Make Your Calories Count
By KJ Fields
Some foods offer little nutrition. Here's help for making smart choices.
Are you dunking a donut in the morning, and sipping soda or crunching on chips in the afternoon? If so, it's time to rethink your intake. Americans consume many foods with little or no nutritional value, and eating these nutrient-empty foods contributes to your risk of obesity and developing chronic diseases.
A calorie is the amount of energy or heat a substance produces. In nutrient-rich foods, calories give us energy with added benefits like protein, vitamins, and minerals to boost everything from brain power to exercise. Nutrient-empty foods give us lots of calories — but little else. Often these foods contain far more calories than we can burn off. When we don't burn them, our bodies store them as fat.
"That can lead to obesity, but the sugar, refined carbohydrates, excessive fats, and sodium in nutrient-empty treats can also promote dental cavities, heart disease, diabetes, and even certain cancers," says Group Health dietitian Gloria Myers, RD.
One way to spot a problem food is to read the label. In foods other than fruits, if the grams of sugar nearly equal the total carbohydrate grams, you've probably got an empty-calorie food. Choose foods that limit the calories from fat to less than 30 percent, and remember to pay attention to the serving size.
A little goes a long way. If you love some of these empty-calorie foods, don't put them on a "forbidden" list. That can trigger binging. Instead, when you do indulge, eat only a small amount and, when possible, wait until the end of a meal. "If you're eating when you are hungry, it's a lot harder to stop," explains Myers. "After you're full from a nutritious meal, a small cookie or a piece of candy satisfies the sweet tooth and will feel like plenty."
Another tip when indulging is to choose treats with nuts, fruits, and vegetables that add some nutritional value. For example, opt for a peanut butter or oatmeal raisin cookie over a sugar cookie, or munch on a banana muffin or zucchini bread rather than a chocolate chip scone. If you eat these foods between meals, include a bit of protein like reduced-fat cheese or nut butters to feel fuller faster.
Replacing empty-calorie foods with more nutritious choices will feed your body with what it needs to perform well — vitamins, minerals, and proteins. Over time, your cravings for those other foods will subside and you'll actually acquire a taste for healthier foods.
Food High in Try instead Candy Sugar Fresh fruit; dried fruit snacks with no added sugar; low-fat, low-sugar cookies and granola. Soft drinks Sugar Water; sparkling water; unsweetened iced tea; low-fat milk or soymilk. Potato chips or corn chips Sodium and fat Raw vegetables; baked veggie chips; whole-grain crackers with reduced-fat cheese; a handful of nuts. Choose home-made salsa or hummus over creamy dips. Donuts, pastries, cookies Refined carbohydrates, sugar, fat Whole wheat bagel; low-fat, low-sugar muffins, breads, or cookies.