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A calorie is not just a calorie, and a pound is not just a pound

written by Marsha Seidelman, M.D.
on Tuesday, 11th June ,2013

For years, the mantra has been "a calorie is a calorie" Eat 3500 fewer calories or burn 3500 more calories or some combination of these two, and you will lose a pound. There is now a growing movement afoot that takes issue with that. Here's my take on it.

To some extent, the mantra is true that a calorie IS a calorie, at the moment you ingest it. But, it is not JUST a calorie in the long run. Its impact on your body is also determined by the type of food it is in. Trying to reduce calories, without paying attention to the quality of those calories, will not necessarily improve your health. Let's look at foods that have been spurned in the media lately to see what I'm talking about.

Trans fats are in liquid vegetable oils that have had hydrogen added to certain bonds to produce a solid or semi-solid fat. They are preferentially used in restaurants because of their long shelf life and stability for deep frying (think LOTS of batches of fast food French fries!). Trans fats are associated with an increased risk of plaque in the arteries and fatty liver disease compared with a similar number of calories of omega 3 fats (think flax, canola or, my new favorite, hemp, as well as almonds). Omega 3s are associated with a better cholesterol profile and a lower incidence of heart disease. So, although eating a gram of trans fat will give you the same number of calories as a gram of omega-3s, the long-term cumulative effect is different for many grams of one versus many grams of the other. Be aware that even when a nutrition label say "0 trans fat", if you see "partially hydrogenated fats" as an ingredient, there are in fact trans fats. The serving size is such, though, that the trans fats are less than 0.5 grams, and can be listed as zero. Hardly anyone sticks to one 'serving size' of chips or other snacks that contain trans fats. You can rack up quite a few grams of trans fats with one sitting of "0 trans fats" chips!

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is another example of an ingredient that might have more impact on your body than you would appreciate by simply looking at the calorie count. Just to get one detail out of the way - by reading the popular press, you might think that HFCS is solely responsible for today's obesity crisis. I don't believe that it is - more likely, the obesity results from a general pattern of eating the kinds of foods that contain HFCS. OK - now - To understand the composition of HFCS, let's compare it to everyday table sugar (sucrose). Sucrose is made up of half fructose (the natural sugar in fruit) and half glucose. The fructose is the part that gives sugar its sweetness. HFCS also contains fructose and glucose, but it has a higher percentage of fructose in it. The glucose can be used as instant energy, and some excess is stored as glycogen in the muscles and the liver to provide energy for your next workout. Further excess is stored as fat. The fructose portion is metabolized differently. It is broken down and can't be used as readily for energy; it also doesn't tend to increase ghrelin and insulin which help signal to your brain that you're full. With fructose people often don't sense that their hunger has been satisfied and continue to eat. Fruit juice is as bad as soda in this regard. Although there is some benefit over soda in that there are vitamins and minerals in juice, the fiber from the fruit has mostly been removed. Eaten as a whole, a fruit's fiber slows the absorption of sugar and decreases the insulin spikes associated with the sugar.

The whole fruit is a better choice than juice for many reasons. Because of its volume, it makes you feel full sooner; it takes more work to chew it, so you eat more slowly; it increases transit thru the intestine, and helps your body sense fullness sooner; and there are fewer calories per volume of food. Many juices have 20 - 40 gms of sugar per serving - the same as sodas. So, going back to the calorie is a calorie issue - if you were to consume an equal number of calories as juice versus as whole fruit, choose the whole fruit! You'll get all the fiber as a freebie. Add a glass of cold water to increase hydration and feel even fuller and more refreshed!

SO the individual foods are important - it is important to consider the choices - but any one food in reasonable amounts is unlikely to do you much harm. The way I see it, there are many health risks that we can do little if anything about - our family tendencies toward heart disease, exposure to pollutants, stress, etc. No matter what we do or eat, there's some chance we can be diagnosed with cancer or other diseases. My feeling is that if you can favorably impact your overall health risk by eating well, especially if we're talking about foods that taste good, why would you not?! So rather than go by any one passing fad or any one rule about calories, my personal guiding principal is to EAT A VARIETY OF FOODS and make them WHOLE FOODS as much as possible -- not as in the store name (Whole Paycheck, as my husband likes to call it), but as in 'out of the ground - natural state' whole foods! Minimize processed food intake, since those often involve the trans fats and HFCS noted above. A wide variety of food helps to prevent boredom and helps to provide a wide variety of nutrients. Adding spices enhances the tastes and increases the health benefits. I'll be writing about my trip to the Istanbul spice market soon! Whether you are interested in weight maintenance or weight loss, by balancing calories through healthy foods and as much exercise as you feel comfortable with, you can still, in general, go by the 3500 calorie rule, realizing now what it entails.

The next logical question would be, "What is a healthy food?" It is not 'low fat', despite what we have been told over the past twenty years or so. After all, while you're hearing 'eat low fat', you're also being told to get your fish oil. So what's that about? Stay tuned for some ideas as discussed with my son, who is even more health-conscious in his eating than I am. The only desserts he likes to eat are the ones his sister makes!

I'd like to leave you with some salad ideas - you can always mix and match to use up your odds and ends in the refrigerator. Salad is such a good basis for lunch or dinner; add a good protein source and it IS lunch or dinner! Read the labels if you use prepared salad dressing - many have much more salt and sugar than you would guess.

RECIPES:

Basic Balsamic Vinaigrette - in general, mix 1 part vinegar with 2 or 3 parts olive oil; if it's a strong-tasting vinegar, go more toward 1 part vinegar to 3 parts oil. Lately, I've been experimenting with fruit-flavored vinegars, such as apricot and lime and using them with minimal oil; but plain balsamic does a great job in dressings, and is zero calories. Olive oil, by the way is 120 calories per tablespoon, so you can see how dousing your salad in dressing can easily add to the calories - but at least they're good ones! And if you're enjoying a filling salad with a good protein source, you'll stay full longer and avoid eating other high calorie not-so-healthful foods.

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp dark brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Use this over arugula, fresh basil, cherry tomatoes and a protein of your choice (salmon, chicken, turkey, cottage cheese or vegetarian options of tofu or beans).

Or over your basic lettuce (the darker the better) or spinach, with red peppers, cucumbers and chick peas.

There will be more salad ideas in future blog posts - including the delicious spinach and strawberry salad I mentioned in the last nutrition post. Get the idea that I love to eat?!

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