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Diet mistakes that have nothing to do with calories

April 29, 2019

For so many years, popular media, the diet industry, and even scientific researchers alike all agreed on one "fact": weight loss was a matter of calories in vs. calories out. Even when I first became a personal trainer at Equinox in 2008, I was instructed to explain to clients the same idea: if you want to lose weight, you have to work out more + eat less.

 

Fast forward to present day: while popular media + the diet industry might still lag behind, the science is finally catching up to reality. A calorie is NOT just a calorie, in terms of weight loss + maintenance, as well as overall health + wellness.


Think about it logically: how could 100 calories of grilled chicken, 100 calories of romaine lettuce, 100 calories of Oreos, and 100 calories of beer all affect your body the same way? It's just not possible.

 

For the record, I'm not saying calories DON'T matter; if you consume an overabundance of calories, especially from poor quality food sources, and also don't exercise, it's very likely you will be overweight + experience a number of health issues. If we consume more calories than we need to sustain our daily bodily functions + requirements, it will get stored as body fat. That much is true. But it's not so straightforward.

As far as food is concerned, how your body processes, utilizes, absorbs, excretes or stores calories depends on a number of factors, several of which that have nothing to do with the calories themselves.

 

FOOD QUALITY

Modern agriculture + industrialized food products are a very recent development in the grand scheme of human evolution. Just like other factors that differentiate us from our ancestors, how our bodies recognize + process food just hasn't had the time to catch up. (Not to mention, that we don't have to exert nearly the same amount of effort to get food in front of us. #Seamless) 

 

I'm not suggesting we all go back to hunting + gathering every meal, but moving away from processed food-like products with long lists of ingredients is probably a good start. If you can only get it in a box, a bag, a carton, or container, consider skipping it.

 

 

NUTRIENT DENSITY

 

This can certainly relate to how processed a food is, but that's not the only factor. Thanks in large part to depleted soil, production demands, and factory farming, even the "real" food we eat is not as nutritious as it once was. Additionally, given that the modern grocery store model affords us 24/7 access to all kinds of foods (and food-like products), much of our diet is neither seasonal nor local. This means produce doesn't get to grow to peak ripeness, and is then prematurely picked and shipped over thousands of miles before it gets to your plate.

 

Vitamins, antioxidants + other phytochemicals degrade with time + fluctuating conditions. Our bodies use vitamins + other nutrients as co-factors in different biological functions, such as metabolism. The agricultural industry + food production is a much bigger problem, but the main takeaway hereshould be to eat as seasonally + locally as possible. (Put it this way: no North American should be eating bananas on a daily basis, or tomatoes in December.)

 

 

FOOD FREQUENCY

 

Women's magazines love to extol the virtues of eating "several small meals every few hours to rev metabolism." This is bullshit.

 

In fact, the practice stems from the strategies of body builders, who need to consume a large amount of food to help balance their physical training regimens. Unless you want to look like a body builder, don't eat like one.

 

I always say to clients that the more frequently you eat, the more opportunity you have to make a poor eating decision, and the more likely you are to over consume calories. Research shows that our food recall (aka, remembering exactly what we eat) is notoriously underestimated. And those handfuls of pretzels or a few bites off of your kid's dinner plate really add up.

 

Three meals, or perhaps 3 meals + a snack should be more than sufficient for the average American. If you are very active, you probably want to add in a post-workout meal or snack. If you are eating after dinner (because of hunger other or otherwise), of find yourself frequently hungry or with cravings, you are doing something wrong.

 

Along with reducing the frequency of your daily eating, it's important to consider macronutrient ratios + timing, as well as meal timing.

 

 

 

MACRONUTRIENT RATIOS + TIMING

 

I'm not talking about "if it fits your macros," although that particular diet protocol can be effective, if restrictive. Pretty much any mainstream diet that focuses on restricting or eliminating a particular macronutrient (IIFYM, low-carb/keto, high protein/carnivore [it's a thing!!], high carb/low fat) CAN work. ANY diet will work... if you DO it 100%. These protocols generally "work" because by consuming a certain proportion + ratio of macronutrients, you are automatically consuming a certain number of calories, not in excess of what you need.

 

However, unless you are someone who physiologically thrives on that particular diet, and actually enjoys eating that way, it won't work in the long run. Keto doesn't work if you sneak in too many carbs; high carb doesn't work if you eat too much fat.

 

Instead, I'm suggesting a reasonable balance of macronutrients for each meal + across your day. I'm also suggesting working with your natural circadian rhythms to prioritize more or less of one macronutrient during the day in order to optimize results.

Generally, it's good practice to:

  • Eat a breakfast that focuses on protein + healthy fat. This will satiate you for several hours (so you're not reaching for a mid-morning snack), start your day with more balanced blood sugar (rather than on a roller coaster), and give you sustained energy. (Note that I have opinions on the pros + cons of skipping breakfast, but it comes down to the individual.)

  • Have lunch be your largest meal of the day. Your digestion is at its peak, your brain likely needs the energy (glucose) to power you through the afternoon, and it will help deter you from reaching for the 3pm sugary snack or overdoing it at dinner.

  • Make dinner your smallest meal of the day. The closer to get to bedtime, the less your body is prepared to digest a heavy meal. Culturally, we are inclined to eat a big dinner, whether because we neglected to eat enough during the day, or because we are exhausted or perhaps feel like we "deserve" it. Thanks to "decision fatigue" (aka the phenomenon where we make poorer decisions as the day wears on), it's also more challenging to choose something healthy. I highly recommend meal prepping or at least planning in advance so that you're not making a hasty dinner decision.

  • Add a small snack or meal if you are active. Snacking is often out of habit, boredom, stress or loneliness, but it's seldom out of need. If you are particularly active (especially in the morning or before dinner), plan for a small snack that focusing on protein + healthy fat to help stabilize blood sugar without kicking off cravings.

 

 

MEAL TIMING

 

There's an old dieting adage that insists that not eating after 6pm will promote weight loss. While it's not "magic," it is biology. As previously mentioned, the digestive system is not primed for heavy work later in the day; as melatonin is released to help us prepare for bed, our body goes into rest + repair mode. Not to mention the fact that it's ideal to leave at least 2-3 hours between your last meal + bedtime for this exact reason (hello, heartburn.)

 

However, most people don't realize that the overall window of eating over the course of the day also matters. This is perhaps the most revolutionary + fascinating scientific research to date when it comes to diet + health.


Most Americans eat over a 15 hour window; what that means is from their first to their last bite, 15 hours has elapsed. That might look like coffee + a protein bar at 7am on the way to work, and just a nibble of chocolate at 10pm. Research showed that reducing your daily eating window to even just 12 hour (e.g. 7am - 7pm) has tremendous health benefits, including weight loss. If that window can shrink to 8-10 hours, even better.

 

Technically, this strategy is referred to as Time-Restricted Eating (TRE) or Feeding, made popular by the work of Satchin Panda, PhD of the Salk Institute. (Check out his book, The Circadian Code, or Google one of his podcast interviews - his work is fascinating!). Related to Intermittent Fasting, TRE focuses on reducing your daily eating window, but with a heavy inclination toward eating your last meal as early as possible. From a scientific + evolutionary standpoint, this makes much more sense (and is more practical), than say, fasting until 12pm and eating everything in sight until 6pm. 

 

Practically speaking, eat your last meal as early as you can, and try to stick to a 10-12 hour eating window, that you keep fairly consistent across the week (along with your bedtime + wakeup times).

 

 

By focusing your efforts on food quality + nutrient density (which will satisfy + nourish you for fewer calories than processed junk food), and adjusting your food frequency, macronutrient ratios + timing, and overall meal timing (which will naturally balance your caloric intake), maintaining a healthy weight + promoting better health becomes second nature. The energy, focus, and overall well-being you feel will far outweigh any logistical challenges or cravings for foods that leave you feeling less than your best.

 

Try focusing on just one of the strategies above to start. Let me know how it goes!

 

 

 

 

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