There’s a chance you’ve been told your entire life that in order to lose weight, you have to go on a strict diet and count calories.
But the truth is, while calorie counting may be effective, it may not necessarily be the healthiest or best option for diet and weight loss. Read on to learn how other factors come into play and why focusing on healthy, whole foods rather than calorie counting may be more important – especially when it comes to longer term weight loss and health.
What Are Calories?
In short, calories are units of energy that come from different kinds of sources — like fats, carbohydrates, proteins, or sugar.1 It’s important to know where your calories come from, because not all highly caloric foods (or low calorie foods for that matter) are created equal.
So What Do Calories Have To Do With Weight Loss?
If you’re maintaining your weight, you’re likely in caloric balance. This means you consume the same amount of calories you burn. If you’re in caloric excess, you’re eating more calories than you burn. Excess will lead to a gain in weight. But if you are in a caloric deficit, you’re burning more calories than you eat. This means you’ll likely lose weight.2
But, just because you have to have a calorie deficit to lose weight, doesn’t mean you should avoid high calorie foods IF they’re healthy. Just look at the avocado for example.
A medium avocado has about 240 calories. However, those calories are heart-healthy, nutrient-dense, and full of vitamins and minerals. They’re also overflowing with good-for-you fatty acids and they’re naturally almost sugar-free.3
Recent studies show that avocados actually contain nutrients and bioactive compounds that could help lower risk of becoming overweight. In fact, one National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey study showed that those who consumed avocados regularly had significantly lower BMIs, lighter overall body weight, and generally lower waist circumferences than those who didn’t eat avocados.4
And again, eating just anything low calorie isn’t the path to improved health. For instance, 100 calories of highly-processed foods are not the same as 100 calories of whole foods. Studies report that processed foods are linked to certain health concerns. Ultra-processed foods often contain hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, and emulsifiers. But a recent study presented that eating a diet of processed foods vs. a diet of whole foods increased overall calorie consumption and led to weight gain.5
The processed foods leave you less satiated. And you’ll naturally crave more — the food industry obviously wants you to eat more. So, those same 100 calories will likely convince you to grab a second 100 calorie snack. And so on.
Furthermore, calorie restriction shouldn’t take the place of well-balanced nutrition. Studies reveal most people regain the weight they lose during calorie restriction, whether they maintain their diet after initial phases of weight loss or not. Such research demands people do more than just count calories. It’s best to focus on food quality, not quantity. Not only should the change in focus support weight loss, but it can support heart health as well.6
So, What Does A Healthy Diet Really Mean?
Eating a healthy diet doesn’t necessarily mean logging all of your foods, and keeping a close count on calories. In addition to eating the right foods, these methods may help you reach your goals, but they shouldn’t be the main focus of what it means to eat a healthy diet. What’s more important, is to focus on healthy, whole foods, and avoid processed or junk foods. Even if they’re listed as low-fat or low-calorie, things like potato chips, white bread, and even sugary salad dressing can still tank your weight loss efforts, no matter what the food industry says.
Ditching processed foods and swapping them out for whole foods like fruits and vegetables can do a lot more to support your health than simply counting calories. Whole foods are much lower in calories than processed foods anyway.
So, if you’re eating whole foods like leafy greens and veggies, you can eat way more of them before ever getting close to your calorie limits. Additionally, whole foods can help you feel fuller faster and for longer. This is because they are providing your body with the nutrients it needs, and that it otherwise wouldn’t get from processed or junk food. This also means that consuming these foods will better support your health and likely provide better results, especially in the long run.
Which Foods SHOULD NOT Be Part Of a Healthy Diet?
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, there are certain foods and drinks you want to limit (if not avoid altogether). Stay away from soda, fruit beverages, and sports drinks. These products are sweetened with added sugar which can hike up your blood sugar levels and wreak havoc on your diet efforts. Fruit juice should be limited as well, as these juices are loaded with added sugar, and lack a lot of the dietary fiber found in fruit when you eat it whole.7
Refined grains like white bread, white rice, and white pasta or baked and packaged sweets should also be avoided.8
Processed meats like ham, salami, sausage, and bacon are also to be ignored if you’re working on creating a healthier lifestyle.
Avoid trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils. Even certain processed vegetable oils can be bad for your heart health. These fats are man-made and can elevate your LDL cholesterol levels (that’s the bad cholesterol).9
Finally, fast food should be avoided at all costs. Fast food is loaded with sodium, sugar, artificial additives, and more. Not to mention they are full of empty calories, providing no nutrients and likely contributing to weight loss.
Which Foods SHOULD Be Part Of a Healthy Diet?
The following is a list of foods that can be considered part of a healthy diet:
- Brussels sprouts
- Chinese cabbage
- Leafy greens
- Napa cabbage
- Lean proteins (turkey, wild-caught fish, pastured chicken)
Additionally, you’ll want to make sure you get plenty of healthy fats in your diet. Stick to the better fats in extra-virgin olive oil or coconut oil. You want your fats to be either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats from the right sources. You can also find these good fats in nuts, seeds, whole grains, and fish. The polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids in olive oil and fish are especially essential for heart health.10
Fresh ingredients are almost always healthier. The more often your meals include natural foods, the more often you’ll crave good-for-you whole foods.
The Fundamentals Of Healthy Eating
When it comes to the fundamentals of healthy eating, remember the following tips:
- Load up on whole foods like fruits and vegetables
- Focus on good fats like unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids
- Avoid processed foods, trans fats, saturated fats, refined grains and sugar
If you create a diet that focuses on the three tenets above, you should be able to enjoy better health at any age.
In addition, you can limit your calorie intake to maintain your weight. Also, be sure to get in a little bit of exercise every day. Even a half-hour of walking will make a difference.
One study showed that participants who adhered to the principles listed above were 80% less likely to develop heart health issues over a 14-year period compared to all other participants in the study.11
Bonus Tip: Meal planning can help you ignore intense cravings for bad foods. One of the best ways to ensure healthy eating without dieting is to plan out your meals for the week. It’s a good idea to map out your meals a full week in advance. Then you can shop accordingly. Don’t stray from the plan when roaming the grocery aisles. Make a list and stick to it.
Each meal should contain some form of protein — be it lean meats, fish, or legumes. Each meal should also contain a heap of fresh vegetables. The easier it is to make your meals for the week, the more likely you are to stick to your cooking plan, too. So do your best to search for easy recipes.
Making The Switch To A Healthy Diet
In the end, it’s probably best to focus on the quality of your food rather than the quantity. Of course, everyone’s body is different and will react in different ways, so always talk to your doctor before making any drastic dietary changes.
If you can tackle the principles of healthier eating, your immune system, brain, and body will thank you. Once you get the hang of it, you won’t even miss all the old junk you used to eat.
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