Is It Just About the Calories?

I got the idea for this post just the other day. There was a CNN article that focused on airlines’ options for dining tens of thousands of feet above ground and it immediately caught my attention as I was in an airport waiting to board a flight back to Portland when I came across it. I was disappointed that the article focused almost entirely on calories and not nutrients, essentially leaving the reader with the impression that low calories equal more healthy…this is not the rule of thumb.

A calorie is a unit of energy and therefore we need them. If we consume an excess of calories then sure we can run into health issues and in America where portions are way larger than they need to be, an excess is not as rare as it should be. Foods are generally covered in sauces, cheeses, or dressings that pack way more extra calories that are often unaccounted for by the common person and this is where calories can sneak up on us, but I don’t think watching every single one of those calories is how people should automatically look at food. Eating mindfully should be about looking at the ingredients and the nutritional value of the food and then making a decision ato eat it or not. I’m writing an article for Vegan Health & Fitness magazine that focuses on mindful eating and, in it, I told a shortened version of my personal experience with counting calories that I’ll briefly share here.

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Back in college, when Val and I were a year into our relationship and we passed the getting to know each other phase, we decided to become healthier. That phase involved us eating at the dining halls often, making brownies mixed with an extra packet of Jello pudding, making 15+ non-mini pancakes and eating them in one sitting while watching a movie on the futon, and so many other instances of poor habits. So one day, I downloaded a couple apps and made sure to enter every food into that app to track my caloric intake. Based on those numbers, I calculated how many calories I had left to eat to ensure I would not gain weight, but since I was running, I had to then consider the number of calories burned as well. There was a long period when, during a run, I would have a version of the following conversation in my head:

Okay, that’s 600 calories burned so far. So the cereal, peanut butter, and oh, let’s say the chocolate-covered raisins I snacked on, have all been burned up. If I run another X miles I can burn off the rest of lunch and be guilt-free come dinnertime.

Weight fluctuates, but one’sknowledge about food shouldn’t diminish, but only be strengthened.

Everything was a numbers game and it was all centered around losing weight which I thought was the path to health. I got down to my goal weight (for my running purposes) eventually and tried so hard to maintain it, but I’m grateful that I realized how unhealthy I had become.  I wasn’t getting sick all the time or becoming a toothpick, but I was far from well. I worried constantly about my weight and what I ate. I’m grateful that since that time, I’ve picked up habits that help me to eat and live mindfully and that all came with proper education about foods.

I learned what nutrients long-distance runners need to run well and to recover properly and then I found out what foods I can find them in. I swore off counting numbers for anything anymore so instead, I just started to make sure that I ate a varied and balanced diet (one thing, however, that I would not oppose at all if people were to start counting is their fiber intake; more fiber in the diet generally means more plant foods and healthier eating). Eventually, I found vegetarianism and then veganism a few months later and my health, wellness, and running improved quite dramatically. I’m not saying that you need to be vegan (but please do give it a shot and find resources to help you if you do consider it!), but you do need to learn what nutrients are in your food instead of constantly focusing on and worrying about calories as the road to health.

I was so focused on reducing calories and not realizing that food is fuel. It became less about the low calorie, weight-loss mentality and more about the balanced and mindful eating. If I want to enjoy a pizza with Val or friends, then I’m going to do that and I’m going to graciously accept that food as fuel for my body and my running.

Let’s look at a couple examples of food comparisons to give a glimpse as to what I mean:

1 cup of Frosted Flakes                 1 cup of oatmeal/rolled oats

Approx. 150 calories                         Approx. 150-160 calories

Pretty similar in calories so it’s okay to eat either, right? Not so much. Which is the most nutrient-dense food? That’s right: oatmeal. “Nutrient-dense” means that for the number of calories, there’s a great amount of nutrients in that food. So for oats, you’re looking at a good amount of manganese, magnesium, fiber, phosphorus, zinc, protein, and many, many other nutrients. For Frosted Flakes and most other cereals, you’re going to find preservatives to keep that cereal on the shelf for a longer period of time, and refined carbohydrates that turn right into sugar.  Plus, there are too many preservatives in those ingredients, but most often there is a higher amount of sodium and sugar, and a lower amount of protein and potassium in cereals than in their whole grain forms and this is the case with Frosted Flakes.

Another example.

1 oz of pretzels                            1 oz of almonds

Calories: approx. 110                      Calories: approx. 160

Pretzels get the award for lower calories, but does that mean they are healthier? Not by a long shot. Hard pretzels are way high in sodium and raw almonds contain none. Now, sodium is fine and necessary but the standard American diet has plenty of sodium in it so worrying about where to get sodium is not necessary.  Which has more potassium (an electrolyte that the standard American is generally quite deficient in)? Almonds. Protein is something that most people don’t need to worry about so I won’t get into that. I also won’t go into detail about micronutrients of each except to say that almonds easily beat out pretzels when it comes to essential nutrients such as Vitamin E, manganese, phosphorus, biotin, and many others. Most nutrient-dense food? Almonds win. Research this in more detail for yourself.

I purposefully didn’t provide much detail as far as nutrients in each food, but that is so that you can go and do your own research to either prove me wrong or to find out what other foods may be healthier for you. I had to do this because nobody was able to teach it to me and I’ve been benefitting so much from the process. We should each be building a relationship with food and, like all relationships, that process involves learning about the other. Take the time to learn about your food and the nutrients in your food. Just as many people want to find a partner in life who makes them a better person, so to should the food you eat make you a better, healthier you.

I’d love to read all kinds of comments on this topic. Want to prove me wront or provide an argument? Let’s talk! Want to share your story or thoughts? Let’s talk!

Happy Eating!

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