body to store fat; being in a relaxed state (parasympathetic nervous system dominance) allows our body to digest fully and mobilize stored weight.
Calories in ≠ calories out
Calories in does not equal calories out. You can eat a diet of potato chips, hamburgers and pizza and exercise regularly. But will you be leaving your body without the important vitamins and minerals needed for optimal health. Our biological processes in our bodies need these nutrients for our physiological pathways. Fresh produce contains antioxidants, phytonutrients and trace minerals that cannot be found from something in a package.
As an example, let’s take a look at the nutrients required by the liver. This is just one organ in the body. The nutrient cofactors required for cytochrome P450 reactions (a detoxification pathway) include riboflavin, niacin, magnesium, iron and certain phytonutrients such as indoles and quercetin from cruciferous vegetables.
Our bodies don’t run on calories, they run on nutrients.
Count chemicals, not calories
Instead of focusing on how many calories are in a specific food, think about the ingredients. Are there ingredients listed on the label that you don’t recognize, or are hard to pronounce? Were the ingredients made in a laboratory? Was the food product made is processing facility? Unfortunately, food manufacturers do not care about your health, they care about making profits. So, it is common practice to add a slew of preservatives to their products in order to keep the product on the shelf as long as possible, increasing their chance of making a sale.
When I worked in a microbiology laboratory for a major food producer, we regularly conducted shelf life studies for the products. Did you know that a hot dog is microbially safe to eat for over one year after production? Yikes!
What about fresh produce? If it’s conventionally grown, fruits and vegetables are grown in synthetic fertilizer and sprayed with herbicides and pesticides. Apples are one of the most heavily sprayed fruits. They can have up to 48 chemicals sprayed on them! That’s why I choose organic produce whenever possible.
Think about nutrients
When preparing a meal or selecting a restaurant, give some thought about which ingredients are used. Think about what happens to the food as it enters the body. “Low calorie” cookies are comprised of refined sugars and flour. When a cookie is ingested, the simple sugars cause a rise in blood sugar levels. The pancreas must secrete insulin to lower the blood glucose levels by putting the sugar into our body cells. Our bodies do use glucose as a source of energy. But when we have too much glucose, our body stores the extra as fat. So, that low calorie cookie we are eating actually becomes fat in our bodies.
When planning meals, enjoy a diversity of foods. Choose different colours to enjoy a selection of phytonutrients. Try local, seasonal foods that will have a higher content of nutrients that imported ones. Experiment with ingredients you haven’t tried before.
Your health is in your hands
We can take comfort in knowing that we have the choice to select our food. Everytime we eat something, we are influencing our health. Eating a nutrient-rich diet is a great way to prevent illness and feel our best.
With some planning we can prepare healthy meals at home and snacks to have when we are on the go. There’s an incredible feeling of satisfaction of knowing exactly what is in our foods. What we put into our bodies is ultimately our choice. We have the power to influence our health.