Every person who has wanted to lose a few pounds has probably heard this advice from well meaning friends: “Calories in, calories out. It’s that simple.” As if to say the only thing that ulimately matters is that you burn more calories than you eat. And we’ve taken that advice to heart. To that end, we’ve tried everything: Weight Watchers and Atkins and South Beach and maybe even things like the “Grapefruit Diet” or the “Eat only cabbage for a week diet.” Maybe we’ve had success with some, dismal failures with others. But still the question remains: How much does the food I eat really matter as long as I watch my calories? Hey, sign me up for the Oreo Diet!
But let’s think about this for a second. As good adults, we know about budgets. We know that we have a certain amount of money to last a certain period of time. We could spend it all on clothes or entertainment or whatever, but then what happens when the mortage is due and the kids are sick and why did the washing maching decide to give out now, for crying out loud? We have to make decisions that help us live the life we want. Most of us opt for making sure the family is fed and keeping a roof over our heads, even if it means we can’t indulge every desire we have.
I think the same is true for our bodies. We know that we can’t eat more calories than we need, or we keep fighting the Battle of the Bulge. (Though most people don’t really know how many calories they do need. Ladies, listen up! Just because a women’s magazine talks about you eating 1200 calories per day if you want to lose weight, doesn’t mean that’s appropriate for you. A person’s caloric needs are individual to their weight, height, age, gender, activity level, and even amount of muscle!) But what we don’t see as clearly is that like our budgets, our bodies have certain requirements. We might know that we need protein to build muscles, and carbohydrates to give us the energy to live our lives. But beyond that, we’re not really sure what matters. We hear “experts” talk to us about watching our sodium or cholesterol. We’re vaguely aware that we should have some calcium, and vitamins sound important, and “antioxidant” seems to be slapped on every label.
So how do we make decisions about what we should be eating? I have had to learn to ask myself a question as I make food choices: what gives me the most bang for my caloric buck? Right now, I eat 1600 calories a day. I could theoretically eat 1200 calories worth of oreos and 400 calories worth of milk. But what does that get me? A whole lot of carbs, a load of not so healthy fat, a little bit of protein, and some calcium and maybe some vitamin D. (And probably a tummy ache!) But if I did that, I would be missing out on a whole host of vitamins and minerals and things like amino acids (which are the building blocks of muscle as we learned in biology class.) But what if I took those same 1600 calories and spent them on lean proteins and healthy fats and a variety of fruits and vegetables? I would come a whole lot closer to giving my body the tools to do the work it is supposed to do. When we choose foods that are basically “empty calories”, we’re doing the equivalent of spending a whole paycheck on a wardrobe. Try that for a month and see how excited you are about those purchases at the end of the month when you can’t afford to pay your mortgage. That’s how it works in the body too. When we spend our calories on foods that don’t have any nutritional value, we come up short. We ask our bodies to do the hard work of losing fat and building muscle and keeping us going throughout the day, but we don’t give it the tools it needs to do that work. And then we wonder why nothing seems to work for us!
Bottom Line: Calories in, calories out matters… a lot. But it isn’t the whole story. Spend your calories wisely by choosing mostly nutrient dense foods.
What exercise or nutrition questions are confusing you/bugging you/stopping you from reaching your goals? Please leave a comment! I’m pondering doing an “ask the trainer” column as part of this blog— and would love to help clear up whatever is confusing you!