Healthy Eating Tip: Watch empty calories – Reduce nutritionally insufficient foods; watch alcohol intake!
If you are new to the concept of lifestyle modification, first of all, welcome aboard! It may look so, but even in Smith Center, you are far from alone! I hope that you will go back and review all of the previous posts in this series about what I do when I hit a weight loss plateau. This is the fifth and final post in that series.
Here are the things that I do when I hit a plateau:
- Affirm my commitment to comprehensive lifestyle modification
- Reassess my dietary approach
- Increase my exercise regime
- Make better food–Eat foods that increase satiety, not just fill the belly!
- Watch empty calories–Reduce nutritionally insufficient foods; watch alcohol intake!
The first three steps here are the essential elements of a lifestyle modification plan. To be successful, your plan needs to be comprehensive, realistic and actionable. Your initial commitment needs to be continually affirmed but never changes. Your plan, on the other hand, will change based on your willingness to change and your ability to follow through based on the changing circumstances of your life. You need to be able to honestly assess your current life situation and tweak your lifestyle modification plan to fit your willingness level and ability to follow through, given what you are going through in your life at this moment in time. If you underestimate your willingness and ability, you will never maximize your lifestyle modification potential, and if you overestimate your willingness and ability you will become frustrated, disillusioned, and eventually quit. If you are going through some life events that are making it difficult for you to maintain an aggressive lifestyle modification plan then reducing your exercise regime or relaxing your diet plan are not signs of weakness at all. Changing your plan to fit new life circumstances ensures sustainability and eventual success! Be honest and select an appropriate plan with realistic goals that you can actually achieve!
Selecting a dietary approach and an exercise regime that matches your willingness to change and an ability to follow through are the next two critical steps in creating a lifestyle modification plan. A stall–or plateau–may indicate that your willingness level and ability to follow through have changed. That is always the first place to look, but more likely than not, empty calories are the reason for a weight loss plateau.
Any first-year anthropology student will tell you about the instincts that have guided us to success as human beings during our development. The basic instincts to seek pleasure, avoid pain, and conserve energy have helped us become the dominant animal on the planet and we all share the genes of the individuals that mastered these instincts. In the past, our lives as human beings have been a struggle for calories in an environmental context of scarcity. In that environmental context, the amount of energy one expends to find calories becomes critical. If an individual “spends” more calories than they find, kill or gather their body does not receive the calories and nourishment it requires and their life ends in short order. Individuals that did not master this equation never got a chance to pass down their genes. None of us here today have the genes of ancestors that expended more calories than they ate. For a hunter-gatherer, caloric density and the energy-calorie equation were critical concepts. If our ancestors had to master the understanding of these concepts, we would have never made it to 2020! The instincts to seek pleasure, avoid pain, and conserve energy ensure that we become successful individuals, thrive, and pass down our genes. These concepts are subconscious and not things we ever need to think about; we all just “know” them. In 2020, we live in an environmental context of plenty, and the instincts that ensured our success in a context of scarcity now betray us and have led to the poor health epidemic that is now a reality across America. Understanding these very basic instincts is critical if you are going to have a fighting chance of modifying your lifestyle choices in order to learn to live a “life out of context.”
In terms of understanding these instincts as they relate to lifestyle choices in 2020 Douglas Lisle’s book The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force That Undermines Health & Happiness is the best resource I have found. The Pleasure Trap is presented in hard copy, e-book and audio-book formats and is even available as a lecture on DVD. If you want to be successful at lifestyle modification, knowing what you are fighting against is more than just interesting. It makes this material essential reading! I have been reading, watching, and listening to this material since Dr. Lisle created it!
If you are trying to lose weight knowing a little about what is in food can help you choose the right things to eat. A Calorie is a measure of energy in food. Our bodies “burn” calories like a fire burns wood. Calories that are leftover or not burned are stored in our bodies as fat. Eating more than we need to burn every day leads to the added weight that we all need to lose.
Macronutrients are the large categories of food that supply our bodies with calories. They are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Carbohydrates are sugars and starches that are found in fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and processed foods. One gram of carbohydrates contains 4 calories. Contrary to popular belief protein is in many foods, not just meat. Animals do not make protein. They get it from the same place we all do; plants! Beans and grains are a very good source of protein. One gram of protein also contains 4 calories. Fat is found in just a few vegetables, but also nuts and seeds. Meat is always associated with some amount of fat and is the only source of cholesterol. Processed foods usually have large amounts of fat in them. One gram of fat contains 9 calories. One gram of alcohol contains 7 grams of calories.
- Carbohydrate 1 gram = 4 calories
- Protein 1 gram = 4 calories
- Fat 1 gram = 9 calories
- Alcohol 1 gram = 7 calories
The SAD diet (standard American diet) is full of foods that have a large number of calories, and not so much food value. These foods are said to be calorically dense and nutritionally deficient. Foods that have no real food value and just calories are said to be “empty calories.” You get nothing from these foods except calories without any nutrients. An excellent example of empty calories would be potato chips. There is very little in a potato chip except for calories. There are baked potato chips that are lower in sodium and much lower in fat than a traditional potato chip. Still, the only benefit to your body is that the baked chips have far less fat and are therefore less calorically dense, but they are still nutritionally deficient. Iceberg lettuce is another example of a food that has little but calories and no nutrients to speak of. Romaine lettuce, on the other hand, has many more nutrients. One cup of romaine lettuce has 2.5 mg of beta-carotene (converted into vitamin A and is also a potent antioxidant) and 1.1 mg of lutein (an essential nutrient for the eyes and may help protect against atherosclerosis or the buildup of fatty deposits in arteries). Romain also has one-third of a day’s worth of folate (a DNA building block that plays a vital role in cell division). Compare that to one cup of iceberg lettuce that contains just 0.2 mg of beta-carotene, 0.2 mg of lutein, and only one-third of the folate found in romaine lettuce.
Caloric and nutrient density are important concepts, especially for people that are either dieting or trying to modify their lifestyle because you need to make sure that your body is getting all of the nutrients it needs without overloading on calories. The goal is to consume foods that have a high nutrient to calorie ratio. That is to say, foods that have many nutrients but few calories. The calories your body does not need to function are all stored in the body as fat, and if you eat just a little fewer calories than your body requires to function then your body will make up the difference by burning off some of that fat it is storing That is the weight loss scenario in a nut-shell. Eating empty calories only adds calories and does not supply the nutrients your body requires to function properly. Many times, you will remain hungry and eat more calories than your body needs because your body still requires nutrients but has enough calories.
Dr. Joel Fuhrman has emphasized the concept of nutrient density more than any other plant-based whole foods diet advocate. Dr. Furhman has come up with a nutrient density scale he calls an ANDI score. Some of the list is below. Notice how high the green leafy vegetables are on the list and how low soda is on the list. The higher scores indicate foods with fewer calories and more nutrients, and the lower scores indicate the “empty calories” we mentioned. Those are foods with more calories and fewer nutrients. Many empty calories actually have no nutrients and are only calories. Technically that is not a food! You can read more about the ANDI scoring system on Dr. Fuhrman’s website.
- Kale – 1000
- Bok Choy – 865
- Spinach – 707
- Romaine Lettuce – 510
- Brussels Sprouts – 490
- Carrots – 458
- Cabbage – 434
- Broccoli – 340
- Cauliflower – 315
- Tomato – 186
- Iceberg Lettuce – 127
- Green Peas – 63
- Corn – 45
- Eggs – 3
- Milk, 1% – 31
- Ground Beef, 85% lean – 21
- French Fries – 12
- White Pasta – 11
- Cheddar Cheese – 11
- Apple Juice – 11
- Olive Oil – 10
- White Bread – 9
- Ice Cream – 9
- Corn Chips – 7
- Sodas – 1
A plateau can be caused by just one calorically dense food item like cheese or ice cream. Eating just a little of a calorically dense and nutritionally deficient food is a slippery slope because we are genetically predispositioned to seek and enjoy foods that are more calorically dense. That is one of the instincts that sustained us in our original environmental context of food scarcity but now betrays us in our present environmental context. Those of us walking around with 100 pounds of extra weight are not weak; we are exhibiting mastery of the instincts that got us to 2020! However, to thrive in our present environmental context, we need to understand these instincts and how they trick us!
The most insidious empty calorie is alcohol. Alcohol has 7 calories per gram as opposed to 4 calories per gram for carbohydrates. But the issue with alcohol only starts at higher caloric density. The food decisions you make after just a drink or two are very poor. Just ask any bartender, chef or restaurateur about food sales and drinking! Nobody that is serious about weight loss consumes any alcohol at all. It completely defeats the purpose. Just a few drinks and a poor food decision can cause a weight-loss plateau!
Hopefully, in the next few months, we will be able to offer another series of Healthy Cooking Live cooking demonstrations. Stay tuned for information about upcoming events!
Until next week… Eat Well – Be Well!
Here are the references for today’s Healthy Eating Tip:
Lisle, Douglas J. and Alan Goldhammer. The Pleasure Trap. Summertown, TN: Healthy Living Publications, 2003.
DrFuhrman.com; E-Learning – ANDI Food Scores. Accessed 6/12/2020.