The Trouble With Tracking Calories

With a third of US children and nearly two thirds of adults overweight or obese, we don’t seem to have a very good handle on those little units of energy that play a big role in determining our weight.

It doesn’t help that our bodies are quite good at ensuring we get enough calories to meet our fundamental needs, but not at all good at stopping when we’ve eaten enough. That is, if we don’t eat enough calories to survive, our bodies will compensate in various ways in order to hang on to those calories we do eat. But if we eat too many calories, instead of compensating to lose calories, our bodies just store them. To make matters worse, the calories available in our affluent environment have gradually crept upwards over the years, making it even more difficult for us to detect and resist excess calorie consumption.

Easy Eating

Food is now available everywhere and cheaply in Western cultures. Whereas there used to be more work involved in cultivating and preparing food, now it is available virtually instantly. While eating food used to be commonly limited to homes or restaurants, now people eat in stores, movie theaters, gymnasiums, in front of the television or computer and without leaving the car.

In addition to being surrounded by food, we consistently underestimate how much we eat throughout the day. Mindless eating, such as a bag of chips in front of the TV or computer, can lead to the consumption of hundreds of additional calories without even realizing it – or remembering it when asked about your daily food intake. Since our bodies aren’t very good at saying “Stop, you’re full now,” we can eat and graze all day long almost without limit, and without realizing it. The famous Nurses Health Study showed that participants report consuming around 1,600 calories per day, but their average BMI of 26 requires a far greater calorie consumption to maintain.

Calorie Confusion

We only need around 2,000 calories a day to maintain our weight. However, we tend to severely underestimate the number of calories in food, which thwarts our ability to accurately plan our diets for health and weight maintenance. At a recent nutrition class at New York University, students were shocked to learn that a 64-ouce Double Gulp soda from 7-Eleven contained double the 400 calories they had guessed. Even when calorie information is provided on the labels of food, most of us pay no mind to the serving size on that label. When is the last time you really ate only ½ cup of ice cream, or only a 3-ounce hamburger?

Dining out makes things even thornier for people trying to lose weight or avoid gaining weight. Typical restaurant portions have become big enough to serve multiple people with one dish. Most diners have no idea how many calories are packed into the dishes they order, but in most cases you can be pretty certain: they contain far more calories than you need. When you add drinks and dessert to the bill, it becomes a costly outing in terms of calories consumed, not to mention money spent.

Taking Control

Due to our bodies’ redundant systems for maintaining our weight, losing weight can be very difficult. It is therefore best to avoid gaining weight in the first place. But how can we do that in our busy lives and our food-soaked environment? The key is in a sort of “food-mindfulness” – becoming much more aware of what food we are eating and how many calories are included. Here are some tips for doing so:

• Choose more “real” foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods like those mindlessly-consumed chips.

• Reduce your portion size (try using a smaller plate) and see if you are still hungry before taking more food.

• Plan ahead to share your dinner out with a friend, or ask the restaurant to box half of it up to take home before bringing it to you.

• Read labels and pay attention to the portion sizes and the calories consumed.

• Check your weight regularly, so that if you are eating too much, you only have a pound or two to lose instead of 20 or 30.

• Stay active! Any amount of physical activity helps you balance what you eat with what you expend.

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