People can get obsessive about counting calories. Some even weigh out portions of food so they can accurately calculate calories from fat, carbohydrates, and protein. When I was growing up, we were taught that if you ate more calories than you burned off, you would gain weight – and conversely, if you burned off more calories than you ate, you would lose weight. Sounds simple and makes sense, but it’s not a complete picture of what’s going on in our bodies. It’s oversimplifying the impact of our food choices.
Why are we eating food? Sure, most of us derive a lot of pleasure from the food we eat (I know I do!). The need to satisfy your hunger is primal. The drive to desire food is in us to ensure survival.
We need food to provide us with fuel to convert into energy so that we can move, breathe, and think.
We also need food to provide all the micronutrients we need on a cellular level for our bodies to do things we might not think about like generating new cells, fighting a virus, and ridding ourselves of toxins. If we only focus on the number of calories, we may seem to be doing okay on a “macro” level, but on a “micro” level, we are not functioning at our best unless we are smart about the quality of the food we consume; we are living but not thriving …and we were designed to thrive.
You Are a Porsche
Think of your body like a luxury sports car. Like a high-end car, you were designed to take premium gasoline to deliver the best performance – only your ideal fuel takes the form of nutritious, whole foods that the Earth provides: vegetables, fruit, and meat raised on that beautiful land; water and seafood that lives in that water. A car designed to take premium gasoline will run on basic unleaded gas, but it won’t run optimally, and the cumulative effect of not using the right fuel will eventually take its toll somewhere in that engine! Similarly, you can look at your food as simply caloric content and give your body the number of calories it needs to keep it running (or less if you want to take a little off the chassis). You can fill up on starchy foods and other low calorie/low nutrition value foods. Or, you can focus on choosing food with the most nutritious bang for the buck (and calorie) and run like the high-performance vehicle you are designed to be!!!
Historically, say back in our great-grandparents’ day and before, there were predominantly “whole” food options, so regardless of where you lived, you lived off what that region provided and, as a culture, developed a way of eating that worked in that region. Fast forward to our current world where we are surrounded by food that is engineered and designed. Most is designed for convenience, taste, and low cost. A much smaller subset is designed with thought to nutrition.
Next time you go to the grocery store, take a good look at what’s in people’s grocery carts. If it’s filled with boxes, bags, and bottles, it is no doubt also filled with a wide range of highly processed foods containing chemical additives and sweeteners.
These ingredients were not in the original owner’s manual when we were designed! The long-term effects of consuming them on a regular basis are revealing themselves as we look at the chronic health problems that we are facing as a society – largely driven by our food choices!!!
Full disclosure: I was part of the problem. As a chemical engineer working in the food industry, I can tell you that my colleagues and I weren’t knowingly trying to make people unhealthy; we were simply myopically focused on giving people the best- tasting food that we could make at the best price. I walked away from a 25+ year career in designing and engineering food and have been resetting my own food choices over the past several years. I am now focused on being part of the solution by helping others make smarter and equally (or more) delicious choices to support their journeys to better health.
Eat the Rainbow
Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of the New York Times bestselling book Eat to Live and proponent of eating a micronutrient-rich diet, created a simple scoring system for many foods to help in the decision-making process when you’re eating. It’s called the Aggregate Nutrition Density Index, or ANDI, and it is an assessment of the micronutrients–vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants – in a food relative to its caloric content. He assembled the values in a chart so that you can gauge the value of foods that you’re eating. Unsurprisingly, dark, leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables rise to the top of the chart because of their abundance of micronutrients and low caloric value. I encourage you to eat a diverse range of vegetables and fruits because those different colors that naturally occur in foods are an indication of the different micronutrients. Why not hedge your health bets? Using this chart to navigate your way to a healthier plateful of food is a great start; not only will your body appreciate the micronutrients, but also you will be getting ample fiber to fill you up and keep food moving through your digestive system.
Include Proteins & Healthy Fats
Eating a variety of vegetables including lots of dark green leafy ones is a nice foundation, but if you just used the ANDI chart, you might not think that you need anything other than that.
To flourish, make sure you add protein and healthy fats. They are both satiating macronutrients because they are broken down more slowly by the body.
If you don’t consume protein regularly, your body has no choice but to start breaking down your own muscle mass for survival. We can’t make our own protein or store excess. To thrive, you need to include protein in your diet. For omnivores, lean protein from clean sources is the best. These include the following:
- Grass-fed beef
- Pasture-raised chicken
- Wild-caught seafood
- Pastured pork
It’s better to eat less meat of higher quality and to minimize heavily processed meats. These days, I can find uncured bacon that is nitrate/nitrite free in most stores, so I can still indulge relatively guilt-free.
Fat is a great energy source, and frankly, it tastes good. If you are eating clean protein, you are getting healthy fat with it. I don’t eat hunks of fat, but I cook it in avocado oil, virgin coconut oil, grass-fed butter, or grass-fed clarified butter (ghee), and I’ll sauté it in olive oil or add it to salads and other food. I love the flavor that sesame seed oil adds to a finished stir-fry, and I adore tahini (sesame seed paste) and almond butter in recipes as well. I regularly toss a diced ripe avocado with fresh lemon juice, good extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, and fresh black pepper to make a simple dressing for a salad. The avocado adds a nice creaminess. Flaxseed and hemp seeds are great to incorporate in salads and smoothies.
It Worked For Me
As recently as five years ago, I can remember using an app to track what I ate and how much I was exercising in an ongoing attempt to shed ten stubborn pounds that had snuck up on me gradually over the years. It never really worked, though it did make me more aware of my bad salty snack habit, and using a food diary can be a good awareness tool. Using that calorie-counting scheme, I would yo-yo a couple of pounds up and down, but I still averaged where I started. It wasn’t until I started to focus differently on my food choices that I made any traction. I began adding better choices to my plate: a simple concept called “crowding out” that I talked about in a previous post. I really upped my intake of vegetables dramatically and focused on finding new recipes to use them. I added cleaner sources of protein – starting with buying a ½ of a 100% grass-fed cow from a reliable source (my sister and brother-in-law!). I did a pantry cleanse to get rid of most processed foods. Without counting calories and with no serious exercise regime (the only consistent exercise I have been doing in the past 6 months is walking my 3 dogs and cleaning the house!), those stubborn ten pounds have disappeared and have stayed off.
I am a work in progress. I am not perfect; I don’t follow a whole food, clean diet 100% of the time. For one thing, it’s summer, and that’s gelato season…pistachio gelato is my kryptonite! I don’t need a pint – I can choose to find happiness in a small portion. We like to eat out, but we aim to frequent restaurants that take pride in their ingredients and start from scratch. I have a weakness for French fries and will indulge every few weeks or so, but when I do, I insist on the perfect French fry (which for me is crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside), or I won’t have them. I also use eating out to try a new vegetable or salad – it’s part of why I love Brussels sprouts and kale salad now!
Ignoring calories helped me lose weight. Why? What we know about nutrition – how our bodies use the food we consume – is evolving as a science. As someone who spent my whole career being driven by data, I like to step back now and look at things from 30,000 feet.
Logically, what were we designed to eat as a species? Isn’t that what we should optimally be eating?
I feel like I have achieved much better health by just adhering to a whole food diet 80% of the time, and I continue to challenge myself to improve on that.
I can only hope that I had this epiphany about eating “by design” before my less smart choices took too much of a toll on my body because I now know that those bad choices can lead to a lot of chronic illnesses. I also know this isn’t the entire equation. Genetic factors play a role too, but choices (food and other lifestyle choices) can keep bad genes from expressing themselves. Your mental health is a huge player in the equation, and there is a whole subset of things that influence that, which will be the subject of a future post.
What Have You Got to Lose?
If you are a chronic calorie counter, let me challenge you to change your focus and see what how it works for you.
Take all that energy you have been putting toward keeping track of how many calories a food has and put it toward how much nutrition it provides.
Strive for diversity and quality of food– and eat real food. See how much better you feel and watch your body naturally shift to a healthier version of yourself!!!