All calories aren’t created equal. Ditch convenience foods for whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains and plant-based proteins.
Not only is overeating an issue for one-third of adult Americans, it’s also a nationwide concern for children--more than one in six young Americans between the ages of 6 and 19 struggle with obesity. Among patients I see who are trying to lose weight, one of the most common misconceptions is that they think a calorie is a calorie. In other words, they have been told that all anyone needs to do to lose weight is take in fewer calories than they burn. But while calories may appear equal on paper, the effect they have on the body is vastly different. The body breaks down, burns and stores the three main sources of calories in our diet--carbohydrate, protein and fat--in different ways.
Let’s take fat as an example. Foods that contain saturated fat and artificial trans fat have been linked to inflammation, and over consumption of these fats can eventually lead to heart disease and increase the risk of developing diabetes. But foods containing polyunsaturated fats (such as walnuts and soybeans) or monounsaturated fats (such as olive oil and avocado) actually decrease inflammation in the body, and replacing refined starches and simple sugars with these unsaturated fats has been shown to lower hemoglobin A1c, improve insulin resistance and insulin secretion. So, this is just one example of how even though two meals might have the same number of calories, the way the individual nutrients affect our bodies are on opposite sides of the spectrum.
Sugar, salt and fat don’t let you down easy
Do you remember the potato chip slogan “Bet you can’t eat just one!”? As catchy as that was, it was also accurate. Taste may be one aspect, but one of the biggest reasons people tend to overeat is because certain foods lack the nutrients our bodies need. Foods that derive their calories—energy—primarily from things like solid fats or added sugars, but contain little else in the way of vitamins, minerals or micronutrients, are sources of “empty calories.” The ingredients in these snack foods make you want to eat more, and the companies who make these snack foods know you’ll stay addicted to them.
A contributing factor to this problem is that brands often market empty-calorie foods by placing cartoon images or misleading phrases on packages that appeal to both children and their parents.
As far as calories go, it’s best to avoid foods like:
- Sugary cereals
- Juice with added sugar
- Processed meat such as hot dogs, bologna, and bacon
- Sauces and dips like mayonnaise, tartar sauce, ketchup, BBQ sauce, and ranch dressing
- Refined grains like crackers and white bread
- Salty snacks like pretzels and chips
- Artificial sweeteners
- High-sodium meals like packaged soups
- High-fat content foods like cookies, doughnuts and croissants
Most cereal made with added sugar and artificial sweeteners don’t contain fiber or protein – two things our bodies really need in the morning. What’s worse is that they only provide a fleeting amount of energy, resulting in a mid-day crash. Salty snacks, high-fat foods and sugary foods end up producing higher levels of insulin which is then almost completely absorbed by the cells, leaving nothing for your blood. The result is a lower level of blood sugar that makes you feel even hungrier. In fact, some foods even stimulate addictive behavior, making the road to obesity and other complications difficult to avoid.
A basic piece of advice I always give is to read between the lines and pay attention to the nutritional value on the labels. Just because something is labeled “organic” or “natural” doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain high levels of sugar or salt. Both of these ingredients are heavily used in the manufacturing of highly-processed convenience foods and can cause you to overeat.
Fill your cart with fresh
There aren’t any nutrition labels on produce, but if you have the option to choose whole foods over processed or refined foods, choose the former. The natural sugars in fresh fruit are accompanied by vitamins and nutrients absent in many foods made with added sugars, and the protein and fiber found in whole fruits and vegetables will help leave you feeling fuller longer, curbing your desire to reach for more.
Here are some of my favorite suggestions for your grocery cart:
- Peaches and nectarines
- Red Bell Pepper
- Nuts and seeds
- Black beans
- Natural nut butters
- Brown rice
- Whole Rye
These foods all have one or more of protein, healthy fat, fiber; and, they can help satisfy your hunger cravings. So, in the long run, they can also help you manage your weight as part of a balanced diet.
Get with the food groups
Another good rule of thumb for meal-planning is to never avoid entire food groups. Fruits, vegetables, proteins, and grains all play a role in building a healthier body. You can check out MyPlate for tips and tools to incorporate all food groups into your diet. The important thing to remember is to manage portion size and to be diligent about consuming whole, fresh foods that will nourish you, energize you, and fill you up.
Cali Kent, MS, RDN, is the supervisor of clinical dietetics at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. Her nutrition philosophy is one that looks at the total person, not only on nutritional intake, but lifestyle, prevention and the use of natural therapies.
Ask your doctor or registered dietitian for advice and resources on healthier eating and weight management. Find a primary care physician or specialist in your area.