Yup, it’s that time of year. The time when we come out of the holiday season and say, holy crap, how did that happen, I gained 5 lbs! And we resolve to cut back and get real and lay off the dessert menu.
And I am no exception. I was a skinny kid. So skinny in fact that at one point a pediatrician recommended a glass of chocolate milk every day as a midday snack to try to put some meat on my bones (of course, now days they serve that with the hot lunch at school…childhood obesity, huh, wonder where that comes from). I’m 5’3″, small boned, and weighed 105 lbs through high school (last seen in my early 30’s after a difficult break up – serious stress makes me lose my appetite). I had the metabolism of a hamster when I was young. I could drink milkshakes as an after dinner snack every night and never gain an ounce. If I got sick, I dropped a few pounds in a few days. Honestly, I was too thin and would have loved to have gained 10 lbs.
Oh how times change. Like most people, my metabolism shifted when I hit my 30’s. I’m happily married (no stress weight loss in the last 14 years) and I’ve become a foodie, who loves bread and chocolate and bacon (OK, I always loved these things, but now my body hangs onto them like it may never get to eat again). I now weigh in the high 120’s, low 130’s. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’ll probably never see 115 lbs again. And that’s OK. I want to be healthy, not win any “top model” contests.
But when I start to feel bloated and lacking energy, I know it’s time to get onto the better eating bandwagon for a while and regain some control over what goes into my mouth. Most of the time, this happens to coincide with the month of January. Go figure.
As I’ve begun my “no starches, no sugars” January, I’ve been reviewing what I’ve learned over the years about nutrition and diet. I have a degree in Biology and a deep desire to understand how and why things work the way they do. I’m not one to go with the “eat grapefruit and cabbage” diet because it worked for some movie starlet (for 5 minutes). Give me the science! So I thought I’d write a series of posts on basic diet and nutrition, on what works for me, and encourage others to find their own way with practical knowledge and common sense.
The Basic Inescapable Facts
Calories in > Calories out = weight gain. There is no magic bullet, no way of short circuiting the basic way the body digests, uses and stores the food you eat.
As a rough rule, your current weight x 12 = the number of calories you need every day to maintain your current weight. So for me, 130 x 12 = 1560 cal/day. This is a ROUGH rule because some of this will depend on your inherent metabolism and how active you are each day. If you want to lose weight, it is recommended that you cut 500 calories per day from the number above, but NOT go below 1,200 calories per day, which sends the body into a panic because it thinks it’s starving. So, clearly, for me, I’m aiming for 1,200 calories per day when dieting.
1 lb of fat = 3,500 calories. So the above reduction of 500 cal/day should result in about 1 lb of weight loss per week. Remember, you didn’t gain all that weight in a week, and you aren’t going to lose it in a week either. It is this basic fact that sends people looking for diet pills, liquid diets, boot camp and any other “quick fix” out there, because we don’t want it to take 2 1/2 months of not being able to eat whatever we want in any quantity to lose 10 lbs.
Calories and Where they Come From
A calorie (actually technically a kilocalorie, but we never call it that) is the amount of energy needed to increase one kilogram of water (about 35 oz or just over a quart) by one degree celsius (1.8 degrees fahrenheit). So food is really just potential energy that our body turns into the ability to walk and talk and breathe and think big thoughts. Pretty amazing, when you get right down to it.
- 1 gram (.141 oz) of carbohydrate = 4 calories
- 1 gram (.141 oz) of protein = 4 calories
- 1 gram (.141 oz) of fat = 9 calories
So if we read nutrition labels, which specify the grams of carbohydrate, protein and fat in the food, we find that:
- 1 tsp sugar (pretty much a pure carbohydrate) = 4 grams = 16 calories
- 2 oz tuna = 13 g protein = 52 calories (plus about 8 calories from a little bit of fat for 60 cal total)
- 1 tbsp oil = 14 grams = 126 calories
A Balanced Diet
You need carbohydrates, fats and proteins in your diet, period. Not only is it pretty much impossible to completely eliminate any one of these essential energy sources, you wouldn’t want to. Here’s why.
Protein. Proteins are all basically some combination of 20 amino acids bound together into chains, and from there into complex shapes that do amazing things like allow you to stand up. Your skin, bones, muscles, organ tissue, blood, hormones, and the enzymes that help you function all contain protein.
Protein can come from both plant and animal sources. Legumes (beans and peas), animal (including from the sea) flesh and their byproducts (dairy, eggs), nuts and seeds are your richest sources of protein. There are nine essential amino acids (protein building blocks) that the body can not make itself and MUST receive from the food it eats. Animal derived proteins are “complete”, i.e. contain all 9 essential amino acids. The only complete vegetable proteins are soy (a legume) and quinoa (a seed grain).
As a rule, 10 to 35 percent of your total daily calories should come from protein. The minimum U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is 0.8 grams/kg per day for adults. So divide your body weight in pounds by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms, and then multiply that number by 0.8. For me, this is 47 grams of protein per day. One 8 oz chicken breast would cover this and would be about 16% of my daily calories. I’m likely more in the 35% range.
Carbohydrates. Consisting of only carbon, hydrogen and oxygen chains formed into simple or complex molecules, carbs are the body’s most important and readily available source of energy. Carbs are also often referred to as sugars or saccharides. There are two major forms:
- Simple sugars (mono or disaccharides), which include sucrose (one molecule each of glucose and fructose) and lactose (one molecule each of galactose and glucose). Sucrose can be found in fruits (or the sugars derived from them i.e. cane or beet sugar, maple syrup etc.), lactose is found in dairy.
- Complex carbohydrates (polysaccharides), which include starchy vegetables, grains, rice, and breads and cereals.
It is suggested that 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories come from carbohydrates, with an absolute minimum of 130 g per day. (Which would put me at 43%.) Simple sugars give the body a quick burst of energy because they take so little energy to break down into a substance usable by your body, but there are pitfalls…to be discussed in a future post. A healthy diet should emphasize complex carbohydrates, especially from whole grains, beans and nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables.
Fats. Fats are molecules of fatty acids and glycerol, also called triglycerides, because the fatty acids form three arms on the glycerol base. Like proteins, there are essential fatty acids that the body can not make itself and must get from the diet. Fats play a vital role in the body, transporting fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) and helping maintain cell function, healthy hair, skin and body temperature.
Fats can be saturated (solid at room temperature – generally animal derived) or unsaturated (liquid at room temperature – generally plant derived). It is generally accepted by most doctors and nutritionists that unsaturated fats (particularly monounsaturated) are better for the body, causing fewer issues with heart disease (more on this in a later blog post). Trans fats, fats which were unsaturated, but then chemically manipulated to be partially saturated, have a strong correlation to heart disease (one theory – the body can’t break them down completely and they float around and clog arteries) and should be avoided all together. Trans fats tend to be found in processed foods, because they are inexpensive and increase flavor and shelf life. If you see the word “partially hydrogenated” on the label, put it back and walk away.
Because fats give us such a calorie bang per gram (more than twice that of carbohydrates or proteins), and they are carriers of flavor (can we say butter, cream, bacon fat…) it is easy to overdo them. Fat intake should be limited to 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories. Emphasize fats from unsaturated sources, such as nuts and seeds (canola and olive are good choices).
Future posts will cover my own diet strategy, omega 3 vs 6, why I take a lot of health studies with a grain of salt (or a pat of butter), the book Nurturing Traditions, and why I try to eat whole foods.
Miles Away Farm Blog © 2012, where we’re miles away from that 105 lb girl, but are down about 3 lbs in the last week, and feel much better. Time to go walk the dogs and get some movement into my day!