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.

Push Yourself Mentally, Listen to Yourself Physically

Photo Courtesy of: Microsoft Images

No Pain, All Gain
Photo Courtesy of: Microsoft Images

Take Action & Respond: What steps do you take to push yourself mentally to make sure you do your best during a workout?

While the post’s title seems like a dichotomy, striking the right balance between these two feelings ensures your ability to stay consistently active. Pushing yourself mentally usually revolves around two scenarios: getting the workout started and doing your best during the workout. Listening to yourself physically also has two main points: knowing when to pump the brakes during a workout and knowing when to skip a workout entirely (for health and wellness purposes). At the end of the post, I’ll share a story about a time when I managed to push myself mentally, and then not listen to myself physically to reveal how a balance of both sides are needed for long-term fitness and health.

Push Yourself Mentally

When everything is going well or our schedule is light, staying active can be relatively easy. However, most of life does not lend itself to the “best case scenario.” Getting out of bed when the alarm goes off at 5 or 6 AM for your morning jog or lugging yourself to the gym after a long day of work at 7 PM can be some of the most challenging circumstances we face when being active. The interesting thing about these situations is it’s primarily a test of mental strength (assuming you’re getting adequate sleep). Standing up out of bed or walking to the gym is not a physically harrowing task, yet it seems to make our legs feel like cinder blocks. Until we actually decide to start moving. Next time you’re not in the mood for your workout, commit to jogging for just 5 minutes. Or go to the gym and do just the warm-up. If you go, do this and still feel like you want to stop, then do so. You’ve fulfilled your commitment to yourself and should be proud that you took action, no matter how big or small. But once you start moving, you may also end up staying a little longer than expected.

And now that you’re moving, you may as well get the most out of every minute that you train. We’re busy people, so why spend 90 or more minutes in the gym (you know those people, the ones who do one set and then talk for 5 minutes with their buddies), when you can get just as good of a workout in 45 to 60 minutes and move on with your day? Keep moving, stay focused and only take your planned rest periods (or if you’re feeling very winded). If a friend wants to talk, exchange a quick word or two, but if they want to catch up on the last couple of weeks, tell them you’ll get in contact after the workout.

During our workouts we sometimes stop a few reps short or a few minutes early from what we can truly accomplish because of our thoughts. Maybe you don’t have a training/exercise plan so you’re not sure what to do next…so you don’t do anything at all. Or you get involved in a conversation with someone and by the time you’re done it’s been 20 minutes and you’ve started to cool down. Or your mind just starts to wander and you lose interest in the middle of the workout. Staying centered and focused is crucial to getting the most out of your workouts so you can get the results you want.

First, keep your eye on the prize. Remember why you are doing these workouts to begin with. For a sport? For your posture? To get into a dress or pants size? Next, create a positive, supportive environment to make sure you get going and then do all you can during exercise to “pump” yourself up. Listen to inspiring music, actually tell yourself that you can do that extra set, close your eyes and visualize that last sprint right before you do it. These are tactics elite athletes use to get the most out of themselves and their physical activity, so why not do the same for yourself? Maximize the benefit of your physical activity since you’re already doing it!

Listen to Your Body Physically

This is the counterpoint to pushing yourself mentally. When we psych ourselves up to “go the extra mile,” we need to make sure we do so safely. When working out, we tend to disregard small “twinges” and “tweaks” of discomfort (not to be confused with muscular burn during a set or sprint). Unfortunately, the adrenaline running through our body can decrease our feeling of pain and thereby suppress a more serious issue. “Pushing through it” often leads to even further problems. It’s better to stop a little short on one workout because of an unusual “twinge” than to be forced to stop for weeks because of an injury that happened because you did not listen to your body.

If the twinge is localized to one part of the body, you can always adjust your workout and focus on another area. For example, if you tweaked your leg during a squat, you can always do some rows or pushups. The rule is: if it hurts, don’t do it.

Finally, if you’re feeling under the weather, reconsider whether a workout will help or hurt. Workouts typically stress your immune system, in a good way. They break your body down a bit to teach it to get stronger. So if you’re just a little sluggish, then the workout may give your immune system a needed boost (do a lighter workout, though, just in case). But if you’re really starting to feel lousy, a workout may push your immune system over the cliff into a full-blown cold or sickness. Each person has a unique “line” that once they cross, they should avoid working out until they are feeling better. For me, it’s a bad sore throat with some body aches (which is the prelude to many other cold-symptoms).

My Story…and Lesson Learned

A couple years ago I was at a nutrition conference in San Diego and I had just completed a long day of going to talks, networking and mostly sitting from about 7 AM to 6 PM. Amazing how sitting and listening can be so draining! I had plans for dinner at 8 PM, so I only had a little while to get ready. So when I got back to my hotel room, it was very tempting to just kick back and relax for a couple hours. But I knew that there was a YMCA next door (only $5 to use) and I hadn’t been able to get to the gym the previous couple of days because of scheduling and travel. So I made a deal with myself: go and do a light warm-up, core and cardio workout (30 minutes) and call it a day. Hey, something is better than nothing!

So I went to the gym and got started. And of course by the end of my warm-up I was ready to do a lot more than a light workout. Turns out I did a bit too much! I remember pushing myself to do Farmer’s Walks (pretty much carrying two heavy weights around for a while) with two 75 pound dumbbells later in a workout that previously had me performing power hang cleans (a big powerful movement that worked similar muscles to the farmer’s walk). I felt a slight twinge in my upper shoulder but decided to finish off the last ten feet of the Farmer’s Walk anyway. By the time I woke up the next morning I could barely turn my neck and by the middle of the day my shoulder and back were in significant spasm. It was the last day of the conference and when I got in the taxi to take me to the airport later in the afternoon, my neck went into spasm every time the taxi driver sped up because the simple acceleration of the car made my neck fire in a similar way to the exercise that caused me to get hurt. Needless to say I stabilized my neck and shoulders as best as I could and took about a week off from working out. Thankfully I was back to normal within about a week and a half, but it goes to show that a “small twinge” can have larger issues associated with it. Lesson Learned: Ten less feet, or one week off?

Revolutionizing the Resolution…Set Health and Fitness Goals that Stick!

A Veggie + Chicken Stir-Fry Resolution

Image: Stoonn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Guest post by Dwayne Brown, CSCS

The date is January 1st. Today is the day when most people are trying to put into action the resolutions that they hastily made on New Year’s Eve. Gyms across the nation will be bursting at the seams with new members and I’m pretty sure Weight Watchers’ business is always at its best right after the New Year. For the next couple of weeks people will make a valiant effort to keep those resolutions. Then after the New Year buzz wears off (pun intended), people usually fall back into the same old patterns that led them to make their New Years’ resolutions in the first place.

So how can we avoid resolution hangover (the disappointing feeling of not accomplishing goals)? The first step is to take a serious look at your resolution once you’ve left the New Year’s Eve party, preferably once you have had time to let your head clear. Look at them with a critical eye and decide whether they can be realistically attained and/or if you really want to attain them. For example, you and your significant other’s decision to become vegan this year might not seem as enticing when you open your refrigerator and find the parts of four different animals staring back at you saying “eat me”. A better resolution would be “I’m only going to eat red meat once a week”. This way it’s not such a shock, and once it becomes easy, you can progress it further.

The next step to keeping your resolutions is to get them on paper. Studies show that writing things down makes them more likely to actually happen. Once you write your resolutions down, make copies and put them in places where you’re sure to see them. So if you have a weak spot for cookies and you resolve to lose weight then tape that resolution to the cookie jar. You’ll quickly begin to realize that these kinds of reminders will either deter from doing the wrong things or encourage you to do the right things.

The final tip for keeping resolutions is to keep them everyday. What I mean is whatever the resolution is…do it every day. If you resolve to be more physically active, aim to move a little bit more everyday rather than just blasting yourself with one extra workout on the weekend. This means if you have the option of taking the stairs or the elevator, then there is no option. You’re taking the stairs. When it’s feasible take the extra time to walk to the store instead of driving.

These are just a few suggestions for avoiding the “I didn’t keep my resolutions” blues. Remember:

  • Make sure your resolutions are realistic and attainable.
  • Write down your resolutions and place them in places that will motivate you to take action
  • Take steps towards achieving your resolutions every day…practice makes perfect!

Even though we only make New Years’ resolutions one day in the year, it takes 365 days (and more) to keep them.

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