We have established that controlling your weight in large part comes down to managing energy balance – calories in versus out. Control your food intake and and control your expenditure through exercise and moving.
It seems like such a simple concept, however things are made difficult through many different factors from individual behaviour (a complex topic), to your social environment (who you spend your time with) and your physical environment (where you spend your time and what foods are there).
Do you have hyperpalatable food at hand all the time?
Hyperpalatable foods are food products that taste amazing (texture, taste, smell, the lot!) and are relatively high in calories compared to the fullness you feel from eating them. You generally don't feel full at all, and because of the great taste you end up wanting more and more and they usually have poor nutrient value.
A big step in learning how to manage your weight is learning about food volume and the energy content of all the different food types and products. Foods that are hyperpalatable versus nutrient dense food which keeps you feeling fuller for longer.
This learning process can’t be done over night. It takes time, and it takes you actually investing and being interested in the process…but the payoff is huge. This is a BIG step in mastering being able to subconsciously make good decisions.
The goal is to eventually to be able to look at a food product and have a pretty good idea on the calorie content and if it fits in to your day. I don’t want anyone to be a slave to MyFitnessPal.
The easiest way to get the message across will be through visuals so read on…I think this will be an eye opener for you.
Food volume basically means the total amount of food you get compared to it’s calorie content.
The picture below is a perfect example of something which contains the same amount of calories yet there is a big difference in volume.
The brownie is quite small compared to the amount of fruit you get for the same calorie total. You get more fruit so in this case it wins in terms of volume. There’s no right or wrong here, eat whatever works for you and everything comes down to 'what's the context of my diet as a whole'. If you eat the brownie every day and you stick to your plan and hit your targets then that’s the right choice for you.
I never tell any of my clients ‘you can’t eat x food product’, all I do is try to explain energy balance and show what fits and what might not fit when trying to manage your weight. Ultimately, the decision of what to eat is up to you.
However, in general a good strategy is to look to foods with more volume. They take a longer amount of time to eat and in a lot of cases are more likely to leave you feeling fuller for longer.
One of the big problems with overeating and weight gain is that we have easy access to cheap sources of high calorie food which don’t have much volume and don’t keep us feeling full.
On the contrary, we usually crave more and more of those foods.
In realistic terms you can try to fit a small amount of these food types (high calorie/low volume) in here and there, but if you want to be lean and look your best you’re not going to be able to have them very regularly in your habitual diet.
You’ll figure things out along the way with volume – mostly it’s a case of fresh fruit and veg, lean sources of meat and foods that traditionally would be labelled as 'healthy'.
Junk food and processed food are the other side of the coin, the poorer choices.
Not everything is so clear cut though, even so called ‘healthy’ food choices can contain relatively high calories. Again, it’s not that you cannot eat a particular food type, you just need to be aware of how everything affects energy balance as a whole relative to you.
The best way I can think of applying an example here is that of someone who claims they always eat ‘clean’ yet cannot lose weight.
All the food choices appear to be from healthy sources yet the person can’t lose weight. There is nothing wrong with their metabolism – they are just not in a calorie deficit because too many calories come in daily through food.
A food may be labelled as healthy, it may have great nutrient value…but no food can reverse energy balance.
Along the same lines, if a couple share the same portion sizes then the female will most likely gain weight even if the food choices appear to be good. Males in the vast majority of cases have a substantially higher allocated calorie intake day to day because they're generally taller, bigger and sometimes more active.
If the girl is eating the same as the guy she will inevitably put on weight. I have seen this many times and it might ring a bell for you.
Here are some visual examples showing how easy it is to go astray with portion sizes or small differences in the amount of food you eat.
Avocados are great right? A really healthy food?
I have no problem with them, but you need to be aware that they are predominantly a fat based food so they are calorie dense. It’s quite easy to take in a lot of calories if you’re not sure of the calorie content.
What you can see below is a very subtle difference in the serving size. The portion on the right is heaped (we’ve all done it with spoons) but because the food is calorie dense it actually makes a huge difference.
Calories Are Important, But So Is Context.
You can go for lunch in a restaurant and it may have everything listed as organic, gluten free, healthy…whatever. This is great as you’re less likely to be eating junk food, but CALORIES MATTER.
Organic/gluten free – it doesn’t matter what way it’s labelled. Energy balance rules for weight and sometimes these products can be quite energy dense.
Yes, you do want good choices of food – nutrient dense so they support health, but you also want to maintain a weight that supports good health too.
Calories matter for weight, the nutrient content of the calories matters for health. Try and balance this in an energy appropriate, enjoyable day to day diet.
Here’s a nice example to two seemingly ‘healthy’ days food compared. The day on the right appears to be all great choices but for a typical female client this daily calorie total will cause weight gain even though there is no junk food in there. The day on the left would be closer to maintenance/a small deficit.
The next visual may help you further conceptualise the idea that energy matters for weight.
The almonds and the sweets contain the same calorie total so as far as controlling your weight goes they both hold the same value as the energy total is the same.
Yes, the almonds have more nutrient value. They might make you feel full versus the sweets which might make you crave more. Energy value is important but what’s also incredibly important is the overall context of someone’s diet.
What if I had eaten all healthy, nutrient dense food throughout the day and then with my last few calories left I had the choice between the almonds and sweets and I really want the sweets?
Eat the sweets.
If my day has been been largely full of crap junk food and I have a choice here then maybe it’s best to try and get something in with nutrient value. Choose the almonds.
It’s important to know about energy, but it’s just as important to know about context.
Along the lines of context it’s important to be aware of food companies and how they label things. Just because something is labelled as a ‘healthy snack’ doesn’t mean it is. Companies who sell breakfast products like to promote breakfast being ‘the most important meal of the day’.
Is it? Maybe it is for one person if they like eating at that time, but for someone else they might not enjoy eating breakfast.
When it comes to managing your weight eating a breakfast doesn’t hold any superior advantage for weight loss. Once calories come in correctly at the end of the day that’s the single biggest factor. If you like having breakfast and it suits you then go for it.
You’ll probably see the trend throughout the course so far – do what suits you. Find your way of doing things within the targets you have been given.
Here’s an example of some breakfast biscuits versus normal biscuits. 54 calories in the difference so the breakfast biscuits win on calories…but not by much.
BOTH choices aren’t great as that’s not a lot of food for that amount of calories.
Along the way you will find there are some great options and you’ll certainly find foods you like that have great return for the calorie amount. More and more food companies are wising up to all of this as well so lower calorie options of what you would typically label ‘bad’ are available.
Here’s a great example of making a clever decision – the amazing Solero versus a Magnum.
94 calories stacks up amazingly well in fitting in to anyone's day and it’s a really tasty option to have. Losing weight doesn’t have to be about total ‘clean eating’ and eliminating every type of ‘bad’ food product from your day to day.
You just have to be informed and make smart decisions.
Lastly we’ll take a look at liquid calories. This is quite a simple one – ‘don’t get your calories from liquids if you want to manage your weight’.
Sugar sweetened beverages such as Coca Cola are really poor choices for weight management and health. They contribute hugely to people piling on the kilos. While something like Coca Cola might seem obvious, other choices such as coffee or fruit juices might be a less obvious one.
A can of coke contains 140 calories, but a large flat white can contain more than double that.
Has anyone ever told you ‘I went for a small breakfast’, or ‘I didn’t have much to eat for lunch’. What did you have to drink though? A large flat white and possibly a small brownie like the one at the start of the article? Start accounting for the energy you take in from all sources.
Fruit juices such as Nakd which you would assume are ‘healthy’ but contain around 270 calories.
Coke is obvious, coffee can be a case of ‘I was unaware’, but fruit juices are where people assume it’s a good decision they are making. I’m not saying don’t drink fruit juice, but I will explain why it can be a bad choice.
Liquids don’t need to be broken down and therefore won’t leave you feeling full. Fruit which is juiced loses it’s fibre content and this is another reason why you don’t feel full for any amount of time. Without the fibre you're losing out on satiety value.
My advice would be to eat the fruit instead. BUT, if you don’t get much fruit into your habitual diet and it’s the only way of getting nutrient dense foods in…then drink the juice.
It does come back to context as always, but at least now you can make an informed decision.
I hope this has gone some way toward helping you figure out that energy/calories in matter, and that you need to be informed about everything. It takes time to figure things out and there is no quick way but this should really open your eyes as to why people put on weight and then wonder why they can’t lose it.
Food volume is an important concept and finding foods that have plenty of volume for the energy value that you actually like will be a big step in taking control of your weight in the long term.
If you've got any questions let me know.