With the spring challenge only a few short weeks away, many of you have asked questions about calorie consumption. Calories are the stored energy in food. Our bodies are in constant demand of energy and use the calories in food accordingly.
The question of calories can be a complex one. During most of our human history, getting enough calories in order to simply survive required hard work and physical activity. Our bodies were, and still remain, very efficient at storing energy in the form of fat to ensure survival. Since we no longer have to work hard physically to get our food and are increasingly surrounded by excess in our current food environment, these efficient survival mechanisms can often lead to unwanted weight gain.
Generally, women need anywhere from 1800-2200 calories a day to meet their energy needs. Why the wide range? Our bodies are all different. Think of Michael Phelps. He has been known to consume up to 12,000 calories a day while training! Not only do body composition (how much muscle and fat a person has), activity level, and age play important roles in the amount of calories an individual needs and burns daily, but also variables like gender, height, weight, and heredity. And maybe a mean butterfly.
Finding out precisely how many calories your body burns at rest, or your resting metabolic rate, requires some machinery and a bit of technology. There are sites such as The Mayo Clinic’s that allow you to get an estimate of your daily caloric needs. Generally, you do not want consume less than 1400 calories/day unless supervised by a doctor. A reduced-calorie diet may trigger your body to go into ‘starvation” mode thus storing fat and making weight loss difficult. Nobody wants that!
So far, the question of calories may still feel unanswered. So what’s a Fit Mom to do? Though I work with people who find calorie counting helpful, I personally do not count calories. Listed below are several strategies that do not require complex formulas, machines or a running caloric tab to implement:
Get your calories from real food. Not only will you reap all of the nutritional benefits of whole foods but your body also processes whole foods the most effectively. Whole grains like brown rice and oats contain b-vitamins and fiber. Fruits and vegetables (think color and variety) contain fiber as well as essential vitamins, minerals and phyto-chemicals. Proteins like fish, poultry (without skin), eggs, beans, low-fat dairy, edamame and quinoa, aid our bodies in muscle repair. Our bodies are ill-equipped to handle the many preservatives and additives often found in pre-packaged, processed food. Although it is impractical to avoid these foods entirely, our bodies are not designed to process these things in large amounts.
Drink plenty of water. To burn calories the most efficiently, you need to be well-hydrated. Consequently, water also flushes out the toxins that are the result of burning calories. A diet high in fiber requires adequate water to help with elimination. Consuming fiber without enough water can result in constipation.
Pay attention to portions. The portions we choose may be more or less than the recommended serving. Here is a visual reference that you may find helpful. Check Nutrition Facts labels to make sure you are not unknowingly eating multiple servings of something! Measure out servings (for example, a serving of brown rice is 1/2 cup) and familiarize yourself with what that portion looks like. A good guideline for your daily meals is Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate.
Listen to your body. It sounds basic, but so many of us were forced to clean our plates when we were young that we have a hard time determining when we are actually full. Are you eating out of hunger? Boredom? Stress? Track your patterns and any accompanying feelings with a food journal. This way you can avoid trigger foods and empty calories.
Increase physical activity. Whether or not you are counting calories, increasing physical activity is going to give you some real benefits. Give your workout the same priority as a doctor’s appointment! If you can swing it, try adding an extra Fit Mom class for a month. Go for a brisk walk with a friend! Just make sure that you are not rewarding yourself with food for having worked so hard with your exercise!
Fill half of your plate with vegetables and fruit–mainly vegetables–at every meal.
How does this relate to calories? Vegetables are low in calories and high in fiber and nutrients. One of the many benefits of fiber is that it helps keep you full. If there is one area upon which nutrition experts agree, it is that Americans consume far too few vegetables. This is particularly true of dark leafy greens like spinach, kale, bok-choy, collards, chard, beet greens and many lettuces like romaine and arugula. Spring is a great time to hit the farmer’s market and try some of the less familiar vegetables that are available and in season now. Aim for 3 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit daily.
Experiment! Try different preparations of the same vegetable. You may find you like a vegetable raw, like in this recipe for Tuscan Kale Salad or roasted like Melanie’s kale chips or sauteed with a bit of garlic and olive oil. Greens cook up quickly in the pan and are very versatile! You may even be bold enough to try a green smoothie like this recipe for Martha’s Favorite Green Drink!
Though caloric needs are different for everyone, anyone can try one of these strategies. What is one thing you can do from the list above to help meet your healthy eating goals? Add some romaine to that sandwich? Or some spinach to your eggs? Can you throw some leafy-greens into your stir-fry or load up that quesadilla with spinach? Can your kids come up with a fun name for a green smoothie? They will be more likely to try it if they have some input! Put yourself first by putting real food first this week! You are worth it!