Use Nutrient Density to Lose Weight by Eating Better, Not Less – Part 2

Maximizing Nutrient Density

Maximizing Nutrient Density
Image Courtesy of: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In my previous post I reviewed the idea of nutrient density: a food’s nutrient bang for its calorie buck. If we classify foods based on their caloric and nutrient content, we arrive at four options:

  • 1. Low Calorie, High Nutrient Foods: Most fruits and vegetables
  • 2. High Calorie, High Nutrient foods: High starch vegetables (potato, sweet potato, corn, etc.), whole grains, avocado, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, minimally processed oils, low-fat dairy, lean meat, fish
  • 3. Low Calorie, Low Nutrient Foods: Lo-cal/”Diet” foods, hard candy, popsicles
  • 4. High Calorie, Low Nutrient Foods: Doughnuts, ice cream, candy bars, cake, cookies, fried foods, triple bacon cheeseburgers, alcohol

If you are trying to lose weight, you want to maximize nutrients while reasonably minimizing calories so you can satisfy your body’s needs while still being in a moderate calorie deficit. On the flipside, if you want to gain weight, you want to maximize nutrients while eating a bit more calories than your body needs each day. In both cases, you want to focus on high nutrient foods, however weight gainers should aim to have a bit more of the high-calorie, high-nutrient foods compared to those looking for weight loss. And of course staying physically active is essential for both groups to make sure you gain or maintain lean mass like muscle and bone rather than fat.

Though it’s relatively obvious that you want to replace high-calorie, low-nutrient foods with higher-nutrient options, each option has its own unique issues to be aware of:

High Nutrient, Low Calorie Foods: Getting More

Honestly, it’s very hard to get too much of these. You can eat most fruits and veggies all day and it is nearly impossible to overeat. Why? Because of all of the nutrients, water and fiber in them! High nutrient, low calorie foods tend to take up a lot of space in the stomach without us having to take in a lot of calories. A great example is to consider how many cups of veggies you would have to eat to equal the number of calories in an average candy bar (about 250 calories via Calorieking.com):

  • 1 cup of broccoli (31 calories)
  • 1 cup of carrots (50 calories)
  • 1 cup of celery (14 calories)
  • 1 cup of cucumber (14 calories)
  • 1 cup of cooked spinach (41 calories)
  • 1 cup of cherry tomatoes (27 calories)
  • AND about 2 or 3 tablespoons of Italian Dressing or Hummus to dip the veggies into! (80 calories or so)

I’m not pointing this out to have you count calories, but merely to show how much food you can really eat for the same number of calories.

We all know that we should eat more fruits and veggies, but the biggest problem is we tend not to like them! If crunching down on a broccoli spear or celery stalk is not your idea of “enjoyable eating”, then check out my article at Nutrition411.com that lists a number of ideas, tips and tricks to trying new fruits and vegetables.

Sometimes I have clients focus on eating more of these foods first before trying to eliminate other foods from their eating habits. Usually less healthy foods fall by the wayside when they start eating more fruits and veggies because they are too full, or less tempted to eat them! Or, it’s just a matter of changing how much you have. For example, one client mentioned that she often makes lasagna and salad. She used to serve herself most of the plate with lasagna and a little salad. Now she fills most of her plate with salad and a little lasagna. She feels less stuffed afterwards and is just as satisfied because she can still eat the foods she wants (lasagna); she just eats less of it. And the weight loss that comes with it is even more satisfying!

High Nutrient, High Calorie Foods: Portion Control

The majority of the calories in our diet come from this section and these are the foods that give us something back for the calories we consume. The key to high nutrient, high calorie foods is portions. A portion of nuts is a palmful, not the entire container! One portion of olive oil is about the size of half a golf ball. And one cup of brown rice is about the size of your fist. We can have too much of a good thing, but that’s still better than too much of a bad thing.

Check out this link to a University of Wichita website that shows a bunch of great ways to quickly estimate portions. This way you can make sure your eyes don’t get bigger than your stomach!

Low Nutrient, Low Calorie Foods: Friend or Foe?

Low-Calorie “diet” foods have become a way for dieters to get a sweet “fix” or enjoy some other treat without having to pay for the calories. Unfortunately, these diet foods provide very little in the way of nutrients and leave our body craving the nutrients we should have received from eating. Some studies even indicate that consuming lots of diet foods, particularly diet soda can lead us to overeat! If you’re interested in learning more about the impact of “diet” foods (including what to consider if you’re diabetic), check out my blog post here.

That’s not to say you should never have another diet soda again, you just want to be aware that they are not a panacea, and that while they have been “Generally Recognized as Safe” by the United States Department of Agriculture, there are very few, if any studies, looking at the long term effects of having the chemicals found in diet foods over a lifetime. Have them in moderation and making sure they don’t negatively influence your other food decisions.

Low Nutrient, High Calorie Foods: Our Backstabbing Friends

Before you eat a meal or snack, stop for a second and ask yourself, “What is this food giving me in return?” If you are not sure, try eating the meal/snack and see how you feel a few hours afterward. Do you feel light, satisfied and energized? Or do you feel lazy, tired and lethargic?

The reason why we keep eating them is because our brains are hardwired to react to sugar and fat like a drug that gets us “high” when we first have it. But then we lose the high and crash. But then we start looking for the next high and our brains start anticipating that next”hit” of sugar and/or fat. If you or someone you know has ever stopped eating candy/sweets/cakes/sugar for a while, it’s amazing how foods you used to eat become “too sweet” when you have them again for the first time. Unfortunately, we tend to continue to eat them and then get hooked.

For the high calorie, low nutrient foods, while they tend to give us an initial sugar high or satisfaction (often for stress or emotional reasons), in the long run all they do is usually give us sugar crashes and expanding waist lines! They make us feel like crap!

Imagine you had a friend or acquaintance that made you feel like crap after hanging out with them…every time! Is that the kind of person you would want to keep hanging around with? Probably not. After a while you would tend to notice that you kept feeling lousy hanging around with them and then you would likely choose to start hanging out with them less. Time to do the same with your food!

Sometimes we may choose to indulge in high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, but we must make sure that these indulgences are by our own choice and not due to the whims of our environment or feelings.  They shouldn’t be guilt-laced cravings or temptations. We should have them on occasion and enjoy them as a balanced part of our typically healthy eating habits.  Check out my posts on indulgences for more info:

Part 1 – Determining Your Triggers

Part 2 – Choosing When to Fight and How to Indulge

Our Takeaway: In general, we want to try to eat high-nutrient foods as much as possible and eat less low-nutrient foods. Those looking to lose weight should primarily fuel themselves with high-nutrient, low-calorie foods like fruits and veggies while supplementing meals with high-calorie, high-nutrient foods like whole-grains, lean protein and healthy fats. An occasional indulgence is fine, when enjoyed on your terms, without guilt.

Use Nutrient Density to Lose Weight by Eating Better, Not Less – Part 1

Fruits and Veggies - Nutrient Density Dynamos

Fruits and Veggies – Nutrient Density Dynamos
Image Courtesy of: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It is entirely possible to eat all day and lose weight. The key is what you choose to eat. When you eat, your body’s goal is to get all of the necessary nutrients (carbs, fat, protein, vitamins, minerals and water) into your system regardless of the number of calories you consume. Of course you must consume a minimum number of calories to keep your body functioning properly, but the calories themselves are just one variable. The other important factor is the nutrients each food provides along with its calories, dubbed “nutrient density.” Nutrient density represents a food’s nutrient bang for its calorie buck.

Think of your body as a high-performance car. You need fuel in your car to have it run every day. Calories are the amount of fuel you put in the car. You need a certain amount of calories or fuel every day or your engine is going to stop running. The body’s engine is your energy level and metabolism. Have you ever been on a diet that had you eat very few calories day after day after day? After a while did you start to feel tired, lethargic, cranky and hungry? And then after a little while longer did you stop losing weight? When you significantly restrict your fuel, your engine (lean body mass) starts to break down, and ultimately your metabolism slows down. You need a minimum amount of fuel each day to run properly.

However, the quality of the fuel is the pivotal factor. Nutrients are the quality/octane of the fuel (those 87, 89, 91 numbers you see at the pump). The higher the octane, the better the car (a.k.a. your body) is going to run on the amount of fuel you provide. Better fuel leads to better performance, a better running system (think about GI issues like bloating, constipation, etc.) and a lower chance of breakdown, especially when many demands are placed on the car. The same goes for your body, especially when you are physically active. Greater physical activity requires greater nutrients for the body to recover and perform.

Have you ever noticed that you can eat lots of junk food all day, eat a ton of calories and still feel like crap? That’s because despite giving your body lots of fuel, the fuel was low-grade and only provided minimal capacity to run rather than energizing and improving the system. And just like cars, the body typically needs less fuel (calories) to function properly when the quality (nutrients) of the fuel is high. But having less calories does not mean you need to eat less.

Consider whether you could eat the following in one sitting:

  • A quarter-pound fast food burger with cheese
  • Medium fries
  • Medium soda

Most people can polish that off and maybe even want a bit more. Now how about this meal:

  • 2 Roasted Chicken Breasts w/ 2 Tbsp. BBQ Sauce
  • 1/2 lb. Lobster w/ 1/2 Tbsp Butter
  • 2 Sweet Potatoes w/ 1 Tbsp Brown Sugar and Cinnamon
  • 2 Cups Steamed Broccoli w/ Lemon
  • 2 Cups Spinach Sauteed in Garlic & 1 Tsp. Olive Oil
  • AND a 6 inch turkey Subway sub (no cheese or oil)

Most of us probably can’t pack away that much food in one sitting. But what’s the one similarity between the two meals? They are the same number of calories! About 1321 calories to be exact. This is how high calorie, low nutrient foods make us gain weight. We can eat more of it and still not be satisfied! The second “meal” can probably satisfy you for lunch, dinner and a snack or two!

Also, foods with higher nutrient values tend to keep us feeling fuller longer because:

  • 1. We are providing our body with both the quantity and quality of fuel it needs to run
  • 2. High nutrient foods usually have fiber, protein and/or water which helps us feel full faster

By following the idea of nutrient density, we can classify thousands of foods into one of four categories based on calories (high vs. low) and nutrients (high vs. low). Let’s take a look at each of the categories with examples:

  • 1. Low Calorie, High Nutrient Foods: Most fruits and vegetables
  • 2. High Calorie, High Nutrient foods: High starch vegetables (potato, sweet potato, corn, etc.), whole grains, avocado, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, minimally processed oils, low-fat dairy, lean meat, fish
  • 3. Low Calorie, Low Nutrient Foods: Lo-cal/”Diet” foods, hard candy, Popsicles
  • 4. High Calorie, Low Nutrient Foods: Doughnuts, ice cream, candy bars, cake, cookies, fried foods, triple bacon cheeseburgers, alcohol

Obviously we want to shift from high calorie, low nutrient foods toward low calorie, high nutrient foods. But look again and consider where you see the “healthy” foods. It’s not as simple as high calories vs. low calories. Some foods that are high in calories, such as nuts, olive oil, avocado, salmon, low-fat milk and brown rice give us a lot of other great nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids that our body needs to survive and perform. But we need to control how much of them we have, because ultimately eating more calories than we burn leads to weight gain. Ultimately, we want to eat foods that give us something back in return.

Your Take Home Message: In the end if we are trying to lose weight, we want to maximize nutrients while reasonably minimizing calories so we can satisfy our body’s needs while still being in a moderate calorie deficit. In other words, we want to maximize the “nutrient bang for our calorie buck.”

My post next week will discuss each of the four nutrient density categories in greater detail and the roles they play in our eating habits.

Curb Your Holiday Eating Cravings

What food are you eyeing at your holiday party?

What food are you eyeing at your holiday party?
Image: Microsoft Office

There will be cake.  Pie.  Butter-loaded mashed potatoes.  Juicy ham (or Tofurky).  Cheese and crackers.  Wine.  And then all of the free holiday food at work.  Holiday parties.  Times when you feel, “oh what the hell, it’s the holidays!”  Holiday eating cravings will be there, but you have a choice.  Will you be like the average American who gains a pound during the holiday season (and never loses it)?  Or will you be different?

A colleague recently asked me if it’s ok to indulge on the holidays.  I replied, it’s probably fine – as long as you remember that there are only 3 real holi”days”: Thanksgiving, Hanukkah/Christmas/Kwanzaa and New Years’.  *Note: I’m assuming Hanukkah isn’t being celebrated with a doughnut-laden party every night.

We run into problems when we extend those three days to the other 30 to 35 days remaining in the year.  Over the past week I’ve collected three great resources that can help you curb holiday eating cravings during those other 30+ days, enjoy!

1. A brief 2 minute video I made for Hospital for Special Surgery about Tips for Enjoying Holiday Foods without Sabotaging Your Health 

2. An article I wrote for Food Network’s Healthy Eats blog on Three Ways to Tame Your Sweet Tooth

3. From Mercola.com: Six Simple Tips to Help Prevent Holiday Weight Gain.  While some of the recommendations are a little unusual, I really like the ideas of:

  • Keeping a proactive food diary – Writing what you will eat each day rather than what you just ate.  In effect, you’re planning.
  • Staying active – Exercise can regulate appetite for some people and it’s hard to be eating when you’re exercising.
  • Eating when you’re hungry – Rather than restricting yourself before or after a big holiday meal and throwing your eating habits and hormones out of whack, stay steady.  In other words, don’t skip your usual healthy breakfast and lunch in anticipation of a holiday dinner.  The foods at the holiday dinner are likely much more calorie dense, so if you gorge, you’re probably going to end up eating more than if you just had breakfast and lunch as usual.

A couple indulgent meals will not throw off 10 to 11 months of healthy habits – unless you let those meals extend into the rest of the month.  It’s your choice – be happy, be healthy!

P.S. If you have any additional tips that have worked for you during the holidays, please share so you can help the other readers of Death of the Diet!

Fall Flavors: Easy, Tasty, Healthy

Time to Enjoy Fall Flavors

Time to Enjoy Fall Flavors!
Credit: Microsoft Images

The temperature gets cooler, the trees prepare to burst into color and everything gets back into full swing: work, school and…vegetables? The fall season, especially in New York, is a peak time for produce – whether from a neighbor’s garden or the local farmer’s market.  If you’ve wanted to learn more about eating local, learning to cook, or just appreciating how healthy food can actually taste good, this is a great time.

My article on fall flavors at the HSS (Hospital for Special Surgery) On the Move blog describes three quick and easy ways to get the best flavors from the season.  Click here to read more.

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