All calories are not created equal. Different foods affect the body in different ways, so when we focus too strictly on the numeric value of what we consume, we risk missing a more important piece of the fueling puzzle.
In the same way that it's possible to eat a vegan diet consisting only of Oreos, it's entirely possible to eat a calorie-minded diet and be deficient in essential vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients (just think of what 1500 calories a day in Snackwell's snack-packs, Lean Cuisine's, and meal replacement shakes would look like). In principle, each of these 'diets' is true to its name (vegan and low-calorie), but neither is nutritionally sound and neither one offers your body the real fuel it needs to thrive.
In coaching, we look a lot at incorporating more real foods into each day: not depriving the body of anything, but building in more good stuff to ensure our nutrient bases are covered and our tastebuds are satisfied with a variety of health-promoting foods. When we consider the quality and wholeness of what we eat, we don't need to obsess over calories: the body finds its happy place and can more easily tell the the brain what it needs more of. Cravings for the 'non-foods' fall away as the body becomes truly turbo-powered on good quality, high-octane, real-food fuel.
Dr. Joel Fuhrman - one of the experts I had the privilege of learning from at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition - coined the word 'nutritarian' to describe his recommended way of eating (and thinking about food) to prevent illness and increase longevity. According to his website,
... a Nutritarian diet is a way of eating which bases food choices on maximizing the micronutrients per calorie. A Nutritarian diet is designed with food that has powerful disease-protecting and therapeutic effects and delivers a broad array of micronutrients via a wide spectrum of food choices. It is not sufficient to merely avoid fats, consume foods with a low glycemic index, lower the intake of animal products, or eat a diet of mostly raw foods. A truly healthful Nutritarian diet must be micronutrient rich and the micronutrient richness must be adjusted to meet individual needs. The foods with the highest micronutrient per calorie scores are green vegetables, colorful vegetables, and fresh fruits. For optimal health and to combat disease, it is necessary to consume enough of these foods that deliver the highest concentration of nutrients.
A Nutritarian diet is guided by nutritional quality. 2000 calories of plant-based foods will fuel the body much differently than 2000 calories of junk.
In assessing the quality of what we consume, Dr. Fuhrman asks us to look at three different factors:
- Levels of micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals) per calorie
- Amounts of macronutrients (fat, carbohydrate, protein) to meet individual needs, without excessive calories that may lead to weight gain or health compromise
- Avoidance of potentially toxic substances (such as trans fats) and limited amounts of other potentially harmful substances (such as sodium)
When choosing food options, one simple question can often help weed out less-than-terrific options. Ask yourself, "Does this food look the same way it did when it was pulled out of the ground/ pulled off a tree?" A grain of brown rice looks the same as it did when it was growing, as does an apple, a cucumber, and a sweet potato. Wonderbread doesn't grow on trees (the wheat must be refined into flour to become the familiar product), and in order to become a McNugget, the chicken/ the flour/ the oil/ the 80 other ingredients have to go through an intense processing). Good quality whole food provides whole nutrients and fibre, which means we can derive all of the good stuff in a useable form and feel satisfied. Low-nutrient foods actually fuel overeating, because they leave us feeling empty: the body will continue to send "keep feeding me" signals if it feels like it's missing out, so we oblige by continuing to eat more junk. Also, these processed foods cause toxins to accumulate in the body: as the system tries to detox, we can experience churning, irritability, lightheadedness, weakness... signals most commonly interpreted as hunger. So what do we do? We eat more! This fuels a conditioned response to eat when these signals occur, whether physically hungry or not, and this is where overeating becomes a problem. We lose control of it (and proceed to perpetuate the symptoms that make us do it in the first place).
Luckily, when we transition to a whole foods diet, the body more easily recognizes fullness, can produce more lasting energy, and all those symptom of what Dr. Fuhrman calls 'toxic hunger' disappear. 2000 calories of whole foods will happen naturally throughout the day as the body directs us to eat when hungry - and eat fueling foods that help, not hinder, our goals.
Limiting or restricting the body can also lead to overwhelming cravings and hunger as the day wears on (back to that cycle of craving junk - eating junk - craving junk). Cravings are often the result of nutrient deficiency, so it makes sense that limiting what we eat limits our potential nutrient intake, which leads to more cravings, more junk, fewer nutrients...
Looking at our food holistically paints a much different picture than the caloric breakdown of everything we consume in a day. Aim for variety and quality, not low numbers and deprivation. Incorporate a wide spectrum of vegetables, plant-based proteins, fruits, nuts, and seeds to ensure your nutrient bases are covered. Your energy will soar, any extra weight will melt away, and your thumbs will thank you from the break from inputting all those tedious calories into your phone.
Looking for more ways to incorporate ideas of Nutritarianism into your life? Our upcoming workshops in NYC - Cultivating Food Sense (for parents of wee ones) and Healthy Happy Hour (for anyone looking to balance an active social life with healthy everyday habits) - will focus on in part on this! See our Events Page for registration details!