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I have this friend that’s in pretty good shape — slim, with a semi-muscled physique. The other day he told me that he stays healthy by eating a low-calorie diet.

Ahem. 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 with 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, this “light breakfast” and no lunch means he can eat whatever he wants for dinner.

And for what it’s worth, that dinner usually comes from the frozen food aisle, as a mix-and-eat box of who knows what, or from a fast food drive-through.

For such a smart guy, his calorie-watching logic is painfully flawed.

In this article

Nutrients vs. calories

I don’t disagree that we need to pay attention to calories we consume each day. But it’s the quality of those calories more than the quantity of those calories that really matters. Sure, we might be able to look good and feel good for a while on low-quality fuel, but eventually, it will catch up to us.

The reason is simple. Our internal organs and systems are working hard to keep us healthy every second of every day… no matter what we eat. That’s their job. So when we fuel our bodies with nutrient-rich calories, we make it easier to do this job. But when we fill our bodies with empty (nutrient-deficient) calories, we hinder these efforts. If we continue to make our body work extra hard to keep things chugging along then, over time, key functions that support our health will begin to break down.

For example, vitamins A, C, E, K and a variety of B vitamins (along with zinc, iron, and other minerals) all play a role in repairing our skin, muscles, tendons, and other soft tissues, when they are damaged. Several of these nutrients also play a key role in digesting our food, eliminating toxins, and boosting our immune system, so that we can more easily fend off colds and disease.

nutrient rich foods promote healthy skin

Making room for healthy calories

As a big fan of healing and not getting sick, I quite like these processes to function optimally, thank you very much! But does this mean we have to give up things like pop tarts, Hershey’s syrup, and other unproductive calories?

Ideally, yes. But…

  1. There are so many healthier versions of these junk food favorites nowadays, you’ll hardly miss them.
  2. It doesn’t mean we can’t treat ourselves on occasion. That said, once you stop eating nutrient-deficient foods, you may find that you don’t even like them anymore. (That happened to me.)
  3. Unless our health provider says otherwise, we don’t necessarily have to make a drastic change overnight. Personally, I find that making small, incremental shifts helps to create new eating habits that stick.  

Think about it this way. Whenever we remove unproductive calories from our diet, we make room for nutrient-rich calories that help to boost (rather than burden) our body’s health-promoting efforts. It takes willpower, no question about it. But I encourage you to actively take notice of how you feel each time you say no to sugary sweets or processed foods, and yes to nutrition-filled alternatives.

Do you feel more energetic? Did that brain fog clear up? Has your mood improved? Are you getting fewer colds and do you recover from them more quickly? This is your body thanking you for making healthier choices and encouraging you to keep up the good work.

And folks, this isn’t about losing weight; it’s about feeling better and creating a healthier body. Focus on nutrients more than calories and, as a side benefit, you just might drop a few pounds in the process (if that’s a goal).

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.

New food habits start with small shifts

All this sounds great, but 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 a bowl of white rice with melted (and heavily processed) cheese every night. So 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.

Nutrient Rich Foods

That’s ok. Unless your health is seriously compromised, no one’s asking you to overhaul your entire diet at once. Nor (as I mentioned earlier) 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 ways to consider. Make the shift from…

  1. Refined sugars to natural sugar snacks
  2. Refined grains to whole grains
  3. 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 natural sugar alternatives. For example:

  • Grab a piece of fruit instead of a sugary snack
  • If you’re really craving candy and fruit won’t cut it, look for sweets made with real food ingredients instead of synthetic lab-made ingredients. (You shouldn’t need to refer to your high school chemistry book to read the label.)
  • If you’re baking your own snacks,  sweeten them with fruit or other natural, unrefined sweeteners in place of sugar or corn syrup.

The side benefits of eating fruit vs. snacks made from refined sugar

By the way, you may already 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 initially 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 (which has all its nutrients still intact) vs. a sugary snack (that does not), but there’s more to it.

Natural sugar in fruit is more nutritious

The fiber in fruit is great for a couple of reasons.

  • Fiber expands in our belly, helping us to feel full so we don’t overeat. Since 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. (No thanks!!)
  • 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.

2. Shift from refined grains toward 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 was once a whole grain. Whole grains contain some amount of oil and oil can go rancid over time. That’s not good, since manufacturers often need to ship packaged grains, pastas, and baked goods long distances and allow them to sit on a supermarket shelf for long periods of time. To make this possible, they will remove the components of the gran that contain oil.

Specifically, when a grain is refined, it has been stripped of its bran (which is rich in fiber) and its germ (which is rich in nutrients). This leaves behind only the endosperm, which has little in the way of nutrients… and a lot in the way of carbs.

Whole Grain Anatomy

Choosing whole grains over refined grains

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. It’s also the case whether you buy them from a supermarket, a bakery, or even a fine restaurant.

When you buy these foods pre-packaged, you’ll often see words like “enriched with 9 essential vitamins and minerals” marketed on the label. 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, but will be listed on the ingredients label as ‘brown rice’… not as ‘whole rice’.

Likewise, white rice is a refined grain. But it isn’t listed on an ingredients label (or sold on its own) as ‘refined brown rice’… though that’s technically what white rice is. It starts its life as nutrient-rich brown rice, but becomes nutrient-poor white rice once the bran and germ are 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 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.

Nutrient rich quinoa

3. Shift from processed foods toward 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 that these “foods” contain just as many synthetic ingredients as real food ingredients. If you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce an ingredient, you probably shouldn’t put it 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.

Healthier Sweeteners

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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