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It seems to be ingrained into the collective consciousness that the way to lose weight is to count calories. You’ll find scores of food-tracking, calorie-counting apps out there that are purported to help you lose weight by helping you keep track of how many calories you consume versus how many you burn. The idea is that to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume. More specifically, to lose one pound, you need to burn 3,500 more calories than you consume. Over seven days, that formula works out to a 500-calorie per day deficit to lose one pound — or a 1,000-calorie per day deficit to lose two pounds — per week.

But recently, counting calories as the best weight loss strategy has come under fire by researchers as counterproductive to weight loss and, well, plain wrong. Calories aren’t created equal — and weight loss just isn’t that simple, because the human body isn’t that simple. How well the calorie in-calorie out calculations might work for you depends on a whole range of factors, including the condition of your gut biome, your metabolism, and the kinds of foods you eat. 

The basics of healthy eating

Instead of calorie-counting, say researchers, successful weight loss and maintenance depends largely on eating healthy food. So, what constitutes “healthy”? Here are the basics of healthy eating – following these three tips will help you get you a long way toward your weight loss goals.

1. The less processed, the better

People who eat processed foods appear to eat more calories than people who eat unprocessed foods, according to one recent study. Men and women were divided into two groups. One group ate unprocessed food for two weeks, while the other group ate processed food for the same amount of time. The groups switched diets at the end of two weeks. During the study, participants eating processed foods ate an average of 500 more calories per day than the unprocessed group.

The more processed a food, the more sodium, sugar, unhealthy fats, refined carbs, and empty calories it is likely to have. Additionally, processed foods often contain chemicals that add another layer of health endangerment. Not just for weight loss, but also for better overall health, eating as few processed foods as possible is ideal.

Enjoy the occasional bag of chocolate or chips, a slice of cake or toasted bagel, and feel free to indulge in fast food on occasion — sometimes, processed food is good for the soul! But too much of it is even worse for the body.

Take it easy on these types of highly processed foods:

  • Chips, crackers and other similar snack foods
  • Candy, ice cream and bakery goods
  • White, processed bread, rice, pasta and flour tortillas 
  • Boxed, frozen or otherwise pre-made meals
  • Canned soups, deli meats and boxed cereal

Instead, opt for unprocessed and less-processed foods like:

  • Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables
  • Fish and lean meats
  • Brown or wild rice
  • Whole-grain bread, rice, pasta and tortillas 
  • Other whole grains like oats, quinoa or bulgur
  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Beans and legumes

When you’re grocery shopping, you’ll find most of the unprocessed and less-processed foods on the perimeter of the store — the fresh produce, meat and fish, and eggs and dairy. 

2. Choose healthy fats

Contrary to what we used to believe, not all fat is bad. In fact, healthy fats like mono- and polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids are good for your heart, provide energy and help your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins and minerals. These healthy fats are important for cellular health, blood clotting, the optimal movement of your muscles — and yes, weight loss and maintenance.

Unhealthy fats, on the other hand, like man-made trans fats and saturated fat, contribute to weight gain, heart disease and other health problems. Not surprisingly, healthy fats are the ones you’ll find mostly in whole foods, and unhealthy fats are the ones you’ll find mostly in processed foods. 

Try to eat fewer foods containing unhealthy fats, including:

  • Red meat and cured meats like bacon
  • Chicken skin and pork fat
  • Highly processed sweets like candy, chips, ice cream and baked goods
  • Butter and full-fat milk, yogurt and cheese
  • Fast food and restaurant food

Strive to eat more foods that contain healthy fats, such as:

  • Avocados
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fatty fish like salmon, cod and mackerel
  • Low-fat cheese
  • Eggs (in moderation)
  • Olive, sunflower, peanut, coconut, and canola oils

3. Opt for healthy carbohydrates

Like fat, carbohydrates have long been vilified, but also like fat, carbs are not created equal. Complex carbohydrates are found in plant-based foods, and simple carbs are found in many processed foods. Complex carbohydrates are full of nutrients like fiber and bran, which make them slow to digest and keep you feeling fuller longer after eating them. 

Healthy carbs provide your body with energy in the form of glucose, or blood sugar. The slower your body digests carbs, the slower and more steady the release of blood sugar, and the more energy you’ll have for a longer period of time. Complex carbs are also essential for the health of your brain, kidneys, heart muscles, and your digestive and central nervous systems.

Simple carbohydrates are the ones to eat in moderation. They’ve had most of their nutrients stripped out, like in the case of white bread, white rice, and instant oatmeal. Simple carbs are added to processed foods in the form of sugars, and they digest quickly, which causes spikes in blood sugar and makes you feel hungry soon after eating them. Eating too many simple carbs can lead to weight gain and medical conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes.

Carbohydrates are broken down into three categories:

  • Fiber, which is a complex carb that comes from plant sources and makes you feel full longer. Fiber can’t be digested and instead passes through your gut and helps your body digest other essential nutrients.
  • Starch, also a complex carbohydrate, is digested slowly by the body and contains vitamins and minerals. 
  • Sugar, which is a simple carb and can be found naturally in fruit or added to a wide range of foods. Your body doesn’t know the difference between natural and added sugars, but a candy bar with nine grams of sugar provides you with little else, while an orange with nine grams of sugar also offers essential vitamins, minerals and fiber.

Limit your consumption of simple carbs like:

  • White bread, bagels, pasta, and other highly processed foods
  • Sweets like candy, cookies and bakery items
  • Chips, crackers, and soda
  • Sugary cereals

Instead, eat food with complex carbohydrates, including:

  • Non-starchy fruits and vegetables with seeds or edible skin
  • Starchy fruits like bananas, and starchy vegetables like potatoes
  • Whole grains like oats, quinoa, and wild rice
  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts and seeds

Putting together a healthy plate to help you lose weight

The Plate Method is a helpful way to assemble a healthy, balanced meal that can help you drop extra pounds. To use the plate method:

  • Fill half of your plate with high-fiber, starch-free vegetables like broccoli, spinach, peppers, tomatoes and squash.
  • Fill a quarter of your plate with starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn or peas; a whole grain like wild rice or barley; or beans or lentils.
  • Fill a quarter of your plate with a lean protein like tofu, eggs, fish, skinless chicken or pork with the fat trimmed off.

Decode the food label for healthier choices

Your best tool for making informed choices about the quality of a food is the food label. Here’s how to decode it:

Serving size

All of the nutritional information on a food label is specific to the serving size listed at the top of the label. If you eat or drink twice that amount, you’ll be getting twice the calories, carbs, fats, and other nutrients on the label. The serving size includes the total number of servings in the product. 

The rest of the nutrition label tells you the amount of various nutrients in each serving. 

Calories

The total number of calories are listed at the top of the food label. 

Total fat 

The total amount of fat in the food is listed in grams and then broken down into the amounts of the various types of fat the product contains. Saturated and trans fats are unhealthy fats, while  poly- and mono-unsaturated fats are healthy fats.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is only found in animal products and is listed in milligrams. Limit your daily cholesterol intake to 200 to 300 mg. While cholesterol in food doesn’t necessarily always increase your blood cholesterol, it’s not good for your heart. High-cholesterol foods include red meat, fried foods and baked goods.

Sodium

Although sodium (salt) in the food you eat doesn’t affect your blood sugar, high amounts of sodium increases your risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. If you already have high blood pressure along with diabetes, pay attention to the amount of sodium in your food. The general recommendation for daily sodium intake is 2,300 mg or less, but your doctor may recommend less if you have high blood pressure.

Total carbohydrate

The total carbs per serving is listed in grams. The total number of carbs is important, but more important are the types of carbs the food contains. Underneath the total carb count, the carbohydrates are broken down by type:

  • Dietary fiber: listed in grams. Some labels will break down the amount of soluble fiber in the product.
  • Total sugars: listed in grams. If all of the sugar in the product isn’t naturally occurring, the label will note the total grams of added sugars and/or sugar alcohols.
  • The total carbohydrate minus the dietary fiber and total sugars gives you the grams of starch in a food. 

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that carbs make up between 45 and 65 percent of your daily calorie intake. If you have diabetes, talk to your doctor about how many carbs you should consume each day.

Protein

Protein is listed in grams on the food label, and it’s important to get enough of this macronutrient — although not too much. The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that rather than count the grams of protein you consume, seek out healthy protein-rich foods, which include many complex carb and low-fat foods like: 

  • Whole grains
  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts
  • Greek yogurt
  • Low-fat dairy, including cheese, milk or cottage cheese
  • Eggs (in moderation)

Beware tricky food packaging claims

Food packaging often contains terms that give you the impression that a food is better for you than it is. These include terms like “low fat,” “low sodium,” “low carb,” “reduced fat,” and “reduced sugar.” While these terms can help you identify certain foods that may be better than others, they don’t tell the whole story. It’s important to get your information from the Nutrition Facts and not the claims on the packaging. For example, foods labeled “sugar-free” may contain sugar alcohols. While sugar alcohols do have less impact on blood glucose than sugar, they do have an impact.

Turn to Forward for healthy weight loss

As your primary care provider, Forward puts a strong focus on disease prevention and treatment through healthy lifestyle choices, including eating healthy food. Whether you want to lose weight or reduce your risk for health problems like heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, we can help you reach your health and weight loss goals.

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