When it comes to dieting, it’s easy to wish for a magic number.
But I’ve seen too many patients rely on calorie count as the answer. Sure, it matters how many calories you eat in a day. But fixating on that number can cause problems, too. It can become like a game: “If I eat this candy bar, that’s 200 calories toward my total. I’ll skip a snack later.”
Here’s the problem with that thinking: It doesn’t account for the quality of those calories. It also ignores the idea that a candy bar can send you on a blood sugar roller coaster — and leave you craving more junk food.
You’re better off shifting your focus to the quality of your food, not the quantity of your calories. Here are a few tips how.
1. Choose natural fiber and lean protein
What’s missing from that candy bar? Fiber and protein, typically. Both keep you full and reduce food cravings. If you want the digestive boost of fiber and the long-term health benefits — including prevention of colon cancer and cardiovascular disease — pick 100 percent whole grain bread, fruits such as apples, or vegetables such as brussels sprouts, beets and cabbage. Good sources of protein include legumes, nuts, soy, and lean meats such as chicken and turkey.
2. Ditch the fat-free myth
Here’s the myth: “If I eat this salad with fat-free dressing, I’ll save 100 calories.” Here’s the problem: That fat-free dressing probably also has added sugar and other craving-causing ingredients in it.
You are better off embracing the right kind of nutrient-dense fats. Eaten in small portions, you get nutritional bang for your buck with monounsaturated fats such as avocados and olive oil, as well as the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseeds and many types of fish. Like fiber and protein, these fats really fill you up.
3. Eat “unsexy” foods
Would you ever call beans a sexy food? Probably not. But beans are a staple of diets around the world because they are nutrient-dense,fiber-packed wonders — and they’re affordable.
The same goes for other non-trendy foods. I love kale, the current buzz food, but don’t forget about the value of spinach. Or cabbage. Poor old cabbage never gets any media time, but it’s full of fiber, along with health-boosting nutrients such as vitamin K and disease-fighting compounds called anthocyanins.
4. Let color be your guide
Speaking of anthocyanins, you’ll find them — or similar compounds such as carotenoids — in colorful fruits and vegetables. So when picking snacks or meals, choose hues: blueberries, blackberries, black cherries, purple potatoes instead of white potatoes, spinach instead of plain old lettuce, and so on.
As a bonus, most of these foods (potatoes are an exception) are dense with nutrients and low in calories. In other words, you can eat more of them at a time to fill you up.
5. Be marketing-savvy
Here’s a good rule: If a product has to try really hard to sell itself, steer clear. That high-tech fiber bar, complete with six marketing claims on the package, may also come with added sugars and a through-the-roof calorie count, without much added nutritional benefit. Choose an apple instead. Nobody has to try too hard to sell you an apple, yet it comes with the fiber you need.
6. Know your own needs
There’s another reason not to focus on one universal calorie-count: Everybody has different needs. Your best daily breakdown of total calories, fat, fiber, protein, carbohydrates and other factors will depend on own metabolism, activity level, chronic disease status, age and height. For instance, if you have diabetes, your diet may need to be heavier on protein and lower on carbs — leaning on non-starchy vegetables, fruits, nuts and yogurt, for instance. Everybody is different, so a doctor and dietitian can craft a plan if you need help.
No matter what your personal needs are, don’t fixate on calories alone. I’m not saying you should ignore them, because you can overdo even good things — the calories in healthy fats can add up, for example. But you’ll be better off in the long run if you focus on the quality of what you’re eating first, and then use serving sizes as a guide for appropriate quantities.