Why Calories Matter ?
At the end, calories is what matters. It is pretty simple: calories represent the energy you put in your body. If you consume this energy, then, it will not go into your belly if you burn them. On the other hand, the extra-calories you take and does not burn will go into your fat, breast or anywhere else.
However, all calories are not processed similarly. In addition, the initial calories intake and the way we process them depends on ourselves. Then, is is important to quantify the calories (how many we eat) but also to qualify them (which type of calories we eat).
Qualify your calories intake
We identify three main macro-nutrients:
- Protein is the nutrient that maintain your muscle mass and cannot be synthesized by our body. Then, this is an essential nutrient that must be given to our body. Protein is not a single nutrient, it is composed of amino-acid and as long as your body does not have all amino-acid, it cannot have a full protein. In other words, in order to process efficiently proteins, we need all amino-acid. Having all amino-acid is really difficult for vegetarian because each veggie has different amino-acid and you need to vary your protein-source intake (for example, lentils and bread). For meat eaters and not restrictive vegetarian, this is more easy (fish contains full of protein – eggs is also a very good source, one of the most complete protein source with all amino-acid).
- Fat is the nutrient essential to your body and you should eat some fat everyday. In fact, many diets focus on reduction of fat whereas this macro-nutrient is essential. Of course, our body can reused the fat from the belly-stock but is also need various source of fat. In addition, fat itself cannot be stored and needs carbs to be stored. In addition, some source of fat are particularly important, such as tuna or salmon with omega-3. You have to consider two main sources or fat:
- Saturated fat: the bad guy, the one in cream, butter, lard and other fatty meat. There is several evidence of connection with heart diseases. Even if there is some controversy about that, it makes sense to reduce this type of fat to …
- Non-saturated fat: partly the good guy. We distinguish the cis- and the trans- fats. The cis- fat is the good guy, the one you can find in fatty fish (tuna, salmon) and some vegetable (such as olive with the olive oil). This is the famous omega-3 and omega-6 that have many benefits on our health. The trans- fats are known to have a negative impact on our health and can be found in many processed food (cakes, bread, etc.).
In other words, get fat but try to lower saturated fat and push the non-saturated fat, especially the cis- type.
- Carbs is the bad macro-nutrient in our food. It is mostly the sugar we eat every day in the processed food we buy. It is not a news: in 1822, Americans ate on average 45g of sugar every five days. Nowadays, the same population eats about 765g every five days … and do not exercise that much ! Carbs are energy directly used by your muscle when exercising: working in your yard, doing some hard work, exercising, etc. However, out society no longer exercise and does not need this energy which is automatically stored by our body. In other words, first thing first: reduce your sugar intake.
|Nutrient||Kcal/g||Why it matters?|
|Protein||4||Used to (re)build muscles. Cannot be synthesized by our metabolism. Eat a lot to maintain your muscles mass|
|Fat||9||Source of energy, good source of fat for our brain and muscles. Eat carefully and choose your fat intake from good sources of fat.|
|Carbs||4||Deliver energy to your brain and muscles. Useful for endurance efforts. Use low-glycemic index food to have a sustainable source of energy along the day.|
Identify Food Swaps
Part of changing your diet consists in identifying the bad habits you have right now and change them into new healthy choices. To do so, you need to identify good food swaps: other food that will taste the same but which has a better nutritional efficiency, either by providing more protein, fiber or nutrients (vitamins, etc.). So, every bite will supply more energy or nutrient to your body and will not be only empty calories that will stick fat on your love handles.
The table below provides a list of good food swaps and explain why we choose these swaps, either for the calories intake, a higher fiber contents or just more nutrients. In order to identify good food swaps, this is your duty to read the nutritional facts and establish a list of potential good food swaps that fits with your current diet. Because you cannot change everything in one day, planning to swap some food you are used to consumer is a good thing to do.
Please note that the swaps provided in the table later in this section is relevant if you have also a low physical activity and/or you plan to loose weight. In case your target is to train to meet some physical objectives, it might not be accurate, especially because your body would require more carbs to fuel the muscles (or protein to recover for a long effort). In that case, please refer to an appropriate doctor that would establish a nutritional plan that will help you to reach your goals.
|Nutrient||To eat||To avoid|
|Protein||Chickem, eggs, fish, greek yogurt, milks, lentils||fatty meat (such as pork)|
|Fat||Salmon, Tuna, Olive Oil, Almond, Peanuts||Butter, cookies|
|Carbs||Brown Rice, Whole weat bread, lentils, beans||Pastries, white bread, sugar, candies|
We do not realize how much the farming and economic policy has impacted our diet, how it drives the content of our plates and how it affects our health. Each country has it pros and cons but likely, many countries support the farmers for their production. This is what happen in Europe with the well-known Common Agricultural Policy (also known as PAC): we pay farmers to grow some plants and are sold below the market value. As we over-produce some type of grains, meat or vegetables, the industry put it in almost every product. In Europe and especially in France, a good example is the wheat: farmers receive money for the government to support the production. The goal is then to produce as much wheat as possible because the government will always support the production, and thus, this is easy to make more money. On the other hand, by production process uses more pesticide and chemicals and the nutritional content of the wheat is less efficient than it used to be. A good example of the nutritional content of the French bread: it used to pack a lot of nutrients (vitamin, etc.) with a lot of cereal-based protein. Now, most French bread is produced from refined wheat that can be considered mostly as a single source of carbs.
Another example is the corn in America: corn is clearly over-produced and then, included in many products (oil corn, refined corn, cereals, etc.). As the production is significant, the farming process uses also chemicals that alter the nutritional efficiency of the plant. Needless to say that the corn becomes mostly a source of carbs. Look at the nutritional information in your grocery aisles: most products contain a source of corn. Think about the corn bread, the pop-corn, the corn-oil, etc.
This issue is not related only to plants but has also an impact on the meat we consume and its nutritional content and efficiency. As the production is mostly focused on producing meat at low-cost, animals are fed using refined plants/grains or meat and bone meal. In other words, animals eat themselves, which would never happen in a natural eco-system. In addition, as animals are packed in building and do not move, they are more likely to develop disease. To overcome these issues, the solution is to use antibiotics to make them resistant to disease. However, the impact of antibiotic on our own health is not so clear, as well as the mix of anti-biotic with our own eco-system. But this is also what the market asked since years: having many meat at an affordable price. Needless to say that we successfully achieved this goal and meat can be found almost everywhere at a low price. However, good quality is still expensive and is not value in popular restaurant. This would then raise a question: do we need so much meat ? If yes, are we ready to afford the price of a good quality ? Otherwise, can we pay the potential health-debt for consuming low-quality meat ?
Also, among all these questions, one particular remains: are we ready to let the government decide what will be in our plate or shall we just take some time to educate ourselves and finally understand what we put in our bodies and makes us live ?
|I ate or drink …||Let’s replace with (and why)|
|beek (250Kcal/100g)||chicken, fish or seafood (100 to 150Kcal/100g)|
|french fries (350Kcal/100g)||steamed potatoes (80Kcal/100g)|
|cereals for breakfast (||2 slices of whole weat bread with 1 teaspoon of marmelade or jelly|
|wine or beer (150 Kcal)||water or diet soda (0 Kcal)|
|yogurt with sugar||yogurt with one teaspoon of honey (more vitamin and lower glycemic-index)|
|banana (100 Kcal/100g)||apple, pear or orange (50Kcal/100g)|
|white bread||whole weat bread (better glycemic index)|
|Pasta or Rice (250 to 300 Kcal / 100g)||Lentils or peas (more fiber, lower glycemic index and average of 80 Kcal / 100 g)|
|Pate/pork food (rillettes, etc) average 400Kcal/100g||Low-fat ham or chicken/turkey ham (100 Kcal/100g)|
|Peanuts while drinking (too high in calories and fat, just forget)||Cucumber, tomatoes and carrot with greek yogurt (fibers and protein)|
|Ice cream||Yogurt + kiwi|
|Cow Cheese||Goat Cheese (less calories)|
|Pre-made salad dressing||Homemade salad dressing with one teaspoon of olive oil with balsamic vinaigrette|
|Apple Pie||Apple – the fruit!|
- Cook yourself: pack your lunch, prepare in advance. There is no reason for not packing your lunch. Busy ? How much time do you take to get something outside ? Making lunch is very simple: each night, when coming back from work, put two eggs (protein source), veggies ready to eat (baby carrot, salad/spring mix), put some dressing on it and take a fruit for desert. If you go for some fantasy, add some cheese (protein + fat). Pretty easy to do, as long as you boil all the eggs at the beginning of the week ! It requires 5 minutes per day and can save your health and money: it would cost less than $5 for a full organic version (no preservative or pesticide, etc.). As Jess Dang, the founder of Cook Smarts pointed out during an interview “Forty-thousand more home cooked meals means that one million dollars will be saved [on eating out] and [Americans will consume] about five million fewer calories,”. Also, cooking your food, pack and eat at home will give you more opportunity to share time with the one you love … and that is probably what really matters.
- Identify Good swaps: use mayo in your sandwich ? switch for greek yogurt: you will then put the fat away and pack more protein between your slices of bread.
- Pack protein: eat protein … but not fat ! In fact, eating protein reduce the muscle loss during a diet. In addition, eating protein makes you full, more full than carbs only. Finally, keep in mind that when eating 100Kcal of protein, your body already use 33Kcal just to process the calories. So, the max your body can store is 66Kcal. Considering also that protein provides less calories per gram than fat, this is a smart choice. Now, you have to identify good source of protein, the one with low fat and low carb. Also, as protein is the assembly of amino-acid, you have to choose either protein that are complete (meat, eggs) or vary the sources of protein that have all amino-acids. Good source of protein is eggs, chicken, fish, lentils/beans (to complement with bread). Bad source of protein is mostly fatty meat: beef, pig, bacon, sausage, etc.
- Eat your veggies!: eating veggies makes you feel full, pack vitamins and fiber. You body needs these nutrients, so, go for it. In addition, vegetables has a very low glycemic index and thus, does not create the sugar peak in your blood. Go especially for the green veggies: green beans, spinach, salad, cucumber. They are very low in calories and pair good with some protein. Take some red with peppers, tomato. Take some carrots but not too much, especially because they contain sugar. Also, potatoes are not vegetables but a carb (so … sugar). Try to stay away from it or eat it unprocessed (regular baked potato without cream and forget the fries/chips … tha just add fat to the sugar without making it more efficient !)
- No processed food: processed food are mostly less efficient from a nutritional point of view or had been modified and no longer have some benefits. For example, consider the refined sugar: it has very little interesting nutrients and rather constitutes a source of what is typically refered as empty calories: energy without anything interesting for your body. But if you consumer sugar when consuming fruits or even honey, you would take bigger portion, eat more fiber and feel full more quickly. As a result, you will eat more in quantity but reduce the calories intake. Also, when being processed, some additional chemical are added in order to enhance the flavor or just make the food more tasty. This has little or just a negative interest from a nutritional point of view and for this reason, it is better to stay away from processed items. Think about the processed meat: would you prefer to eat a steak from a cow raised outside in a land with green grass or do you prefer to eat a burger that is made from 80% of beef, contains fat from other animals and other flavor enhancers ? Finally, processed food has mostly a high glycemic-index and would lead to create peak of sugar that may affect your brain, your mood and your overall behavior. For example, if you drink orange juice, there is plenty of additional sugar that will likely generate a sugar peak. If you eat the raw fruit, you will likely avoid it and have the benefits from eating a fruit (fiber, vitamins, etc.). So, to make long story short: the less processed food you consume, the better.
- No sugar: sugar is probably the worst thing for your diet and is probably responsible for many diseases and health issues. Avoid all types of sugar: pastries, cakes and other sweets. But also pasta, rice, bread and all other carbs. In the beginning, it will be difficult because we are used to it. But after one or two week, we feel better and avoid the sugar-peak that sweets provides. Also, some time, for the taste, you want to add a sweet taste to a dish. Identify swap for the sugar that are more efficient from a nutrition point of view. Avoid the regular white and processed sugar and swap it with apple sauce or honey. Even if they contain sugar, they pack at least some vitamins and nutrients that are good for your body. In addition, the glycemic index is lower so that the sugar will take more time to be processed by your body and you will not feel hungry a couple of minutes after you satisfy your sweets cravings !
- Reduce meat and try to stick with low-fat meat such a chicken or turkey and consumer organic meat. First of all, we do not need to eat as much meat as we used to. Second, most of the meat proposed is full of fat, processed with additional chemicals and/or flavor agents that may have an unidentified impact on our health. Look at the nutritional content of the beef patties or your pork chop: the amount of fat is significant and the way the animals are raised just unhealthy (fed with meat and bones meal, stuck in buildings without any physical activity, etc.). But, good quality meat (the one that is organic or just grass-fed beef) is expensive. Thus, by reducing the quantity and focusing on the quality, you can spend the same amount of money but rather buy good quality. However, you have to maintain a significant protein intake in your diet, so, instead of eating plenty of unhealthy meat, you can eat chicken or turkey 2 or 3 times a week and add more diversity with white fish, lentils, beans or just eggs (organic eggs are cheap and constitutes a good protein source).
- No fried food: put away the fried food ! First of all, it contains a lot of fat and only bad fat. Target nutrition efficiency: cook with steam and take only healthy fat, such a olive oil.
- Indulge yourself ! If you follow these guidelines most of the time, the diet should not be something painful but a daily routine. Your new diet is not an exception for few months but what you daily consume. Thus, eating something different sometimes is not so bad and you must not put your social life away because of the diet. So, please indulge yourself and when being in a social environment, you can take some unhealthy stuff also. As long as this is not part of your routine, this is ok.
What About dining out ?
Dining out is a major concern for those who try to lose or maintain their weight. Many people stop to have any social diner because they do not want to dine with other people outside. This is a very mistake and totally the opposite of your goal: your goal is to feel better to be comfortable with other people, not to stay away from social activity and be on your own.
The thing is many restaurant serve unhealthy food and one major concern is that we end up be taking too many calories compared to our body requirements. There is two solutions for that: having a rough idea about the calories content and plan your diner in advance.
About the calories counting, the main guidelines is to have in mind the calories intake for some popular dishes. So, when you do not know the calories content of the dish you want to take, you just take an item for which you have a good estimation of the nutritional information. For example, a salad with chicken contains less than 1000 Kcal (and most of the time less than 500Kcal) and will constitute a good option as an entree, as long as you take grilled chicken and do not take dressing plenty of fat and sugar (a typical vinaigrette is ok !). If you are very hungry, you can go for a burger, as long as the side is salad and the burger has only one patty (or at most one quarter pounder) or is made with chicken or fish. The main idea here is to use your common sense and to keep in mind some typical dish you can find in most places and you can still order. There are many options that are offered in most restaurant in America and all over the world: salad with chicken, sandwhich with ham and cheese, burger, chicken brest, etc.
About planning your diner, most restaurant (especially chains) has their nutritional information on their website so you can plan in advance what you will take and know more precisely what you will consume. It provides a better accuracy than the previous option and let you also plan the diner and does not have to stress about your choice when you get there. Also, it will avoid all potential inconvenience and/or judgement when asking for nutritional information during the ordering process. And finally, this is a very useful information if you organize and plan the diner.
Finally, as always, the same rules that the one you use at home apply. So, do not take alcohol or regular soda, avoid all potential carbs and fat. Goging for desert ? Take something with fruits (fruit salad is getting more and more popular as people request healthy option) or order a coffee/tea instead !
And Fast-Food ?
Fast food is not a bad thing at all if you consider healthy options. As for everything, you just have to read the label. Some studies even shows evidence that prepared meals from your grocery store might be better than one cooked at home. MacDonald would not be so evil at the end ? Obviously not: having a Big Mac with a side salad and a diet soda is sufficient and pack arounc 500Kcal. But if you end up by taking the large fries, the regular soda and add a desert, you can easily eat more than 2000Kcal, more than what you need in a full day ! And this is just for one meal, so, if you are used to go to the fast food, it might be worth to do the math !
In fact, eating in the Fast Food is not that bad. You just have to avoid side fries/chips, drink only water/diet soda and take regular burger. A plus is also to pack some vegetables, especially if you go for a sandwhich like in Subway. The fast food indsutry has been really smart over the years to offer a way to know how much calories their meal provide. Go on their website, read listings in the restaurant so that you can avoid the regular trap and pitfalls. This is especially useful because there might be huge differences between menu options: a healthy sub at subway (black forest ham on wheat bread with veggie and honey mustard dressing) offer around 750 Kcal while the Tuna sandwhich with heavy dressing can provide as much as twice the calories, about the whole daily intake.
Changing your eating break
Take the Time to Feel Full
First thing: take your time to eat. Eating slowly will let you the time to feel full and not overeat. Try to have a dedicate moment with friends, family or just by yourself by reading the journal or watching a good movie. Take your time and try to enjoy the food you are taking. It is supposed to make you full and if you are smart enough, you prepared it yourself, so, you should like it ! In fact, you should at least take 30 minutes to eat, because your brain start to receive the signals that you are done only after 20 minutes. And within that time frame, many people can eat as much calories as they need in several days !
When you are done, you should feel ok and not hungry. In fact, if you still feel hungry, you will eat again in a few hours and pack more and more calories during the day ! This is not a surprise: In France, 50% of students come back from lunch still hungry. So, guess what ? They end up by packing snacks and eat chocolate bars and other types of food that are inefficient from a nutrition point of view.
Put Away Distractions
You have to realize and know what you put into your body. This is ok if you watch a movie or reading the journal while eating, especially if you prepare your meal because you know what is inside the plate. On the other hand, do not eat snack (such as chips) while talking over the phone (for example, during a teleconference at work) or watching TV : you will end up by eating the full pack of chips because your mind is focused on the teleconference that never ends and will finally finish to go for lunch with colleagues or eat other snacks. Even at home: being in a discussion with friends or family over the phone does not help to focus and realize what you are actually eating.
To make it short: take your time, prepare your meal, eat slowly and … enjoy ! Put away distractions and focus on what you are eating.
Decrypting some diets
The Paleo Diet
The Paleo Diet definition is not very clear. Some says this consists in eating like a caveman whereas other will provide a clear and well established definition that is in eating only what you could find in a natural state. Nerd Fitness has published a nice introduction to the Paleo Diet that would summarize the main concepts.
In itself, the paleo diet is not a bad option and seems pretty reasonable. But this is not because of its rationale but only by what it implies. For example, as you are supposed to eat food you find in a natural state, you will avoid all processed food – the one that contains mostly sugar. In addition, you will avoid main source of sugar and only consume carbs with a low glycemic index. To make long story short, adopting the paleo diet will increase your vegetables and meat consumptions, reduce the carb and increase the protein and fat intake. So, this is rather a side effect that you end up by eating healthy. Which is finally a good thing because it will also introduce a large amount of protein and so, avoid loss of your muscles mass. On the overall, the paleo diet is not a bad thing at all. However, some rules may be avoided and some food replaced. For example, meat is very expensive and can represent a significant amount of fat, especially when consuming beef or pork. For that reason, I would swap with some greek yogurt or goat cheese, options that might contain less fat.
In the previous sections, I recommend to pack the protein for several reasons (your body consumes around 30 percent of the calories to digest protein, it avoids the loss of muscles, etc.). So, it would makes sense to consumes only protein and avoid all other types of nutrient. Some people designed diets that follows these guidelines, such as the Dukan diet.
We will not explain the details but to summarize, the main principles consist in different phases, the most demanding is the attack when you eat only protein. No vegetable, fruit or whatever, you have to eat low-fat meat. Depending on your goals, this phase is more or less long and after a while, you can start eating vegetables and other things. When you reach your goal, you have to follow some rules and keep one day when you eat one protein-based products.
The Dukan diet is not only expensive (eating only protein is expensive if you want to eat healthy protein, such as grass-fed beef, etc.) but really dangerous. Even if eating more protein makes sense, especially for loosing weight and maintaining the muscles mass, avoiding all other sources of nutrients is not a good idea, especially when you cut directly all sources of vitamins and other things your body needs. We will skip all the details but avoiding vegetables and other food you are used to eat avoid the fibers and generate digestion (constipation) problems (this is also raised in some critics). The diet recommend to eat some fiber (with wheat or oat bran) and Pierre Dukan usually argues that it is sufficient but why eating artifical fiber when a regular diet can provides everything ? Another real risk is related to the big amount of protein. This may generates some problems with your kidney: during the digestion process of protein, acid uric is generated and your kidneys are supposed to get rid of that. However, when consuming too much protein, that may give too much work that might injure your kidneys, especially if you already experienced some issues with your renal functions.
Being vegetarian is not a very bad thing at all and you can loose weight while having a vegetarian diet. The main concern would be to make sure you can get a fair amount of protein, and especially low-fat protein. While most diet would recommend to have low-fat protein such as white fish or chicken, vegetarian can use non-fat greek yogurt, eggs (and avoid keep only one yolk when losing weight !) and some beans or nuts (which also constitute a good fat intake).
The main concern regarding the vegetarian diet is more related to the carbs: most dishes will not use as much protein as you would take and rather use carbs (rice, beans, etc.). While it can be good from time to time, consuming too much carb is not appropriate when trying to lose weight.
Being vegan is the last food trend. Everybody hear that turning vegan saved their life. Seriously, a girl told me that the vegan diet solved her knee problem : eating meat makes impossible to move the kneed and makes impossible to have physical activity (she did ice skating at that time). Magically, switching to the vegan diet solved her life and she become a champion. And she also cited a research study (without being able to provide the source) that was suppose to prove the efficiency of the vegan diet.
Beyond the vegan diet, it is interesting to study people reaction but also the impact of a vegan diet, especially from a health point of view and your own goals. The vegan diet is very inappropriate for losing weight and also just for a regular loving: it does not provide a good source of protein. Because veggie-based protein are not complete, you need to pair different food to get a good daily protein intake, which becomes very complicated when you have some constraints (for example, dining out, etc.). In other words, in terms of macro-nutrients and protein intake, this is a very bad diet.
On the other hand, many people argue that switching to a vegan diet improve their life. Is it legit ? Of course, especially when looking at the regular diet: most people over consume meat and fat and by switching vegan, they reduce their fat and protein intake. While reducing the fat is not that bad considering the amount of fat people used to consume, reducing the protein intake will have an impact on your muscle mass, the one you want to keep. In addition, the protein source of vega diet are also a significant source of carbs, which is to avoid when loosing weight. So, it is clearly possible to loose weight and have a high calories intake with a vegan diet, some research work show interesting discussion about that. But considering the different constraints, this is very difficult and will consume energy you would rather put in other interesting activities. Some agencies (such as the INPES in France) already warns about the potential issues of such a diet, especially for children who have high daily needs.
On the other hand, the diet requires that you consume more plant, vegetables or nuts. That is a very good thing because it introduces many nutrients are are missing in most common diets. So, while this diet can have a significant impact, thi srather because it provides a better balance with more diversified food rather than a magic solution to any problem.
So, there is no magic behind the vegan diet: all what matters is the calories intake and the quantity of sugar and fat. While reducing the fat, it would lower the protein intake and maintain or increase the amount of carbs.
Why being vegan ?
Beyong the nutrition analysis of the vegan diet, there is a real discussion about the ethic of diets. Most people will argue that being vegan is an ethical thing and that killing animals is unfair and not ethical. However, most of the time, the same people get vegetables and all vegan-compliant in the grocery store and this food is mostly produced without much control, with poor standard for the food, environment and, very important, the labor.
One discussion also relates about the ethics of this type of food and how far do you want to take care of these aspects ? Is it better to eat meat and get it from an ethical producer (local farmer that grow its chicken outside and is faily payed ?) or avoid this type of food and get everything in the grocery store even if this has a significant impact on our environment (transportation cost, impact on your local community – loss of jobs, etc., quality of the meat, respect of safety standards, etc.). While we do not have the answer to this question, many people avoid this discussion, even if this is probably essential and show how food source matters.