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Dieting: It's all about the calories

What you eat is important for health, not losing weight

POSTED: March 16, 2009 12:29 a.m.

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When the weather turned warm last week, Georgians began wearing shorts and tank tops again. To their dismay, some found that the body they had been hiding under winter clothing was larger than what they remembered.

With the swimsuit season approaching, many people are renewing their efforts to lose weight. And they may be heartened by the results of a study published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Guess what? It doesn’t matter what you eat. You can lose weight eating nothing but doughnuts or steak or ice cream.

The only thing that matters is calories. For weight loss, a calorie from broccoli is no different than a calorie from cheesecake. But here’s the catch: If you adopt a "cheesecake diet," you’ll have to drastically cut your overall food intake.

That’s because rich foods are much more calorie-dense, so after eating a relatively small amount, you will have consumed your entire day’s allotment.

According to United Nations health statistics, the average American consumes almost 3,800 calories a day. But a woman generally needs only about 1,800 calories a day to maintain her weight, or 1,500 to lose weight. Men need about 500 more than women.

Let’s say you’re aiming for 1,500 a day. Pretend that those calories are dollars and you have to make a budget. What will 1,500 "buy"?

Well, a Classic Cinnabon roll has 730 calories and 24 grams of fat, according to the manufacturer’s data. If you eat two of those, you’ll have spent almost all your "dollars" and wouldn’t be able to eat much else for the rest of the day.

But those same 1,500 calories could "buy" 20 apples or 15 bananas or 50 carrots — far more food than you could probably fit into your stomach.

"You can get a much larger volume of food, so you don’t feel as hungry," said Tracy Nix, a registered dietitian with the bariatrics program at Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

Studies show that people can lose weight on both low-fat and high-fat diets, as long as the number of calories is the same.

But a gram of fat has nine calories, while proteins and carbohydrates each have only four calories per gram. So foods that contain a lot of fat are much more "expensive" to your 1,500-calorie budget.

"The problem is, most junk food is loaded with calories," said Mary-Ann Johnson, a professor of foods and nutrition at the University of Georgia. "For most adults, we recommend that they get no more than 25 to 30 percent of their calories from fat, and about 15 percent from protein."

That means in a 1,500-calorie budget, a maximum of 450 calories should come from fat. That gives you 50 grams of fat a day, enough to bring flavor and texture to your meals.

But the average American eats 100 to 150 grams of fat per day, which is one reason the typical person’s calorie count is so high. A pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream contains more than 50 grams of fat. A rib-eye steak has about 40 grams, and a large order of McDonald’s fries has 30.

Again, if you’re only concerned about weight loss, fat doesn’t matter. You could eat nothing but sticks of butter and still lose weight as long as you don’t exceed your calorie limit.

But experts say you need to worry about the bigger picture, not just a number on the bathroom scale.

"You can do just about anything to lose weight, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy," said Nix.

The goal, she said, is to shed pounds while also controlling for other health indicators such as cholesterol.

"It’s pretty simple," Nix said. "It’s not necessarily easy, but it’s simple. You need foods that are filling and lower in calories: fruits and vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, low-fat dairy products."

Johnson said people tend to underestimate how much they actually consume.

"Stay away from multiple servings (second helpings), and watch your serving size," she said. "It’s OK to eat any food, but we’ve forgotten what a serving size is."

Debbie Wilburn, a consumer science agent for the Hall County Extension Service, said many people don’t realize they’re eating far more food than they used to.

"The standard size of a muffin now is twice as big as it was 10 years ago," she said.

Nutritionists advise people to save both calories and money by cooking at home instead of going to restaurants. But apparently the calorie inflation is occurring even in one’s own kitchen.

A recent analysis of the classic book "The Joy of Cooking" found that the calorie counts of many recipes got larger with each new addition. And serving sizes have grown as well; a dish that was once intended for eight people now serves only four, even though the recipe is the same.

Wilburn said nobody likes to do homework, but the only way to succeed at losing weight in the long term is to research the calorie content of the foods you eat.

"You don’t have to count every calorie every day for the rest of your life, but you should probably do it for a couple of weeks, and write down everything you eat," she said. "When you see it in writing, it does help put you on track."



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