Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Why Are We Still Counting Calories?

The Biggest Loser counts calories (1100 per day? Please.). Weight Watchers turned them into points for those of us who can't count that high. Oprah had us all keeping food diaries and locking ourselves out of the fridge after 7pm. Is any of that really necessary to be healthy? Of course not.

They are all fine techniques for keeping ourselves accountable, important in it's own right, but they have very little to do with actual health. The number of calories in a food is not at all related (unless perhaps inversely) to what it can do for our bodies. Diet Coke, for example, might be a dieter's dream at zero calories but holds absolutely no nutritional value.

It's unfortunate that calories are what people understand: the entire worth of a food wrapped up and delivered as a shiny, comprehensible number. We like calories so much that in 2012, the FDA is expected to require restaurants with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts on all of their menu items. A recent study sent thirsty teenagers into stores that had signs posted by the regular sodas: "10% of your daily calories", "250 calories in one", and "Jog for 50 minutes to burn this off", and you better believe they were less likely to buy those sodas. Some of them went for water instead (this reminds me I need to post about what's wrong with bottled water), and some went for diet soda.

For the Really Really Health Conscious, we can count other things: fiber, fat, protein, sodium, cholesterol, saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, trans fat, soluble fiber, insoluble fiber, sugar, and carbs. Despite my earlier mocking, the Weight Watchers and Biggest Loser programs are good in that they do actually take into account several of these other important components. There are even smartphone apps and gadgets we can strap to our bodies to help us deal with all the counting. "Big Technology" really appreciates your investment, but listen: denying yourself chocolate on Saturday because you had extra pasta on Tuesday is a fine exercise in self-control, but it's no way to live. Check out two simple ideas to truly become a healthier individual.

Eat What You Want
The trick here is to stop wanting things that are processed and start wanting real food - easier said than done. Processed foods tend to be high in fat, salt, and sugar - things your body is programmed to want - and also likely include exciting, but artificial, colors and flavors. This means that if you're used to eating processed foods, your taste buds have adjusted to those strong lab-created tastes and real food probably won't taste like much of anything. It takes about three weeks for your body to readjust, so be patient.

While you're waiting for your 'buds to catch up, you could begin to work on your brain. Do some research on your own - read about factory farming or look up ingredients you don't recognize to see how they are made. With all of the reading I've done about the treatment of animals (hint: it's pretty bad), I no longer regularly desire fried chicken, a big steak, or nuggets of any kind. It's not that driving by a Chik-Fil-A doesn't smell good (IT DOES), it's just that I don't want to support the factory farming industry. I am starting to become addicted to how awesome I feel when I eat a salad of leafy greens or a simple stir-fry. Try making a few things from scratch, visit a local farmer's market or join a CSA to up your seasonal produce intake, or take a drive out to a farm where you can buy humanely-raised meats.

As much as you might try, there will probably be days when you can't live another minute without getting pizza delivery or digging into some chocolate (I understand, ladies). Oh well. As long as it's only sometimes, you'll be alright.

Be Active Doing Something You Love 
If you aren't absolutely wild about driving to the gym and going through the cardio-weights routine with the nagging worry that you don't quite measure up to The Girl On The Next Treadmill Over, stop. There are so many ways to exercise outside of a gym. You can workout more cheaply, get some sunshine in your life, and you might actually enjoy yourself. I ended my last gym membership a couple years ago during the notoriously frigid month of February. When they asked me why I wanted to leave, I told them I had been running and didn't need the gym. "Outside??" they asked. You bet!

Some other non-gym activities include: playing a sport - there are lots of social and competitive sports leagues in cities and suburbs. Run, it doesn't matter how far. If you can't run, walk. Ride a bike. Take a swimming class. Rollerblade. Work in your garden. Try yoga or tai chi with your local Parks & Rec organization. Find a workout partner if that helps. Go to the nearest high school and use the track. You can do lunges, squats, plyometric workouts (jumping on and off a bench), push-ups, walk, and run - all for free. The thing is, if you love an activity, you'll do it more often and it won't feel like a chore. Even if you need to invest in a bit of clothing to get started - one pair of thermal wind-blocking tights goes a long way - it will pay off in the long run.

For more posts about real food and healthy living, check out Real Food Wednesday.

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