Your Diet: Don't Just Count Calories... - Albany Times Union

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You're stranded indefinitely with only Twinkies to eat. Will you survive?

"It's still calories; it's just calories devoid of soluble fiber, essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants," says Maureen Zito, nutrition manager at St. Peters hospital. "It could keep the body going, but you might run into issues with skin and sight, and it's not going to help promote bowel regularity."

In other words, while a sugar-or fat-free cookie and a banana might have the same calorie count, their nutritional value is wildly different. Which is why playing "trade-the-calories" when you're watching your weight or simply trying to eat more healthily is never the right way to go. Calorie quantity is important for weight control, but calorie quality affects long-term health, Capital Region nutrition experts agree.

Calories measure the energy content of food. Alcohol has 7 calories per gram; fat has 9; protein and carbohydrates have 4. A teaspoon of butter -- a fat -- has roughly twice the calories of a teaspoon of sugar, a carbohydrate.

"You might eat protein or sugar, but in general, our body stores the excess calories as fat," says Schenectady dietician Lester Rosenzweig. "It's more efficient. Our bodies are hard-wired to love fat. That's how they evolved. If we found fatty food, we'd want to eat a lot of it and store it in our belly, because next week, we might not have anything to eat."

In these days of plenty, counting calories helps us balance our intake with our energy expenditure, but regularly filling up on junk food depletes our bodies of nutrients, Rosenzweig says. "A lot of people don't eat fruits and vegetables," he says. "They're still alive. They just might not be as healthy."

His advice is simple: Read labels. Something sugarless could be loaded with fat. Something fat-free could be full of sugar.

Food choices can save your life, says registered dietitian Alisha Strianese. "The quality of calories is what people need to be aware of," she says. "People who eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains decrease their risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. People who limit or avoid empty calories such as chips, cookies, cakes and pies are also more likely to maintain a healthy body weight, which decreases the risk of getting a chronic disease."

Her recommendation? Eat whole foods, such as fresh fruit, that are healthier than processed food, and avoid all the additives and preservatives found in most packaged foods.

Pack your menu with nutrient-dense food, recommends Debbie Avery, a registered dietitian with Ellis Medicine in Schenectady. "We want to be selecting foods with less fat, fewer added sugars, and more vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals from colorful plant-based foods, which protect us from chronic diseases and help with our immune system," she says.

Avery advises shopping the outer perimeter of the grocery store. That's where the fresh, less processed foods are.

The new food plate ( is 1/4 grain, 1/4 protein, and 1/2 vegetables and fruits, with a side of dairy and no space for dessert, Zito says. "You need balance in your diet," she says. The more veggies and fruit you eat, the less likely you are to develop breast cancer, Zito says. "We need antioxidants from fruits and vegetables because there are so many carcinogens in the environment," she adds.

Zito advises seeking protein that's at least 90 percent lean and then trim all visible fat. Watch yourself when you eat out as well. Restaurant portions are typically excessive. The size of your palm or a deck of cards is enough for a three-ounce serving. A one-ounce cheese serving is about as big as your thumb.

Every day, the typical woman should consume about five servings of fruit and veggies, six servings of grain, two to three servings of dairy, six ounces of protein, and six servings of fat, says Glenville nutrition therapist Diane Pietrocarlo.

"As long as you get all your fruit servings for the day, an occasional cookie or two is fine," she says, "but unless you are following a very low fat or diabetic diet, I'd probably go for a real cookie rather than fat or sugar-free."

If what we eat matters, so, too, does when. And one of the most important steps you can take to make sure you get the most from the calories you consume is to eat three meals a day, say Capital area nutrition professionals.

"We have a school breakfast program because it's been studied and documented that kids who eat a good breakfast do better," says Rosenzweig. "They're more alert."

Not eating can also send your metabolism the message that it should conserve. If you're one of those busy people who gets by on just coffee until you get home from work, for instance, your metabolism will likely enter conservation mode and slow down, says Zito.

Fueling our bodies at regular intervals supplies steady energy and the proper nutritional balance, notes Avery, a registered dietician with Ellis Medicine. "When we go too long without eating, our brains don't work as clearly, we lose concentration and we're tired," she says. "When we're too hungry, there's more uncontrolled eating, we're less selective with our choices, we eat quickly and we tend to eat more."

It takes roughly 15 minutes for our stomachs to tell our brains we've had enough, she says. Here are some of her tips:

  • Be hungry -- but not extremely hungry -- as you approach your meal.
  • Slow down. Pay attention to what you're eating.
  • Eat more high-fiber foods. They give us more holding power than foods full of simple sugars. Choose brown rice over white. Snack on veggies, yogurt or fruit.
  • If your job is sedentary, don't go more than about five hours without eating; if you're more active or diabetic, eat more frequently.

The ideal spacing between meals is every three to four hours, says Pietrocarlo. "It helps with maintaining healthy digestion, balanced glucose, and optimal metabolic rate," she says.

Boosting the metabolism helps achieve and maintain a healthy weight, says registered dietitian Alisha Strianese. If night-time snacking is your downfall, make a cut-off time, such as no food after 8 p.m.

27 Sep, 2011

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