How many times have you obsessively tracked and restricted your daily calorie intake to only find the scale won’t budge? If the answer is too many times to count, you’re not alone.
That’s why the old adage of “calories in vs. calories out” isn’t cutting it anymore amongst nutritionists and health professionals. While this simple science of creating a calorie deficit to lose weight makes sense in theory — and has been sold to us for years — there are many reasons why it simply doesn’t work.
So what does a healthy, balanced diet actually look like? Registered dietitian and health blogger Nichola Whitehead came up with two meal plans, one healthy and one unhealthy.
The catch? They have exactly the same calories.
Says Nichola: “Both daily diets have 2,031 calories; however, not all calories are the same. While calories are important when it comes to losing, maintaining or gaining weight, they are not the sole element that we should be focusing on when it comes to improving our health. In addition to being calorie aware, we need to focus on the types of food that we are (and aren’t!) eating.
“A healthy diet is a balanced diet, containing foods from all of the five food groups; fruits and vegetables for nutrients, whole grain starchy carbohydrates for energy and fibre, protein for growth and repair, dairy for calcium as well as healthy fats for many vital bodily functions including heart and brain health.
“While the two daily diets provide exactly the same number of calories, only one of them will leave you feeling more energized and provide you with what your body needs to stay strong and healthy in the long term, i.e. vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre as well as slow-release carbohydrates, lean protein and healthy fats.”
Here’s the breakdown.
Daily Diet One:
Daily diet one contains:
- At least five portions of fruit and vegetables. (Each meal has at least one vegetable, while most of the snacks are based on fruit.)
- Slow-digesting carbs at each meal, such as wholemeal bread, lentils, sweet potato and brown rice.
- Lean proteins such as lentils, chickpeas, and Greek yogurt.
- Healthy fats such as avocado, olive oil and peanut butter.
- Dairy in the form of milk and yogurt, an excellent source of calcium, iodine and B vitamins.
- Plenty of sugar-free fluids in the form of water and green tea.
Daily diet one provides an adequate amount of the recommended macronutrients, fats and carbohydrates, and doesn’t provide too much saturated fat and sugar. Salt is at a minimum minimum by making meals from scratch, and fibre is high thanks to clean ingredients and fresh fruit and veg.
This diet meets the recommended intake for carbs and fat, with slightly increased protein for those who are physically active.
Daily Diet Two:
Says Nichola: “While daily diet two has the exact same amount of calories, it’s devoid of fruit, vegetables and whole grains, meaning that it provides little in the way of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants or fibre. Most of the carbohydrates featured – chocolate cereal and white bread – provide quick-releasing, short-acting energy which doesn’t keep our energy up, nor our hunger levels at bay.”
“Even though daily diet two provides an adequate amount of carbohydrates, protein and fats, it’s high in saturated fat, which isn’t the preferred type for long-term heart health – unsaturated fat is best. It also contains high volumes of sugar, most of which comes from the free sugars in the chocolate cereal, cola, chocolate, biscuits and ice-cream as opposed to natural sugars found in milk and dairy. Sugary drinks have also been linked to both dental caries and obesity, which obviously isn’t good for our health!”
How many calories and macronutrients you need each day depends on a number of factors, including your age, gender, weight and level of physical activity. However, there are basic guidelines on the approximate amount of nutrients and energy you need daily for a healthy, balanced diet – and while these two daily diets provide exactly the same number of calories, only one of them will leave you feeling more energized.
So although it might be tempting to jump into the latest fad diet to shift those extra pounds, a recent study suggests that yo-yo dieting causes the body to store fat and leads to weight gain, along with a myriad of other health issues. Meanwhile, this balanced diet shows us what healthy eating actually looks like, and why you shouldn’t rely on counting calories alone.
“Healthy living is about sustainable living, which means you don’t have to deprive yourself completely from more processed (delicious!) foods like cakes and biscuits,” says Nichola. She recommends following the 80/20 rule, which means if you eat healthy foods 80 per cent of the time, and indulge on foods that are perhaps not as good for you 20 per cent of the time.
“It’s ok to have the occasional day that looks like daily diet two,” she adds, “But for long-term health, optimal energy levels and productivity, daily diet one definitely wins!”
So the next time that you’re obsessing over calories, think about quality and forget the numbers. Have a look at the ingredients list first, and the calorie content second.