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Timi Gustafson, R.D.

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Counting Calories Is Not Enough

Posted: 07/30/2012 12:04 pm

Most diet programs for weight loss are mainly focused on managing calories. Of course, there is good reason for that. A surplus of calorie intake versus expenditure eventually leads to weight gain. Only about 500 additional calories a day can result in an extra pound of body weight per week -- and, of course, the opposite applies just as much. However, it is also important to know where those calories come from, a fact that is not always communicated as well.

According to the laws of physics, calories are all the same. Thus, in theory, it shouldn't matter whether you drink sugary sodas or eat apples as long as both have the same calorie count. So, the kind of diet you choose -- e.g. high-protein/low-carb, high-carb/low-fat, or anything in between -- shouldn't matter either, provided more calories are burned off than consumed. Still, the discussion over the effectiveness of different weight-loss approaches continues. But is this even the right conversation to have?

Obesity is undoubtedly one of the most pressing health problems of our time. But so is -- paradoxically -- malnutrition. "Americans are overfed and undernourished," says Dr. Mark Hyman, in his book The Blood Sugar Solution -- The UltraHealthy Program for Losing Weight, Preventing Disease, and Feeling Great Now! (Little, Brown and Company, 2012). In fact, he says, "Most obese children and adults in the country are also the most nutritionally deficient."

The so-called "standard American diet" (SAD) is notoriously caloric but too often nutrient-poor, lacking many essential vitamins and minerals. People who eat large amounts of highly processed foods and ingest lots of sugar, refined grains and hydrogenated fats (trans fats) may gain weight but remain hungry because their nutritional needs are not met. But instead of altering their food choices, they simply keep munching on more of the same.

When they eventually decide to go on a diet, they may starve themselves, but all they often do is deprive their body further by cutting back on (empty) calories without replacing them with more and better nutrients, which is what a healthy diet (for weight loss or otherwise) should be all about.

Nutrition experts have long known that one of the best ways to achieve and maintain a healthy weight range is to focus on nutritional quality first. Yes, portion sizes do matter, but they become less important as you switch from empty calories to nutrient-dense ones. An extra helping of fresh fruit or vegetables is harmless in comparison to a supersized cheeseburger, pizza slice or order of French fries. The same goes for snack foods. While potato chips, candy bars and cookies may give you some instant gratification, they will not satisfy you for long (that's why you keep reaching for them). Healthy snacks, on the other hand, like apples, citrus fruits, bananas or berries, will do the job much better, and the health benefits are of course much greater.

The bottom line is that single strategies like counting calories won't work if they don't go hand in hand with a health-conscious change of eating habits and food choices. Part of that process is educating yourself about nutritionally superior foods and the many advantages they can provide, not just for managing body weight but, more importantly, for all-around good health.

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