If there has been on single mistake in my career as a registered dietitian, it has been preaching the notion of calorie manipulation and control. The theory makes perfect sense, eat fewer calories than your body needs and lose weight. However, in practice, I have many follow up visits where my patients have reported following the set calorie number and no movement on the scale. I have even more follow up visits were some successful patients have regained all of their shaken weight. Talk about a major credibility bummer. After a few years of trials (on behalf of those I counseled and even myself) and studying the latest research available, I have turned the corner and cut calories out of my life. Literally, I choose to forget that they even exist.
Turns out, I’m not the only one who got the clue that what we (and by we I mean the nutrition experts) were selling was not working. In Jonathan Bailor’s New York Times bestseller The Calorie Myth, Bailor shouts to the masses why believing calories are the end all, be all will cause just as much damage as the daily cigarette. Bailor and I are in agreement on two major myths:
Myth #1: Calories in = Calories Out
This argument is as old as time and as frustrating as trying to understand the lives of the Kardashians. The principle goes that our bodies need a certain number of calories to function. If they do not have that set number of calories then the brain sends out signals to break down your body’s own fat to make up for the deficit… aka weight loss. And the opposite side to the argument is that if the body is over the needed calories, the calories are converted to stored fat. Problem solved, now everyone go forth and eat less and be skinny! (Note the sarcasm).
Now consider the real life calculation Bailor describes. Comparing the years 1977 and 2006, the average person increased their calorie consumption by 570 calories per day. If calories in truly equals calories out, then the average person would have gained more than 100 pounds per year since 2006 and weigh somewhere around 1,000 pounds. Clearly this is not the case for the average person. So the question becomes when did does the mathematical statement become untrue? Or is it that the mathematical statement of calories in equals calories out was never true. I am opting for the later.
Myth #2: Calories are all created equal
A calorie is a calorie is a calorie. This was the classic weight watchers argument. Each food is labeled with a certain number of points (assigned by the calorie count) and participants are allowed a set number of points each day. Spending my points on Twinkies and Pumpkin Spice Lattes would equal the same weight loss as spending my points on kale and quinoa. Luckily, Weight Watchers has updated their stance; however, not many others have.
In one rat study, unlimited access of high quality, nutrient dense food was given to one group while the other group got unlimited access of low quality, nutrient poor foods. As one can expect, the low quality group of rats gained more weight. Even more, the low-quality rat group could not consistently lose the weight that they have gained while eating the poor choice foods. Where one gets its calories is the name of the game. It is not how many points or calories in food that matter. Source matters.
The SANE Food Rules:
Bailor proposes the use of four principles for judging the “healthiest” foods around. This system blows calorie counting out of the water.
FOOD RULE #1: Satiety
How full does a certain food make you? Do you want more food as soon as you finish your plate? Or does a certain food help to satisfy the craving as well as the 4 hours until the next meal? Consuming high quality protein, high fiber vegetables, and plenty of water are main ways to getting a high satiety rating.
FOOD RULE #2: Aggression
Our bodies react as a full system approach to food. It is not just our tummies doing the work. Hormones in the endocrine system play a major role in breaking down food particles and getting the nutrients where they need to go. Focus on limiting carbohydrates (grains, sweets, starchy vegetables, dairy, and fruits) and always paring a carbohydrate with protein or fat. This will help to limit the hormonal response to food entering the GI track.
FOOD RULE #3: Nutrition
Nutrient density has luckily been a major topic of experts of the last few years and for good reason. We need certain vitamins and minerals to actually be alive. Nutrient density is the amount of nutrients per calorie of food. 50 calories of kale has a vast amount more of nutrients than 50 calories of a pop tart. Getting your share of non-starchy vegetables goes a long way.
FOOD RULE #4: Efficiency
How quickly is a calorie stored as fat? Is it relatively easy for the body to make the chemical conversion from a whole food compound to a fat cell. Or does the body actually have do a significant amount of work to store the food item? Avoid excess starches and sweets as they are easily converted to body fat.
Here are some of Bailor’s tips for each of his recommended food group. I thought many of these were great thoughts to keep a hold of.
SANE Carbohydrate Pointers:
- Cover half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables.
- If it cannot be eaten raw, don’t eat it.
- Stick with fresh or frozen.
- Greens are great.
- The deeper the color the higher the SANiety.
- Raw is ideal but not required.
- A swerving is about one to three handfuls depending on how “dense” the non-starchy vegetables are.
- Low-carb diets are great, but your SANE Lifestyle doesn’t have to be one.
- Ninety percent of what you see in the grocery store is carbohydrate.
- Carbohydrate is nonessential, so focus on carbs that carry along with them the most essential nutrients possible.
SANE Protein Pointers:
- Nutrient-dense protein should cover a third of your plate.
- Eat protein in 30 – 55 gram servings throughout the day.
- Eat a total of 100 grams of protein per day.
- Eat protein every time you eat.
- Eat seafood daily (ideally sources higher in omega-3s and lower in mercury, such as salmon, sardines, anchovies, oysters, etc)
- High-quality, nutrient-dense sources of protein are critical.
- If you avoid animal products, you can still be SANE.
SANE Whole-Food Fats and low-Fructose Fruits Pointers:
- Whole-food fats are essential; low-fructose fruits are not.
- Go out of your way to eat fatty seafood, cocoa/cacao, and coconut.
- Avoid unnatural process fats completely.
- If needed, use stable, natural processed fats such as coconut oil for cooking.
- Do away with processed fruits (canned in syrup) completely.
- Pair whole-fat fats or low-fructose fruits with non-starchy vegetables and nutrient-dense protein whenever possible.
- Whole-food fats and low-fructose fruits are SANE desserts superstars.
- If you really struggle with your weight, you will be likely to have better results if you focus on whole-food fats instead of low-fructose fruits.
Bailor, Jonathan. “The Calorie Myth.” Harper Ware (2014).
Keesy, RD, and MD Hirvonen. “Body Weight Set-Points: Determination and Adjustment.” Journal of Nutrition 127 (9) (1997).
Rolls, BJ, EA Rowe, and RC Turner. “Persistent Obesity in Rats Following a Period of Consumption of a Mixed, High Energy Diet.” Journal of Physiology 298 (1980): 415-27; Pub Med PMID: 6987379