Looking at the caloric values of foods can certainly help you become more aware of what you’re eating, but counting each and every calorie you consume can be an exhausting process, and giving the numbers too much power could even cause you to make less-healthy choices.
Holistic nutritionist and health educator Tara Miller explains that in today’s world of cheap and convenient over-processed foods, it can be hard to not give in to this quick and easy but ultimately unhealthy style of eating. From fast food restaurants to vending machines to even our grocery stores, unhealthy foods are everywhere. And when we eat them, “our blood sugars spike and dip, resulting in further cravings for these nutrient-void, fat-storing foods, and we are left hungry and confused,” explains Miller. And this can make “listening to our bodies” very hard. So we turn to counting calories to keep an eye on our intake. But that too has its pitfalls.
The ups and down of calorie-counting
For those who have experienced a lifetime of poor portion control, calorie-counting can assist with learning about how much energy comes from different foods, which can help with balancing meals, notes Miller. When a person starts calorie-counting, they can see that vegetables can be eaten in abundance, while fried foods, for example, should be eaten sparingly if at all. This is important knowledge to have.
But, Miller points out, although calorie-counting has its purpose, this method pays no mind to the types of calories being consumed. “Good-quality, high-calorie fats, like olive oil and avocado, should not be compared to high-calorie burgers or fries,” explains Miller. Unlike what we are often encouraged to believe, not all calories are created equally. Says Miller, “If you were to eat the same amount of calories of a nutrient-stripped piece of white bread versus an energy-dense avocado, you would stay full for much longer from the avocado, and it would not send your blood sugar on a roller coaster, resulting in further cravings for high-sugar foods. Choosing foods simply based on calorie content can lead to poor eating habits and make sticking to your ‘diet’ very difficult.”
Not only can counting calories lead to unhealthy choices, but let’s face it — it also isn’t a lot of fun. “Calorie-counting takes a lot of enjoyment out of eating. It becomes a mathematical problem rather than a time to enjoy and nourish our minds and bodies. By picking the right types of foods and not eating until we are over-stuffed, this calculation will be done for us without us having to stress about it,” says Miller. So how can you leave calorie-counting behind and still make healthy, well-portioned choices? Miller shares five great tips on how to be healthy without all the math.
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Do some research
Miller suggests the best place to start for those who want to break free from calorie-counting is to learn more about the different types of calories. “Contrary to popular belief, calories are not created equally and affect our bodies differently,” she explains. “Eliminating processed foods, filling your plate with at least half vegetables at each meal and indulging in homemade, real-food treats rather than chemically modified low-calorie snacks or desserts is a great way to get started.” When you learn more about all the delicious whole, unprocessed foods that are out there, eating and loving them will quickly become a whole lot more fun and nutritious than calculating the calories on the sides of processed food containers.
Practice mindful eating
When you sit down to eat, are you fully focused on the meal you prepared, or are you distracted by the TV, your phone, etc.? Are you eating because you’re actually hungry, or are you simply bored? We all need food to survive, but mealtime can be about so much more than that. It’s an opportunity to nourish your body and satisfy your taste buds with a delicious and nutritious creation. If you’re simply turning to food out of boredom, Miller recommends you “get outside, call a friend, read a book or have a cup of herbal tea or water.”
Pick the right foods
“Picking the right foods is key to not overeating,” explains Miller. “We tend to overeat on sugary, nutrient-void foods, because not only does eating them cause us to crave more, but since they do not give us any nutrients, our body is always hungry for real food and never satisfied.” But have you ever eaten far too much salad? It’s not as likely. By picking the right foods, you can give your body the nutrients it needs to be well fed and satisfied rather than over-stuffed but lacking in a variety of important nutrients.
Focus on how you feel
When it comes to healthy eating, your body can be your biggest source of information, but you have to listen to what it’s telling you. Miller suggests asking yourself a few questions after each meal. Are you tired or energized? Do you feel heavy and bloated, or light and satisfied? Miller explains that by taking the time to pay attention to how your body is feeling, you can gauge how to eat right without calorie-counting.
Gain some perspective
“What is healthier? 1,500 calories of McDonalds, or 1,500 calories of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish and legumes?” asks Miller. Looking at it this way gives you a better perspective on what can be gained from focusing on the quality of the foods you eat rather than the numbers. Bottom line, says Miller, “If we start to listen to our bodies, eat only when we are hungry (and stop before we are super full), eat whole, unprocessed foods, drink lots of water and keep active, then the rest should take care of itself.”