The key to consuming the proper amount of food and drink for your body composition goals is math and memory. You have to first learn how many calories are in the foods and drinks you consume and then be able to accurately estimate how much you're taking in each day.
As it turns out, your eyes, stomach and emotions are not the best tools for assessing caloric content, as you might well know. Our eyes think in size and equate lots of food with lots of calories, which is clearly not always true. Our stomachs need to be satiated and think about bulk, water, fiber and nutrients so they will keep going until they are literally full. How many times have you done this?
Finally, our emotions don’t think at all. They feel so dependent on our mood we tend to ignore all other systems and signals and often either starve or binge. It is only our minds that can really be the judge so we need to arm them with knowledge.
To truly know your daily calories you could go around with a scale, but ultimately the more sustainable way is to understand the range of calorie densities of different food categories and types and make choices based on that. Lower calorie density foods can fill your plate visually, your stomach with bulk and your body with nutrients without adding a ton of calories. In fact, it is nearly impossible to overdo eating whole vegetables and fruits because they are so low in calorie and high on the satiating scale. Examples of the lowest calorie food types are natural carbohydrates like veggies, fruits, and whole grains (contain 4 calories per gram). Next on the scale are lean sources of proteins like beans, poultry, fish, non-fat dairy. Proteins also contain 4 calories per gram however they are packed tighter so when you weigh out 4 grams of some common vegetables and 4 grams of chicken you’ll notice a big visual difference (about half as much), which is important to start to grasp in terms of building balanced meals. It’s kind of like books in a library, from the shear size of a Harry Potter book you might think it is really dense and tough to get through, but once you start reading it you find it is light and you can get through it in no time.
Higher calorie-density foods pack lots of calories in small portions to provide the body with energy and essential nutrients (survival foods) but can easily add too many calories to a meal if overused. For instance, healthy oils provide heart-healthy benefits but contain fats with 9 calories/gram, which is by far the highest density of all foods. A mere tablespoon can double the calories of a meal sometimes. Another food category I consider a high calorie density is processed sugar because like fats it can be added to foods in such relatively small amounts and quickly jack up the caloric content of any snack, meal or drink. This brings up the fact that many of the foods we eat are not raw or unprepared so we have to be very aware of the combinations of caloric densities that are out there. For example, just because you have a salad with lots of veggies someone could use a bunch of oil and nuts for flavor and totally counteract your low calorie density. Similarly, meats that often get a special sugary or fatty sauce can bust your calorie estimates so don’t forget about counting the gravy. This is why it is so important to buy and prepare your own meals versus being at the whim of a restaurant chef trying to please your taste buds.
Guideline: Eat natural, unprocessed foods 90% of the time
By natural, unprocessed foods I mean foods that grew, flew, walked or swam to your plate without being diced, mixed and passed through a factory where they often add fats and sugars.
Strategy: Build your meals like you build a salad, low to high density
Build your meals like you might build a salad, starting with a base of the lowest calorie density foods first (load up on veggies!) and then start adding the higher calorie density foods (i.e. meats, then sugars and oils) in smaller portions to create visually and internally satisfying meals while managing calories.
Guideline: Don’t drink your fat on or your face off
Calories you drink are not nearly as satisfying as calories you eat so people tend to overdo it, usually with too much sugar or alcohol in the drinks. Sugary drinks are overly abundant and readily accessible in our society today and could easily be what is putting many people over their daily caloric intakes. Remember sugar and any extra calories for that matter will get turned into fat stores regardless of size, color or makeup. I think of alcohol as the fat of the liquid world as it has a very high caloric density (7 calories/gram compared to 9cal/gram for fats) but nutrition labels are currently not required so it is easy to overdo it in social situations. The higher the proof of alcohol the higher the calorie density, so a cocktail with a shot of vodka is about the same as a glass of wine or an average beer because they are diluted to amounts acceptable to our palettes. Studies have shown that drinking alcohol in small quantities (1-2 servings) is proven to be healthy, while more than that can lead to all kinds of health problems so avoid regular binge drinking (i.e. drinking to the point of feeling tipsy).
In assessing the caloric content of drinks the color and clarity have little to do with their caloric density. Water makes us think that the more clarity the less calories but that certainly is not the case in this day and age. My favorite example to drive this home is the deliciously dark brown Guinness beer is actually one of the lowest calorie regular beers on the market at 75 calories for drought or 100 calories for extra stout, while the light golden Corona comes out as one of the highest with 195 calories!
Your staple drinks should be water and non or low caloric water based beverages such as tea, club soda with lemon, etc. If you have trouble with pure water and need more flavor go with sugar substitute water drinks before your hit the diet sodas, as their acidic nature is not good for your insides or your teeth enamel. The National Research Council recommends 1.0 - 1.5 ml of water per calorie expended. For the average female, that’s 1.9 – 2.9 liters (66 -100 ounces) a day and for the average male, about 2.7 - 4.1 liters (93-139 ounces) daily. If you’re an athlete or you exercise in the heat, aim for the higher end of these ranges. This includes total water from all sources not just pure water.
Strategy: Always read labels and never eat from the bag/container
If you never look at labels or read up on caloric values of foods you will never really know if you have eaten too little or too much except by what your stomach tells you. And unfortunately our stomachs do not tend to register all the calories in sugary and salty snack foods such as chips, crackers, cookies and ice cream, which is why it is so easy to go overboard on them. Currently, legislation allows for different serving sizes on labels for different brands in the same food category so make sure to look not only at calories per serving but how big their serving size is. This is particularly important with salty and sugary snack foods, which are often high in calorie density and low in nutrients so managing the serving size is critical. If you are watching your calories, never ever eat from the bag/carton, rather portion out the serving size that you are willing to ingest as part of your daily calories. Again it is okay to eat almost anything, as long as you portion it within your daily caloric intake.
Exercise: Portion out 100 calories of various food types, including favorites
Most of us are big on visual learning, seeing is believing, so pick a bunch of different food and drink types, natural and processed, and portion out 100 calories of each using measurements or a simple food scale (good cheap investment). There several websites and books for calorie contents of foods, try www.thecalorieking.com . Place all of your 100 calorie portions out on the counter and compare them, even take pictures of them. In shear minutes it will change your beliefs about calorie density and embed the reality into your head, giving you a much stronger base of knowledge to start building meals that are calorie and nutrient balanced to achieve your goals.
As always, feel free to ask me any questions.