Have you ever seen the restaurant menus that show the number of calories for each entrée and compared a burger to a salad? I have been shocked to learn how a salad could have more calories than a cheeseburger and thought, “well shoot. If it’s the same number of calories either way, I’m getting the burger next time and enjoying myself!” After all, weight loss is about calories in and calories out, right? As long as there is a net deficit at the end of the day, it’s all good, right?
Well, kind of. Yes, math matters in the world of weight loss and a consistent calorie deficit is key to progress. But nutrition science shows us that not all calories are created equal. It does matter whether you order the salad or the burger, even if they are the name number of calories.
Consider this tale of two diets: each totaling the same number of calories but with different levels of nutritional quality:
Each adds up to just over 2,000 calories, which is a recommended calorie range for most active adults. Which would you choose? Does it matter?
Yes. What we eat matters for weight loss, and also for energy, immunity, bone strength, muscle development, and brain health. Oh, and our likelihood of weight loss success, too. While each meal plan offers the same number of calories and might look the same when entered into an online food journal, one reflects a person at odds with their needs, and the other demonstrates someone who has joined their own team and is playing smart.
If you weren’t sure, the second meal plan is the one that wins. That’s because the high-fiber, nutrient-rich, complex (in a good way) foods that make up those calories not only do your body a lot of health favors, they also keep you full longer and make it easier to make healthy choices later in the day.
Plan two wins in other ways, too. The first option appears to have meals balanced with carbohydrates, protein, and fat but includes no fruit and offers carbohydrates in the form of processed, quick-releasing sources, like cereal and bread. Someone eating this way every day may find it hard to resist the temptation for a sweet snack in the afternoon, a pick-me-up coffee, or a quick burst of energy from a convenient snack.
The second option also offers plenty of carbohydrate-fueled energy, but from complex courses that include fiber and protein. These help us stay satisfied longer, avoid surges in appetite, and keep blood sugars stable. The fruits and vegetables provide minerals and nutrients, and the plant-based fats and protein (beans, avocado, olive oil, nut butters) fuel your brain. Same number of calories, but totally different levels of helpfulness to you.
Years ago, I practically lived off of Lean Cuisine, Weight Watchers desserts, diet soda (calorie free) and packaged protein bars. I meticulously logged it all in my online food journal and strived to stay within the calorie range that would result in weight loss. I felt very responsible and organized because I was doing such a great job of counting my calories. But, I was plagued by cravings, distracted by every temptation, and always waiting for the next time I could eat. I felt like I was always at odds with myself, battling energy, motivation, and that voice in my head that begged for more.
I was playing by the rules of weight loss, but I wasn’t truly on my own team. The boxes were checked off - calorie goal met: check; workout complete: check – but I was just providing myself with the bare minimum and withholding the kind of teamwork that could actually help me win. As a result, I was treading water. As I learned more about nutrition, my habits changed, and I became a true partner with myself. The 20/20 hindsight seems pretty obvious now, and the changes in my health and my body are night and day.
Your body is showing up every day and working hard to keep you going. Are you just checking off the boxes of healthy living, or are you really teaming up with yourself, bringing your best effort to the team, and collaborating for a win? If it feels like you are constantly battling yourself to stay on the healthy path, consider whether you are working for the right team.
A frustrated client vented to me this week about her slow results with weight loss. She had been diligent with her workouts, seeing progress in strength and stamina, and even gotten a compliment at the gym. But her bathroom scale told a different story, and her clothes still felt tight. She felt like given the effort she was putting in, she should be losing weight faster. I agreed. She had been working hard, and she should be experiencing faster results. As much as we fitness professionals would love to provide a scientific and logical answer for why this happens, sometimes we’re as stumped as you are. The human body is a tricky thing.
She was in a funk about it for the rest of the day. Suddenly she doubted her progress, as if she had imagined her workouts getting easier or the energy she had never had before. It was remarkable how quickly she had transitioned from celebrating another day of passing on the office snacks to feeling defeated and confused.
I asked if I could issue a challenge, and suggested she take her eyes off the prize for a while, and just enjoy the instant results she was experiencing every day: the endorphins, increased energy, and personal satisfaction for eating healthfully. I wanted her to take her focus away from having the outcome and put it on doing the things.
“Doing the things,” is the foundation of progress. Consistently doing the things – the action steps — that lead to the outcome is an almost guaranteed path to success and happiness. In this case, the things are good old fashioned healthy living: eating the right amount of wholesome foods and getting some exercise. As I wrote last week, the payoff of these simple tasks is immediate and transformative. Enjoy that! Are you ready to take your eyes off the prize and enjoy the ride for a while? Here’s how.
Get off of the scale. I’ve seen many good days ruined by stepping on a scale for validation. Proceed with caution. A scale is one way to measure a change in body composition, but there is a lot more to the story than your weight. You can create a healthier relationship with your scale – or choose to break up with it completely – by taking a look at the whole picture.
The amount that your body weighs changes throughout the day, week, and month depending on many factors. Your level of hydration, hormonal state, sleep quality, stress levels, and what you ate for dinner last night all contribute to what those three numbers are. If you use a scale to maintain your weight, give yourself a range of three to five pounds that you are comfortable with and don't worry about your weight until it is above that threshold for a few days.
Focus on habits, not outcomes. Ideally, the things we do to lose weight and maintain weight loss are the same things: eating sensibly, using moderation, and exercising regularly at a challenging level. These habits are the foundation of both outcomes and only vary in intensity based on how our goals change over time. Sometimes establishing and maintaining these healthy habits can seem like work because they require a certain level of planning and discipline.
But, the rewards are almost instantaneous: the endorphins of exercise, the energy of healthy eating, and sense of personal pride in taking care of ourselves kick in right away! Why wait for the scale to show up to the party when you can feel great now? Focus on what you are doing to live healthier, and you won’t care as much whether that hunk of plastic agrees with you.
Use more than one method of measuring results. The fact that my client felt stronger, more energetic, and that her results were noticed by others was a big indication that she was doing the right things to lose weight even if the scale’s report was underwhelming. Before stepping on the scale, try on a pair of pants that were snug a month ago. How do they fit? If the size of your body is not increasing, then the number on the scale is just an illusion!
I asked my client to commit to a month of focusing on the doing of the things – instead of the having of the outcome – before she stepped on a scale again. I want her to weigh what matters: the consistency and intensity of her workouts, the quality and quantity of the food she eats, and the opportunities she takes to be proactive about changing her habits. I invite you to do the same and enjoy having the outcome right now.
A recent conversation with a client was the most fun I’ve had at work in quite a while.
She had set a goal of exercising three to four times week, and this was a point of struggle for her because she had a busy job, a long commute, and was tired when she got home. But, she had enjoyed success by changing her nutrition habits and knew she needed to add in exercise to see it continue and to further protect herself from heart disease. So, off she went.
A couple of weeks later, she was hitting her goal like a pro. I asked her what the trigger was that got her from the couch and up doing an exercise DVD. Her answer was so simple and so awesome: I just love how I feel.
Yes! But there was more. She went on to tell me that even when she had a long day at work and was really tired, she exercised because she knew she would feel better right away.
I wanted to clarify this point and make sure I understood exactly what she was saying, so I asked her to confirm what I heard: the results from exercising were immediate, positive, and attainable. Yes, she said. They were.
I was floored. This was fantastic news! Just a few weeks prior, she had been frustrated that her progress had stalled, and she was at a crossroads for what to do. She was confused, because she was still working hard but her body wasn’t changing as much as it was before. She sighed and confessed, “I know, I want instant results. I need to give it time.”
But now she was positively giddy, telling me that exercising made her feel so good right away that she was looking forward to her workouts after a long day at work. It was not possible to have a bigger smile on her face.
The New Year is a month old, and if you began a new health and fitness program on Jan. 1 (OK, if we’re being honest, Jan. 3) you may have already stepped on the scale a few times to see whether your hard work is paying off. And for some of us, they are elusive. The scale might not be budging, your clothes might still be a little more snug than you’d hoped, and you may be wondering what the point is if nothing is going to change.
Stick with it. Those changes you can see in the mirror and feel in your belt are coming. But the impact of healthy living is more instant than we are led to believe. Chief among those is the immediate benefit of feeling great, which my client was enjoying every single day. But there is important work being done on the inside of your body, too. Stuff you can’t see. But check out these instant results from daily exercise and healthy eating.
Worried about diabetes? Exercise reduces insulin levels in your blood and improves your insulin sensitivity. That means you and your brain are better able to partner up to notice when you are full and don’t need to keep eating.
Feeling stuck on a project at work? Exercise helps with neurogenesis, which is the creation of new brain cells. A walk and some fresh air can lead to more clarity of thought, productivity, and energy to work.
Exercise is proven to boost our mood to the point where we can alleviate symptoms of clinical depression. Just thirty minutes a few times a week can make a difference. But don’t just stroll around. Work up a good sweat and get your heart and lungs pumping! Get your money’s worth!
Feeling a little low on self-confidence? Battling anxiety? Go and do a strength-training workout or join an exercise class. Exercise can boost self-esteem and improve body image, making your feel like a million bucks. And when you feel good, you look good. More instant benefits! Could this get any better? You betcha.
Not only does exercise immediately make you feel amazing, raise your intellect, and make it easier to eat healthily, it burns calories, which leads to weight loss. Yes! You can even lose weight, on top of feeling great whenever you want to. Oh, and exercise also lowers your blood pressure, enhances sleep quality, reduces cholesterol…should I go on?
My client and I were laughing and cheering over the phone as we marveled in her discovery. Happiness, relaxation, lower stress…it was all attainable within minutes and completely in her control. In fact, the two things that were guaranteed to bring her a lifetime of happiness were two things she had complete control over: what she ate and whether or not she exercised. Instant gratification was sitting right next to her this whole time.
It’s sitting next to you, too. You can join her and feel amazing today. Right now! I hope you will, and that your smile will not be able to get bigger. You deserve to feel great. What are you waiting for?
About This Blog
Each week, I write the "Healthy Heather Blog" in the Tallahassee Democrat. It is republished here in case you are not a subscriber (what???). Sometimes it is really good and other times it is just okay. Thanks for reading it regardless of your opinion!