Optimize Your Diet By Shifting Away from Empty Calories Toward More Nutrient-Rich Foods

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A friend of mine said something ridiculous the other day about how he stays in shape by eating a low-calorie diet. This probably shouldn’t have bothered me as much as it did, but, come on. His slim, semi-muscled physique is the result of his eating habits? I’ve seen what he eats and I’d hardly call it healthy.

This is a guy who wakes up to a pop tart and a glass of milk mixed with half a bottle of Hershey’s chocolate syrup. You couldn’t get him to eat a salad if you put a gun to his head, but he says that he skips lunch most days, so think of all the calories he’s not consuming! Of course, in his world, that means he can eat whatever he wants for dinner.

For such a smart guy, his logic is terribly flawed.

Quality over quantity

I don’t disagree that we need to pay attention to the number of calories we consume each day, but the quality of those calories really matters. Our internal organs and systems are working hard to keep us healthy every second of every day, no matter what eat. That’s their job.

If we fuel our bodies with nutrient-rich calories, then we make it easier to perform this job. For example, certain nutrients are needed to help our body deliver oxygen to our cells and tissues to keep them alive and to help repair them when they are damaged. Other nutrients play a key role in digesting our food, eliminating toxins, and boosting our immune system, so we can more easily fend off colds and disease.

When we fill our bodies with empty (nutrient-deficient) calories, we hinder these efforts. Over time, these key functions that support our health will begin to break down.

We don’t necessarily have to shift the number of calories we take in each day (unless we’re overdoing it). But we should definitely consider the quality of those calories and make an effort to swap out the nutrition-deficient for the nutrient-rich. Making small shifts can help.

Eliminating unproductive calories from our diet makes room for the more nutrient-rich calories that help to boost, rather than burden our body’s health-promoting efforts.

Nutrient Rich Foods

Small shifts make it easier to change food habits over time

Changing our diet isn’t easy. This is coming from someone who used to eat half a box of Count Chocula for breakfast every morning and white rice with melted cheese every night. Trust me, I get it.

Our days are busy and we like what we like. So we’ve developed food routines that eliminate the time-robbing meal plans and the decision-making that we just don’t have the capacity to deal with after a long day of work.

That’s ok. Unless your health is seriously compromised, no one’s asking you to overhaul your entire diet at once. Nor do you have to completely give up the foods you enjoy. Giant changes like that can feel overwhelming and are less likely to succeed over time. Small shifts, on the other hand, are doable.

The first step is to take a look at what you’re eating now and decide which swap is the easiest to make. Here are a few examples to consider:

  1. Shift from refined sugars toward natural sugar snacks
  2. Shift from refined grains to whole grains
  3. Shift from processed foods to whole foods (perhaps starting with one or two days a week)

1. Shift from refined sugars toward natural sugar snacks

One shift we can make is to replace the refined sugar and corn syrup from most candy and desserts with the natural sugar found in fruits. We can do this simply by eating fruit instead of sugary snacks. Or if you’re baking your own snacks,  sweeten them with fruit or other natural, unrefined sweeteners in place of sugar or corn syrup.

By the way, you probably know that fruits contain fiber, antioxidants, and other essential nutrients that our bodies need. By contrast, the sugar found in most store-bought snacks has been extracted from sugarcane or sugar beets, leaving all the healthy fiber and nutrients behind.

To clarify, both sugar beets and sugarcane do contain fiber and healthy nutrients when they are harvested. But when we extract the sugar (usually with chemicals, by the way), that’s all we take – just the sugar. For that reason alone, it makes sense to eat an apple vs. a sugary snack, but there’s more to it.

The fiber in fruit is great for a couple reasons. First, fiber expands in our belly, helping us to feel full so we don’t overeat. Since the refined sugar lacks fiber, we don’t feel satisfied and we’ll want to keep eating more and more. And when we take in more sugar than we need, our body will store the excess as fat.

Second, fiber helps our body to metabolize sugar more slowly, so that we have a more consistent flow of energy, as opposed to that quick sugar high, followed by that energy-sapping sugar crash we get from refined sugar.

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2. Shift from refined grains to whole grains

Remember what I said earlier about how sugars are extracted from sugar beets and sugarcane, leaving important nutrients behind? This is what happens with refined grains, too.

A refined grain has been stripped of its fiber-rich bran and its nutrient-rich germ, leaving only the nutrient-poor endosperm. Grains are refined in order to extend their shelf life and to make them easier to ship long distances without spoiling.

These days, most pasta, bread, crackers, cereals, cakes, cookies, and pastries are made with refined grains. This is true whether the foods are packaged or served fresh, and whether you buy them from a supermarket, a bakery, or even a fine restaurant.

You’ll often see words like “enriched with 9 essential vitamins and minerals” marketed on the label of packaged foods. Unfortunately, enriching grains only adds back a fraction of the nutrients that were stripped from them in the first place. Plus, enriched grains still lack most or all of their fiber.

To replace refined grains with whole grains, you can start by looking for the words ‘whole’ or ‘sprouted’ on the ingredients label. For example, ‘whole wheat’ and ‘sprouted wheat berries’ are whole grains, whereas ‘wheat flour’, ‘white flour’ and ‘multi-grain’ are refined grains.

That said, most whole grains don’t use the word ‘whole’ on the label. For example, brown rice is a whole grain and will just be listed on the ingredients label (and sold independently) as ‘brown rice’… not as ‘whole rice’.

Likewise, white rice is a refined grain and will be listed as such. It will not be listed or sold as ‘refined brown rice’, which is technically what white rice is. (White rice started its life as nutrient-rich brown rice, but it became nutrient-poor white rice once the bran and germ were removed.)

Whole grains include:

  • Amaranth *
  • Barley
  • Black Rice (aka ‘forbidden rice’)
  • Brown Rice
  • Buckwheat *
  • Bulgur (cracked wheat)
  • Corn (unrefined)
  • Millet
  • Oats / Oatmeal (rolled or steel-cut)
  • Quinoa *
  • Whole Rye
  • Sorghum
  • Teff
  • Whole Wheat (including durum, farro, Kamut®, and spelt varieties)
  • Wild Rice

* Amaranth, quinoa, and buckwheat are technically not really grains. They are considered ‘pseudo-cereals’ or ‘pseudo-grains’, but are often listed alongside whole grains, because their nutritional profile and preparation are so similar.

3. Shift from processed foods to whole foods

Processed foods include any food that has been modified during its preparation. Minimally processed foods, such as frozen veggies, keep most of their nutrients intact. Heavily processed foods are a different story.

In fact, heavily processed foods aren’t just lacking in nutrients, they’re often lacking in actual food! Take a walk through your supermarket and check the ingredients label on the ready-made foods. You’ll often find as many synthetic ingredients in these “foods” than real ones. If you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce the ingredients, you probably shouldn’t be putting them in your body.

Rule 19: If it’s a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.
Rule 36: Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of your milk.
Rule 20: It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car.
– From the book, Food Rules, by Michael Pollen

Highly processed foods include:

  • Deli and breakfast meats such as cold cuts, hot dogs, bacon, and sausages, which contain nitrates, nitrites, and phosphates to preserve or add flavor
  • Frozen microwave meals and canned soups that contain artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives
  • Condiments such as ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, soy sauce, and pasta sauces that contain artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives
  • Packaged cookies, cakes, and other junk foods that contain a host of chemical (non-food) ingredients and high amounts of sugar
  • Packaged food and drinks that contain corn syrup, dextrose, maltodextrin, or other synthetic corn derivatives

As much as possible, swap out these processed foods for their “real food” counterparts or for minimally processed versions that contain few (if any) synthetic ingredients.

Practical swaps include:

  • Choose real cuts of meat over processed cold cuts
  • Skip the microwave and other pre-packaged meals as much as possible. Set aside a few hours each Sunday to make a few day’s worth of easy soups, stews, or salads that you can eat throughout the week.
  • Similarly, pre-cut some veggies and make a large pot of brown rice or other whole grain that you can serve as sides throughout the week.
  • Look for healthier versions of ketchup, mayo, or other condiments that contain all natural ingredients.
  • Make your own healthier snacks. Or when buying cookies, cakes, and other treats, look for those made from whole grains, as opposed to white flour or other refined grains.
  • Skip candies made with corn syrup or other artificial sweeteners. Instead, look for those sweetened with whole fruit, cane sugar, honey, maple syrup, or other healthier alternatives.
  • Skip the soda and artificially enhanced fruit juice. Water, freshly juiced fruits and veggies, and herbal teas are healthier alternatives.

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Healthier Sweeteners to Replace Refined Sugar

Most white (refined) sugar in the United States is extracted from sugarcane and genetically modified sugar beets. You’ll often see white sugar listed as just ‘sugar’ on an ingredients label. While no sweetener is considered healthy, the following are healthier alternatives to white sugar.

  • Raw cane sugar (not the healthiest option in the list, but certainly better than white sugar)
  • Sustainably harvested honey
  • Coconut palm sugar (you may see this labeled as just coconut sugar)
  • Palm sugar
  • Date sugar
  • Coconut nectar
  • Maple syrup
  • Brown rice syrup (organic)
  • Barley malt
  • Yacon syrup
  • Monk fruit (check the label to ensure there is no added dextrose, maltodextrin, or other unwanted additives)
  • Organic stevia (liquid stevia tends to be less processed than powdered)
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