Here’s a pop quiz for you: What do the Atkins, South Beach, Paleo, Engine 2 and Ornish Spectrum diets all have in common? Answer: Calorie restriction. By their very nature, these plans cut calories from the diet by restricting certain foods or entire categories of foods.
But regardless of whether the bulk of your calories come from carbs, fat or protein, in order to lose weight you simply need to burn more calories than you take in. Considering only short-term weight loss, then, it would seem that all calories are created equal.
But wait a second— if that were really true, then for weight loss an apple would be considered “worse” than an Oreo cookie. And from a purely calories in/calories out perspective, that is true.
Food Is More Than Calories
Here’s where things get complicated, though: The food you eat consists of much more than just calories, and different kinds of foods are processed and used by your body in very different ways.
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For instance, that apple has around 95 calories, nearly all of them from carbohydrate, primarily in the form of fructose — the natural sugar found in fruits. The Oreo cookie only has about 40 calories, meaning that you could eat two of them and still be ahead on calories compared to the apple, but nearly half of the Oreo’s calories come from fat.
Not only that, but a medium apple has over 4 grams of dietary fiber while the cookie has none. The combination of sweetness and fiber you get from the apple makes you feel pretty full and satisfied by the time you’ve taken your last bite, but when’s the last time you ate just one or two Oreo cookies?
In the 2012 edition of the International Life Sciences Institute’s report, Present Knowledge on Nutrition, researchers tell us that the combination of fat and sugar elicits strong food cravings. This is no secret to food companies, who have also added salt to the formula, creating packaged and processed foods that we increasingly find irresistible.
That’s why it’s so important to consider the big picture when considering which foods are best for weight loss. Calorie value is only one piece of the puzzle. The total effect a particular food can have on appetite, satiety and nutritional balance must also be factored in.
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I’m sure you’re wondering what kinds of foods are best for weight loss. The truth is that there are far too many to list, and which ones you choose will depend on a host of personal factors, like food preferences, allergies or sensitivities to certain foods, restrictions due to ethics or religion, etc.
Easy Rule of Thumb
Luckily, there is one simple rule you can follow that will make this diet thing a lot easier: Whatever your unique set of factors looks like, by simply choosing whole foods from trustworthy sources, you can easily craft a diet high in nutrients and relatively low in calories that leaves you feeling full and satisfied.
Whole and minimally processed foods give you the most bang for your calorie buck, providing high amounts of trace minerals and vitamins, phytochemicals and antioxidants and that all-important dietary fiber. Opt for fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and lean sources of protein that are free from hormones and antibiotics. Reduce or eliminate foods high in saturated fat and added sugars.
Even if you’re eating mostly whole foods, it can still be important to track caloric intake if you’re trying to lose weight. Don’t worry, though — you don’t have to keep a food diary forever, just for two or three weeks, or until you’re familiar with the calorie and nutrient values in the foods you commonly eat.
Food logging used to be tedious and time-consuming, but these days there are plenty of great websites and mobile apps that make it a breeze. Some of the more popular free ones are Lose It, My Fitness Pal and the USDA’s Super Tracker. There are also a host of low-cost paid apps and coaching programs online. Typing “food log” or “food diary” into your search engine will give you plenty of options to investigate.
Using Exercise as a Weight Loss Tool
When it comes to weight loss, people commonly think that exercising harder and longer is the way to go. Again, from a purely calorie-centric point of view, this strategy has some merit to it; but when taken to extremes it can be counterproductive.
In the same way that an Oreo cookie is not the best choice of diet food, boxing (in the ring with someone else trying to hurt you, not with a bag) is not the best choice of exercise, even though it burns more calories per minute than virtually any other physical activity. Again, we need to consider more than just the calorie equation.
With exercise, possibly the most important characteristic to consider is the enjoyment factor – if you can find activities that you enjoy, you’ll be more likely to stick with them, and any activity is better than none.
Mix It Up
It’s a good idea, however, to include a variety of exercises in your workout program rather than sticking with just one thing. Including strength, mobility and agility training is especially important as we age, since the loss of muscle mass, decreased range of motion and impaired balance all result in reduced physical functionality and a lower quality of life.
Mixing up the intensity of your workouts is important, too. Challenging your body in different ways on different days can help you avoid the dreaded weight loss plateau. Incorporating speed or incline intervals into your aerobic sessions and lifting heavier weights for fewer sets and repetitions are just two examples of how you can up the intensity of your workouts.
If you’re interested in taking your workouts to a new level, it might be a good idea to hire a trainer or take a class at your local fitness center. But don’t get too bogged down by trying to create the perfect workout regimen – if you are moving, then you’re already doing something right!
Make the Best Choices for You
Our bodies are as unique as our personalities, so it’s important that you find a weight loss solution that will work for you. In the end, weight loss comes down to calories in versus calories out, but you have a great deal of control over which foods and activities you can use to create that calorie deficit.
Rashelle Brown is a certified personal trainer and health coach who writes about wellness. Her work has appeared in the IDEA Fitness Journal and on the popular health website livestrong.com. She is a regular contributor for active.com and her first book, Reboot Your Body: A Step-by-Step Guide to Permanent Weight Loss, is due out in August 2015. She offers weight-loss coaching and wellness services in the Twin Cities metro area and online at WellCuratedLife.com.
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