5 Keys to Healthy Eating (Part 2 of 2)

In my previous blog post I pointed out that between eating 400 calories more per day than we consumed 40 years ago and moving 100 calories less during one’s workday than we did in years past, it is not difficult to see why we as a nation have gained weight.  You don’t have to “search” for a plausible explanation of obesity when you’re running a surplus of 500 calories/day (calories in > calories out).

There are far too many nutrition rules out there, yet in my opinion there are five “primary” rules you can follow to improve your nutrition and your health.  In my last post I outlined the first two rules.

1) Don’t Believe any Nutrition, Health, or Wellness Information in the Media.

2) Increase Your Physical Activity

Today I would like to give you the next three rules.

3) Decrease Your Portion Size.  I’m sure you have probably heard the popular refrain among nutritionists that “our portion sizes have gotten out of control” and they literally have (Google Image "portion sizes then and now" for a series of startling examples).

Food portions (and the amount of food we are accustomed to eating) are out of control and are only getting worse.

Food portions (and the amount of food we are accustomed to eating) are out of control and are only getting worse.

Food manufacturers have tried to appeal to our portion size mindfulness by creating portion-controlled packages (see Fudge Grahams on the left as opposed to Assorted Sandwich Creme Cookies on the right).

Food manufacturers clearly have two different types of consumers in mind (100 calorie packages vs. new 60 cookie size!).

Food manufacturers clearly have two different types of consumers in mind (100 calorie packages vs. new 60 cookie size!).

I’m not sure whether to tell you these “portion-controlled” packages are good for you or bad for you.  On the one hand they are good for you because they help you portion control the number/quantity of cookies you eat but on the other hand they are bad for you because they enable you to eat cookies everyday of the week.  For individuals who tend to graze on cookies throughout the day, 100 calorie packages could be a godsend. 

A handful of cookies at a time adds up fast.

A handful of cookies at a time adds up fast.

For these individuals, 3 cookies, leads to 5, 5 leads, to 7, and so on until your cookie package starts to look like this...

Half of the package is gone without us even thinking about it.

Half of the package is gone without us even thinking about it.

Instead of letting food manufacturers dictate what you eat, my advice is to remain within your existing dietary habits and simply take what you normally eat in a meal or snack and cut it in half or by a third.  If you usually eat 3 tacos for dinner, eat a 1.5.  If you eat 3 brats, eat two.  People are so afraid of being hungry when in reality hunger is a normal physiological process that you should feel at least once/dayIT IS NORMAL TO BE HUNGRY!  If you’re not hungry at least once a day, then you need to reduce the amount of food you are consuming.  You also need not eat until you are stuffed....save this feeling for special occasions such as birthdays and Thanksgiving.  Eat until you are satisfied, not until you are stuffed.

Let me also ask you this question: when you sit down for dinner do you have an idea in your head of how much food you are going to consume at that meal?  If you have a routine or a healthy habit developed, you do not even have to think about how much food you are going to consume.  You know that you are going to eat 2 tacos or 2 brats.  You don’t even have to think about it.  However, when you are in the midst of controlling your portions you are going to have to put forth some mental effort to determine how much you normally eat and how much you should be eating.

You do not have to portion control your entire meal but you should try to either limit your side choices to 1-2 sides instead of 3-4 or take really small portions of each.  For example, instead of having 1) potato salad, 2) baked beans, 3) coleslaw, and 4) corn on the cob with your brats just have 1) baked beans and 2) corn on the cob as your sides.  Also, let’s say you are craving another brat but you’ve already had your preset limit of one: eat the brat without the bun.  You’ll save ~180 calories this way.  As I have previously posted, you have got to set some nutrition rules for yourself and stick with them no matter what anyone else thinks. 

Finally, I am not a huge proponent of counting calories.  Infact, I hate counting calories and think we get way too caught up in it.  However, you do have to have a rough idea of how many calories you are consuming and an appreciation for whether the amount of food you are eating is causing you to lose weight, gain weight, or maintain your weight.

4) Energy Density.  Energy density is a term used to describe how much energy is packed into a given quantity.  In food science, the measure of energy is calories.  There are 4 calories/gram in carbohydrate, 4 calories/gram in protein, 7 calories/gram in alcohol, and 9 calories/gram in fat.  Fat is a very efficient storage form of energy and is the most energy dense of all the macronutrients.  During the past 30 years, people have avoided fat partially because it is the most energy dense macronutrient.  Unfortunately the avoidance of fat has lead us to overcompensate by consuming far too many carbohydrates, tipping us into a positive energy balance, and causing us to gain weight.  Also, just because a food is marketed as “low fat” or “reduced fat” doesn’t mean that it is any less energy dense.

Reduced fat peanut butter contains 170 calories; full fat peanut butter contains 180 calories.  You do the math, it's not worth it.

Reduced fat peanut butter contains 170 calories; full fat peanut butter contains 180 calories.  You do the math, it's not worth it.

Take peanut butter for example.  The “reduced fat” peanut butter contains nearly the same number of calories as the regular peanut butter (170 vs. 180 kcal).  Without looking at the label one would likely have guessed that the “reduced fat” peanut butter contained less calories.  The only thing reduced fat peanut butter has less of is taste.  It tastes like paste, not peanut butter.  When it comes to peanut butter, my recommendation is to choose the full fat version, as you will be more satisfied and won’t have ‘spent’ any extra calories.

Nutritionists absolutely love to tell people to eat more fruits and vegetables.  It’s probably their favorite thing in the whole wide world to say.  We all know fruits and vegetables are full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.  That’s beside the point to me.  To me the point of eating more fruits and vegetables is all about energy density.  If you were to eat only fruits and vegetables you could almost eat an unlimited amount and it would be nearly impossible to meet your caloric needs.  I am by no means an animal nutrition expert but think about the amount of time herbivores (cows, horses, elephants, even chimpanzees to a large degree) spend grazing and eating.  They eat ALL DAY LONG and they can/have to eat all day because the plants they eat are NOT energy dense.  Weight Watchers has really got things right in this arena.  Food is like money (calories) and you only have so much money (calories) to spend in one day so spend it wisely by eating foods that have a low energy density and not wasting your money on energy dense, nutrient lacking junk food.

5) Food Frequency.  Nutritionists have colossally messed this one up by telling everyone to “eat 5-6 meals/day to keep your metabolic engine revving”.  There is absolutely no basis for this recommendation outside of anecdotal reports (I can produce the references for those who are interested).  “Eat breakfast to jumpstart your metabolism” is another popular food frequency myth.  Yet another myth is “if you aren’t losing weight you are probably not eating enough food.  Your body is in a starvation mode and is trying to hold on to every calorie because it does not know when it is going to get fed again”.  Each of these statements is scientifically incorrect and defies the natural  laws of bioenergetics.  There is never a situation where you should eat more to lose weight.  The primary basis for each of these recommendations relies on taking advantage of the thermic effect of food.

Each time you consume a food or drink that contains calories your body has to digest, absorb, transport, and store or burn these nutrients.  This process costs energy and your metabolism will increase to a small degree each time you consume a meal.  The logic goes that if you maximize the number of times your body “revs up your metabolism” during the course of the day you will burn more calories and lose weight.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way.  Whether you eat 2 large meals or 6 small meals, as long as the type of food and amount of food you eat is identical, you will burn the same exact number of calories.  Eating 6 meals/day as opposed to 2-3 meals/day offers no thermogenic advantage; however, there is a distinct disadvantage to consuming 6 meals/day.

Every time you eat presents an opportunity to overeat.  For the 5-6 meals/day plans to work you must be very careful in planning out and measuring out exactly what you are going to eat at each of those occasions.  If you are not supremely strict with this process you are going to end up overeating, period.  If you are very strict in this process, why not plan for 3 meals rather than 5-6.  It seems like it would be a whole lot easier than having to break up your busy/hectic day just to eat.

5 basic rules.  If you follow these five basic rules, you don’t have to follow the 50 other nutrition rules out there and you don’t have to worry about whether an egg is good or bad for you or what type of egg you are supposed to be eating.  1) Be very skeptical of nutrition information outside of your trusted sources (hyperlinks in previous post), 2) get into the habit of incorporating physical activity in your day-to-day life, 3) eat smaller portions, 4) choose more nutrient dense (fruits/veggies), not energy dense foods, and eat 5) 3 meals/day, not 5-6.  Nutrition is not as complicated as everyone makes it out to be.  Keep it simple and healthy nutrition will follow.


Todd M. Weber PhD, MS, RD

Sources for Pictures:

  • Portion Distortion: http://www.sproot.co/tag/portion-size/