What better time of year to discuss calories? Every magazine and newspaper I have read recently has at least one article on "how to avoid holiday weight gain". But what inspired me to write about this was an interview in the newspaper about a book that just came out by Tim Ferriss called, The Four Hour Body. This guy makes a lot of radical claims, some of which there is truth behind, others I think which are misleading or just plain wrong. In the interview, he states that "the type of calories you consume is more important than the number". This is false. The type of calories IS absolutely important but ultimately it is the number that counts. Why? It is actually quite simple.
You cannot fight biology. The biggest obstacle to weight loss is hunger. We are biologically driven to eat when we are hungry. Most diets fail because people cannot live in a perpetual state of hunger and deprivation and, thus, either start binging/cheating on the diet or return to previous eating patterns (Mr. Ferriss, by the way, recommends a weekly binge, which I don't agree with...nor do most diet/nutrition researchers!). Low calorie diets can actually decrease your metabolism so that every time you do the yo-yo diet cycle, you set yourself up to gain more weight. In order to achieve or maintain a healthy weight, you have to find a lifestyle (nutritional intake and exercise) that you can maintain your WHOLE LIFE.
It is a scientific fact that if you are eating 2000 calories a day and decrease that to 1500, lets say, without changing any other variable, you will most likely lose weight. Those 1500 calories can come from ANYTHING. It doesn't matter if it is Cinnabon classic buns or carrots.
But here is why what you eat DOES matter. Your hunger is primarily controlled by the VOLUME of food you eat (check out the research by Barbara Rolls). When you chose high calorie foods when trying to limit calories, you simply have to eat a much smaller volume of food. For example, 1500 calories of Cinnabon is 1 and 4/5 buns. Could you live on that for an entire day? Personally, I could not. I'd be starving. Not only is the volume small, this food contains mostly trans fat, refined flour and sugar and little fibre so you will likely get a sugar high and then a sugar low, which means it will not keep your appetite in check for very long. If you were able to ignore your lethargy and hunger pangs and live on this diet, than, yes, you would lose weight. Of course you would be extremely deficient in most nutrients...
In contrast, if you were to eat 1500 calories of carrots, you could eat 50 large carrots. That is a large quantity of food, considering 1 lb of carrots is about 6 large carrots! Now, you would still be deficient in various nutrients, but you would not be as hungry as you would be if you ate less than 2 Cinnabons a day. This is an extreme example, but you get my point!
Of course, certain nutrients are more satiating than others. Protein is more satisfying than carbs, which is why people can often stick to low carb diets for longer. And fibre keeps you feeling full longer too. On the other hand, liquid calories do not contribute to feelings of fullness. Most people should drink plain old water as their primary beverage.
You need a balance of protein, fat and carbs to be healthy and exactly what ratio is best, may be a personal matter. Obviously a diet of only vegetables, even if you can eat as much as you want, is not ideal. But the point is, that your diet should be heaviest in foods with a low calorie density (fruits and veggies), followed by medium calorie-dense foods (whole grains and lean proteins) with small amounts of high calorie foods (healthy fats and sugars). Not only will you never have to go hungry, but you will also be doing your long-term health a favour, since many low-cal foods are also packed with nutrients.
There ARE other factors that do affect your metabolism and appetite and should not be overlooked. Sleep is proving to play a key role in weight control and body composition (ratio of fat to lean mass) is important too. The timing of when you eat is also important...but don't believe anyone who says you shouldn't eat anything after 7pm, that's a load of malarky. If you skip breakfast, however, you are less likely to be able to keep your appetite in check for the rest of the day and going for too long without eating can slow down your metabolism.
So what does this mean for the holiday season? Skip the egg nog and cocktails and fill up your plate with fruits and veggies and small quantities of your high-cal holiday favorites. Try to get enough sleep, eat breakfast and regular, healthy snacks between meals, and pump some iron (to build and maintain lean mass). Pretty simple.